Austerity vs. Stimulus

By Grant de Graf 
[Sourced  and adapted from an article by Antonios Sangvinatsos, a professor of Finance at Stern School of Business, New York University]

Trying to Understand the Multiplier Effect

Austerity measures are usually combinations of government spending cuts and increased taxes. Stimulating practices, on the other hand, are consisted of combinations of the exact opposite actions, increasing government spending and/or reducing taxation. Therefore, it is clear that perhaps one has to choose one or the other, austerity or stimulation.

The above premise is based on the belief that one can create stimulation in the economy by increasing government spending or reducing taxes, and that one can save money by cutting spending or increasing taxes. But how much of it is true? Are the policies that help the country’s balance sheet hurt the economy’s growth? This article attempts to answer both questions.

It is always the case in economics, that an action generates more than one effect and often times these effects move in opposite directions. This is the case also here. Let us start with the alleged austerity measures and their effects.

Austerity Measures

Spending Cuts
Effect on Output: Output may decline.
Effect on Balance Sheet: Interest rates may decline.

Tax Hikes
Effect on Output: It may decline.
Effect on Revenues: Collected taxes may go up or down.
Spending Effect on Output

In what follows the consequences of spending cuts will be discussed, or increasing spending, on output. The current economic situation is described by anemic growth and high debts. Currently the discussion has focused on whether one, for example the U.S., should engage in tight fiscal policy, and more specifically, in cutting spending. This week FT hosts a debate on the same topic inviting articles from renowned economists.

Whether spending has an effect on output is summarized by the value of the spending multiplier. This is a number that stands for the number of dollars is generated in output by one dollar spent by the government. Advocates of spending policies justify their opinions on spending multiplier greater than 1.0. How much of it is true?

The answer is that, at best, the academic community has been inconclusive about the effectiveness of spending on stimulating output. This means that there is a lot of doubt, in the academic community, that spending works, i.e. that spending has a multiplier value greater than one.

For example, Barro and Redlick (paper link, WSJ article) find that defense spending has a multiplier of 0.6-0.7 at the median unemployment rate – while holding fixed average marginal income-tax rates – and there is some evidence that the spending multiplier rises with the extent of economic slack and reaches 1.0 when the unemployment rate is 12%. Estimating spending multipliers for non-defense spending is problematic as the nondefense government purchases are positively correlated with the business cycle and it is difficult to establish causality. Is it the spending that created growth or the growth that spurred government into spending? Barro and Redlick think the latter.

The same ideas are reiterated also in an FT article by Kenneth Rogoff. He believes that:

“At the same time, the stimulus benefits of massive fiscal deficits are not nearly so certain as proponents of a new surge of spending maintain. The academic evidence on Keynesian growth effects of fiscal deficits is thoroughly inconclusive. Ironically, a lot of the newfound conviction comes from the casual empiricism on the growth effects of the Bush tax cuts, evidence that few academics consider sufficient to outweigh the mass of previous results. Indeed, it will take researchers many years, perhaps decades, to sort out the effects of the massive fiscal stimulus that many countries undertook during the crisis. My guess is that scholars will ultimately decide that fiscal policy was far less important than monetary policy and measures to stabilize the banking system.”

In addition, a rough method I employ gives me a spending multiplier of 0.6, less than 1.0, rendering spending an ineffective policy. Finally, there are people who argue that the multiplier is negative, in which case, spending by the government decreases the output. This is also called crowding out.

There are however economists who argue that the multiplier is greater than one. Christina Romer, head of the President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Mark Zandi, from Moody’s, claim that the multiplier is 1.6. Note that, Keynes believed that the U.S. multiplier in the 1930s was 2.5.

Policy Implications

It is clear, now, that if the value of the multiplier is what the consensus has it in the academic community, around 0.6 or lower, cutting spending will have a small effect on output, as it is also the case that giving another stimulus package will generate little additional growth in the economy. Clearly, the opposite is true if the multiplier is 1.6 or higher, like some people advocate. However, the benefits of any policy have to be weighed with the benefits or costs of contingency scenarios. A policy creates repercussions that also need to be evaluated. For example, spending cuts may or may not decline the economy’s output, but it also has an effect on the country’s balance sheet, the expectations of both the bond investors and the consumers. A policy decision is an act of balancing the fears of all the groups that are involved in a given situation. (Prof. Antonios Sangvinatsos, elaborates in an article the big number of factors that affect the value of debt.)

One may conclude that the effectiveness of either austerity or stimulus will be largely determined by the economic sectors that are targeted by authorities to invoke their policies. Ultimately, some areas of government cuts or spending will have a greater impact than others.