Make Section 2201 of the CARES Act Work in Practice

Section 2201 of the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act authorizes direct payments, “Recovery Rebates,” to individual households and families.  The Section is called the “2020 Recovery Rebates for Individuals” and is estimated to total $300 billion–the sum of $1,200 to individuals ($2,400 for joint returns) plus $500 for each qualifying child. The amount is reduced for taxpayers earning over $75,000 annually (or $150,000 for joint returns) with no payments for individual taxpayers earning over $90,000. The useful Stimulus Check Calculator from Kiplinger’s gives more details.

While understandable on pure humanitarian grounds, these payments should be expedited it they are to benefit the economy as it is hit by negative shocks during the pandemic. It is good that taxpayers will get the funds faster if they have filed a 2018 or 2019 tax return, and if their bank accounts are on file at the IRS so the money can be directly deposited. It is even good that he law requires that “No refund or credit shall be made…after December 31, 2020.” Most important, the payments can be advanced to people before they file income tax returns.

This “advanced payments” approach was followed in 2008 rebate under the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 which was signed into law on February 13, 2008 by President Bush. Even with that action, most of the payments did not go out until three month later in May, June and July.  We can only hope the Treasury can work faster than it did a dozen years ago.  Of course, Secretary Mnuchin should talk to former Secretary Paulson about that.

However, it is not simply a matter of getting the payments out faster. If the Act is to stimulate the economy, and, at least partially offset the severe negative impact of the shelter-in-place, social-distancing, and business-closing restrictions, it is important that a large fraction of the payment be spent on goods and services and not simply saved.

Here the experience of the 2008 rebate payments is instructive. Many economists have researched these rebates, including me in this 2009 Wall Street Journal op-ed and longer articles back in  2009 and more recently 2018.  But this straight-forward chart of total disposable personal income, with and without the rebate, and personal consumption expenditures shows vividly that the one-time payments had virtually no stimulus impact on economy. Consumption was not affected and continued on its path.  Regression analysis supports the graphical illustration.In other words, income rose with the rebate, but there was no noticeable impact on people’s demand for consumption.  The results may seem surprising, but they are not. The famous models of consumption–the permanent income model of Milton Friedman and the life cycle model of Franco Modigliani–both predict that a temporary increases in income, like these one-time payments, have little effect on spending.

If this happens again, the Section 2201 payments will not stimulate the economy. They won’t fill the hole caused by the forced reductions in spending elsewhere. One can wish that history won’t repeat itself, or that the vivid graphical-empirical analysis is wrong.  But why take that chance?  Why not find ways to make the payments work? But how, especially now that the limits on personal economic interaction are to continue through the month of April (as announced yesterday)?

One answer is simply for public officials to encourage people and firms to get around–not relax or remove–shelter-in-place and social-distancing restrictions. Why not explicitly encourage spending on such things as on-line gift card purchases for specific products, on-line dance classes, lego classics or a desk chair from Costco on-line. It is easy to order paint, wall-paper, shovels, or mops from Home depot, hand calculators and desks from Staples, and coffee makers and writing tablets from Office Depot, which all have extensive online operations.  All these business have ways and incentives to make such purchases more available. But thus far, there has been little such discussion

It would also help if the Treasury could be explicit about the timing of when the checks will go out or direct deposits will be made. Treasury economists could provide a chart like the one for income shown above, but more expedited, and then keep to that in practice in order to reduce uncertainty.  This would help show the way. None of this is easy.  It takes ingenuity, especially from those with expertise in merchandising, transportation, computers and the internet.


Posted in Budget & Debt, Stimulus Impact

Structural, Not Cyclical, Budget Reform

Today I published a column in Project Syndicate on fiscal policy. I am positive about pro-growth effects of the tax reform in the 2017 tax act and of the greater use of cost-benefit analysis in the recent regulatory reform effort. And the recent trade deals—the USMCA and “phase one” with China—take away some threats of trade wars.

