Guest post: Thoughts on Policy Uncertainty (Alex Salter)

Even though I think the primary economic problem in the US and in Europe at the moment is weak aggregate demand due to overly tight monetary policy I certainly do not deny the fact that both the US and the euro zone face other very significant problems. Among these problems are considerable “regime uncertainty”. In fact I believe that regime uncertainty is the key economic problem in a number of countries such as Venezuela, Argentina and Hungary. I have in earlier posts (see links below) argued that regime uncertainty primarily should be seen as supply side phenomena. However, regime uncertainty can also be seen as a demand side problem.

In today’s guest post the young and talented Alex Salter discusses a framework in which to discuss regime uncertainty or policy uncertainty – both as a supply side and a demand side phenomena. I think Alex’s discussion is highly relevant  and is quite useful in understanding regime uncertain conceptually .

Enjoy Alex’s guest post.

Lars Christensen.

Guest post: Thoughts on Policy Uncertainty

By Alex Salter, George Mason University

There’s been some talk lately about policy uncertainty and its effect on economic activity.  It’s important to pin down just what economic effects we’re talking about here.  In particular, we need to decide whether policy uncertainty (also called ‘regime uncertainty’ by economist Robert Higgs, who was talking about it before it was in vogue) is a demand-side or a supply-side phenomenon.  I’ve seen arguments for both sides.

Here’s my take on it: In the short-run it’s a demand phenomenon.  But it has long-run supply consequences.

Policy uncertainty stems from uncertainty with respect to the future structure of property rights.  If I’m not sure what regulatory policy, tax liability, etc. for various economic activities will look like, then there’s a real option value to holding off on investing in an enterprise (Avinash Dixit has some really interesting papers on this).  This, of course, means lower investment spending than there would be otherwise.  The standard Aggregate Demand-Aggregate Supply (ADAS) framework provides a quick-and-dirty way of looking at this.

First off, let’s work in growth rates instead of levels.  I think it makes the analysis easier.  The AD curve is given by.  This is the dynamic form of the familiar quantity equation,.  The little g denotes growth rates.  Note that the AD curve shows all combinations of inflation and real income growth that map to a constant level of nominal income growth.

AS is, as usual, broken down into short-run and long-run components.  SRAS is a standard Lucas supply curve, which is an increasing function of inflation expectations.  LRAS depends on the real productive capacity of the economy; it is vertical to reflect long-run monetary neutrality.

In the short run, policy uncertainty manifests itself as reduced investment expenditure.  Assuming a constant level of money supply growth, this is essentially a negative velocity shock, and hence a negative AD shock, as shown below:

The economy, initially in long-run equilibrium at point a, moves to point b, below its long-run potential growth rate.

Ordinarily, the reduction in money flows throughout the economy would put downward pressure on prices, leading to disinflation (or outright deflation if the shock is big enough).  The SRAS curve would shift down as the economy adapted to the new expenditure pattern, bringing us back to long-run equilibrium with the same growth rate as point a, but lower equilibrium inflation.

However, this is not the whole story.  Policy uncertainty, by hampering investment spending, has lowered the rate of capital formation relative to what it would have been in the uncertainty-free counterfactual.  The old long-run growth rate, given by the position of the LRAS curve, is no longer sustainable due to this reduced rate of capital accumulation.  The long-run effects of policy uncertainty are reflected in a reduced potential growth rate for the economy, represented by an inward shift of the LRAS curve:

As I have drawn it, the inward LRAS shift meets the transition down AD’ (reflecting larger income growth relative to inflation growth over time, still yielding a constant level of nominal income growth).  The result is long-run equilibrium at point c.  Again, real income growth is permanently lower because regime uncertainty, by hampering capital formation, has reduced the economy’s real productive activity vis-à-vis the no-uncertainty world.

This is obviously an oversimplified (and overaggregated!) model, but I think it captures the short-run/long-run distinction well enough for the purposes of getting our thinking straight.  There are all sorts of bells and whistles you could add to this.  For example, you could look at what happens after the uncertainty plays out (property rights become better-defined, either at a permanently “stronger” or “weaker” level).  The new equilibrium would be different depending on how you model actor expectations (rational, adaptive, etc.)  The grad students out there might want to spice things up by examining this in a Ramsey-style model and playing with the dynamics.

Now that we’ve got our terminology squared away, we can proceed to the really interesting questions—namely, how regime uncertainty plays out at the micro level, with the accompanying distortions in relative prices (and thus resource misallocations).  There are all sorts of political economy implications to work through as well.


Related posts:

Regime Uncertainty, the Balkans and the weak US recovery
Papers about money, regime uncertainty and efficient religions
”Regime Uncertainty” – a Market Monetarist perspective
Monetary disorder in Central Europe (and some supply side problems)

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