But there is still a fiscal policy problem due to the growing federal budget deficit and debt. Fortunately, this problem can be addressed in way that promotes economic growth. Showing how this can be done with structural budget reform is the purpose of the column.

One issue, however, is taking steam out of such a structural reform effort. It is a new focus on reform of the automatic stabilizer part of the budget. But these automatic stabilizers do not need to be reformed. The following table shows why. It updates the approach of my paper, Reassessing Discretionary Fiscal Policy, published 20 years ago in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.  The table gives the estimated response of structural, cyclical and total deficit to real GDP relative to potential GDP.

The entries in the table are bi-variate regression coefficients which show how the structural, cyclical and total deficits as a percentage of GDP depend on the percentage deviation of real GDP from potential GDP.  They show the cyclical sensitivity of the deficits. The numbers in parentheses are t-values from the estimated regression.  To be sure, the structural deficit is defined as the budget deficit without automatic stabilizers as computed by the Congressional Budget Office in “The Automatic Stabilizers in the Federal Budget,” Appendix C of The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2019 to 2029. The total budget deficit is the budget deficit with the automatic stabilizers and is sum of the structural budget deficit and the cyclical deficit. The cyclical budget deficit is defined as the total budget deficit less the structural deficit.

Observe that the percentage impact of the deficit on the cyclical component is about the same amount (.38) from 2000 to 2018 as the amount (.36) from 1969 to 2018, as was mentioned in the article. So reform should focus instead on the growing structural deficit.

Posted in Budget & Debt, Fiscal Policy and Reforms

A Fast and Fun Way to Learn about Rules Versus Discretion

The Hoover Institution has initiated a fascinating Perspectives on Policy video series in which experienced experts give clear explanations of key policy issues assisted by the latest in animation technology. This is not the typical video of talking heads as you might expect.  In this imaginative series tabletop cartoon figures join the experts, move around the screen, bend and twist to show emotions, and even wave at each other from time to time. Topics range from economics, including government entitlement reform and innovative market-based environmental policies, to politics, including health care and immigration.

This week Perspectives on Policy launched a whole new 5-minute video on monetary policy and the Federal Reserve.

I do most of the talking in this video, but I am joined by puppet size caricatures of policy makers such as Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan as shown in this screen shot.

There is also a clever machine on the video with a gauge and a lever to raise and lower the federal funds interest rate, though the connection with the money supply is not forgotten. Note that monetary policy is not on automatic pilot in that people have to operate the machine.

I naturally refer to the Taylor rule to show why basic reasoning and data support rules over discretion and the importance of rules-based monetary policy.

The animation also shows the money supply, the interest rate, the inflation rate, the housing boom and bust, and even Federal Open Market Committee of monetary policy makers.

I loved working the talented Hoover production team on this video, and the reaction thus far is very positive and encouraging.

Who says monetary policy is arcane and technical? It’s fun, and, besides the video, there are key facts, quizzes, etc. that can be found at the link.


Posted in Monetary Policy

Congressional Testimony on the Costs of Rapidly Growing Government Debt

Yesterday I testified at the Committee on the Budget of the House of Representative.  John Yarmuth chaired, and Steve Womack was the ranking member. The Committee titled the hearing “Reexamining the Economic Costs of Debt,” which was quite different from the title “Why Congress Must Balance the Budget” of a hearing of the same House Committee at which I testified only a few years ago in 2015.

At the earlier hearing I showed that basic economic theory grounded in real world data implies that high federal government debt has a cost: it reduces real GDP and real income per household compared to lower debt levels. At yesterday’s hearing I reported that a reexamination of the economic costs yields the same results. A fiscal consolidation plan which reduced debt to GDP would lead to an immediate and permanent increase in real GDP according to model calculations.

Recently the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported similar results. They compared their “extended baseline” in which the debt goes up to 144 percent of GDP by 2047 with an “extended alternative fiscal scenario” in which the federal debt goes to 219 percent of GDP.  CBO found that real GNP is 3.6 percent lower when debt is higher. So, the higher level of debt has real economic costs.

The CBO also analyzed scenarios in which debt is lower as share of GDP: 42 percent and 78 percent. In the 42 percent scenario, real GNP would be 5.8 percent higher; in the 78 percent scenario, real GNP would be 3.7 percent higher.

With the CBO currently projecting large increases in the federal debt relative to GDP in the United States, this reexamination implies the need for a credible fiscal consolidation strategy. Under such a strategy spending would still grow, but at a slower rate than GDP, thereby reducing debt as a share of GDP compared with current projections. Such a fiscal strategy would greatly benefit the American economy. It would also reduce the risk of the debt spiraling up much faster than projected by the CBO.

This conclusion is robust. Olivier Blanchard also testified at the hearing emphasizing that if the growth rate of the economy is greater than the relevant interest rate on the public debt, then there will be a tendency for the debt to GDP ratio to decline over time. In most of Blanchard’s simulations, the primary surplus is held to zero.  However, the primary deficit is far from zero, and, according to CBO, it is growing. Moreover, the economic costs do not distinguish between the primary and the total deficit.

Another view of the economic costs of debt is related to what is sometimes called “Modern Monetary Theory.”  It is difficult to determine how this approach would work in the future, and it is frequently associated large spending programs and wage and price controls. Model simulations would be useful, but history can be a valuable guide:

In the 1970s the United States imposed wage and price controls and the Fed helped finance the federal deficit by creating money.  The result was a terrible economy with unemployment and inflation both rising. This ended when money growth was reduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As explained in a forthcoming book by George Shultz and me, it is an example where poor economic reasoning led to poor economic policy and poor economic performance. It was reversed when good economics again prevailed, and policy changed.

Posted in Budget & Debt

9/11/2001 and the 18 Years Since Then

Today we remember September 11, 2001 and all that has happened in the 18 years since then.

I was in a hotel room in Tokyo when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, recently sworn in as Under Secretary at Treasury. We immediately cancelled our meetings and by the next morning we were on a C-17 military jet Flying Back to Treasury on 9/11. When we got back, the city was on alert. DC was a logical place for another attack, and the secret service was particularly concerned about security around the White House. The United States then launched its first post-9/11 attack on terrorists from a very unusual Financial Front in the War on Terror. As President George W. Bush put it, “the first shot in the war was when we started cutting off their money, because an Al Qaeda organization can’t function without money.”

We cannot forget that the New Greatest Generation  was, and is, essential. They helped lead us, and are still helping to lead us, out of those difficult times. In his speech last year at Shanksville President Trump spoke of incredible security challenges and sacrifices: “Since September 11th, nearly 5.5 million young Americans have enlisted in the United States Armed Forces. Nearly 7,000 service members have died” he said, adding “And we think of every citizen who protects our nation at home, including our state, local, and federal law enforcement.  These are great Americans.  These are great heroes.  We honor and thank them all.”

Posted in Uncategorized

Economics 1: Now More Important Than Ever

Two weeks from today, I start teaching Economics 1, Stanford’s introductory economics course, and the namesake of this blog and my twitter account.   I am looking forward to it, and for the same three reasons that I gave years ago when I started teaching the course: (1) “I love to teach.” (2) “I love to do economic research” and teaching is “a natural extension of research.” (3) “I love economic policy—the application of economics to government as well as to decision-making in business.”

But things have changed dramatically since I started teaching this course decades ago.  In many ways, it is like a whole new course. And that’s exciting for me and for students.  Economics 1 is more important now than ever as the world becomes more computerized and quantified. The course now shows how ignoring economics as we consider the latest ideas in artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, or big data is a recipe for disaster.

The course also shows how it’s possible—as never before in history—to make economic ideas work better in practice to improve people’s lives. Of course, we continue, starting in the first lecture, to stress the central idea that economics is about making choices with limited resources and about people interacting with other people as they make these choices. We show why free competitive markets can improve people’s lives and how such economic systems have removed millions of people from poverty, with many more, we hope, to come; we also discuss market failures, remedy to these failures, and government failure.  And as I wrote ten years ago on this blog severe set backs such as the global financial crisis are a vindication rather than a failure of economics, or more generally, we will see why good economics leads to good policy and good outcomes, and bad economics leads to bad policy and bad outcomes.

And now, and this is another big change, there’s a renewed interest in alternatives to market economics, whether you call it market socialism or more simply highly interventionist economic policy. These issues came up years ago when central planning was still used around much of the world including in Russia or China. With the demise of the Soviet Union, some case studies that showed the harms of central planning are forgotten and are not as relevant. It was helpful then to discuss, for example, how Soviet production plants could fulfill centrally imposed plans by producing, for example, one 500-pound nail rather that 500 one-pound nails, even though the giant nail was useless. Now we need new stories that take new ideas seriously.  The overall goal is to use the latest ideas in economics to understand the reasons for rising living standards and to deal better with inequality, crises, and unemployment.

In addition to the large lectures, I am happy to say that there will also be small discussion sections. There are also exciting special guest lecturers this term including Caroline Hoxby on the economics of education, Susan Athey on artificial intelligence and economics, Chad Jones on the latest ideas on economic growth, and even The Best Economics 1 Lecture Ever.

Posted in Uncategorized

Choice of IMF Managing Director Should Reflect 75 Years of Change

Last week Raghu Rajan and I coauthored an article for the Financial Times. We argued that the IMF should no longer continue the tradition that the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund be a European. Instead, it should “break the mould by appointing the best possible candidate to the job, regardless of nationality,” and “hold an open competition” for the position.

As the G20 Eminent Persons Group on Global Financial Governance (on which we served) recommended, the IMF’s role needs to change to meet the requirements of a different word than existed in the year of its founding 75 years ago.

On this the 75th anniversary of the founding of the IMF and the World Bank, we need to recommit recommit to the spirit of Bretton Woods.  Indeed, this was the main message of the contributors (including me) to the recent book Revitalizing the Spirit of Bretton Woods@75 Compendium 2019.

But this is no longer a task for Europe and the US alone, or for the G7 alone, or for the G20 alone.  The economic ideas being debated are much the same, as I explained in this Truman Medal Lecture, but keeping the flame of open international trade and open capital market alive is harder than ever. It is a now fully global, multi-polar world. It is a task for all the members of the IMF. The choice of managing director should reflect that reality.

Posted in Uncategorized

A Beautiful Model Now Questioned

A few days ago, an amazing thing happened when Thomas Brand (@thlbr) tweeted about a short article I posted on my blog My post was old–posted 10 years ago on October 3, 2009–and I titled it “A Beautiful Model, A Clear Prediction.”

It was about the effect of the minimum wage on employment and the wage. The basic supply and demand model was displayed with the following graph. It was drawn from the Principles of Economics (Economics 1) course that I taught at Stanford in the Fall of 2009, and will still be teaching at Stanford in the Fall of 2019 (and in online form this summer).

The amazing thing was that Brand’s tweet resulted in a huge amount of renewed traffic and hits to the blog, many more in 2019 than in 2009.  Also, unlike 2009, much of the traffic in 2019 was very critical of the model. One of the several thousand tweeters changed the diagram as shown here for the case where the minimum was lower than market equilibrium and thus not binding.

It is encouraging that more people are interested in economic models and their policy implications. But I cannot help but think that fewer people understand or believe the basic supply and demand model than 10 years ago.  Yes, I know there are underlying assumptions, and these must be explained.

But opinion is shifting, even though the model is as accurate and as beautiful as ever.  I’ll have my work cut out for me next fall in Economics 1.

Posted in Teaching Economics

Central Bank Independence Is Not Enough

Four former chairs of the Fed  wrote in the Wall Street Journal today about the importance of Fed independence. I agree, but their article should have emphasized that independence is not enough.  Economic performance has been affected by large shifts between more rules-based and less rules-based policy by the Fed without any concomitant change in the legal basis for independence. De jure independence has not prevented the Fed from harmful departures from rules-based policies.

The absence of a rules-based policy at the Fed in the 1970s was accompanied by high inflation and high unemployment. The move to rules-based policy during the two decades starting in the early 1980s was accompanied by improved price stability and output stability. And a move away from rules-based policy starting around 2003-2005, was followed by poor economic performance including the Great Recession and the Not-So-Great Recovery, as shown in this article in Swedish Riksbank Economic Review

There, of course, have been swings in de facto independence. For example, the Fed sacrificed its de facto independence in the late 1960s and 1970s and regained it in the 1980s and 1990s. There is a close correlation between de facto independence and rules-based policy.

But within a given legal framework, the Fed has engaged in varying degrees of adherence to rules-based policy. We have seen major shifts in the effectiveness of monetary policy within a single framework of central bank independence. Monetary policy needs to focus more on ways to encourage more rules-based policy as well as on ways of maintaining independence.

Posted in Monetary Policy

Africa Meeting of Econometricians: History, Revival and Ways Forward

I just spent a wonderful few days at the 2019 Africa Meeting of the Econometric Society held in Rabat, Morocco with the central bank, the Bank Al-Maghrib, providing an excellent venue.  Congratulations to the Bank Al Maghrib for its 60th anniversary year and also to the Econometric Society for its upcoming 90th anniversary in 2020.

One sees positive economic changes coming to this part of Africa, and it is good that the Econometric Society is meeting here. Morocco is looking to join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which includes, among other countries, Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Benin and Togo. I have travelled to these countries and worked on the US-Moroccan Free Trade Agreement a while back. The idea of an expanding free trade zone is breathtaking especially if combined with other pro-growth reforms. The Bank Al-Maghrib has widened the exchange rate band and capital controls are gradually being relaxed. Several years ago, I spoke in Casablanca about the promise of economic reform, and now it seems to be underway.

But most of all I was impressed by the many sessions of the Econometric Society which demonstrate how economic ideas are spreading throughout the region and the world. The latest econometric methods were evident throughout.  So was big data. One paper examined export and import data in Malawi from 219 countries, with tens of thousands of observations. Another examined the impact on net interest margins of 2,442 banks affected by negative interest rates. This transmission and global conversation is in marked contrast to days when I started out in econometrics, long before there were African meetings of the Econometric Society. It bodes well for the spread of technology generally as a means to improve people’s lives.

My keynote address at the conference delved into the history of the use of econometric models for monetary policy going right up to what has happened in the past few months.  I started out with “path-space” models such as the Tinbergen model which looked at the impact of different paths of the instruments on target variables.  Then “rules-space” approaches began with a major paradigm shift, and central bank models changed for the benefit of policy and performance. Then there was a retrogression, at least in major parts of central banking world, as central banks deviated away from more rules-based approaches, and economic performance deteriorated in the global financial crisis. The lesson learned from history is that we need to get back to rules-space.  Now, just in time, there is a revival of policy rules research, evident in papers, publications, actions, and statements by Fed officials and other central bankers.

The history shows that there are important benefits from a rules-based monetary policy, while it lasts, and that even expectations of a return to rules has benefits. The recent changes in research are promising, as are the other developments in Africa.  What can econometricians do to prevent the deviations and encourage rules-based policy. How can econometric research ideas help? My suggestions at the meeting included more robustness studies on different models and parameters, more development and use of international models to evaluate rules, more research with “quantitative easing” as an instrument in a rule, and a greater focus on the interface between research on rules in central bank research departments and the decisions of central bank policy officials.

Posted in Financial Crisis, Monetary Policy