Friday, June 19, 2009

The economy – it’s way too early to return to business as usual

Christina Romer, chairwoman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and a scholar of the Depression, warns against a premature return to economic orthodoxy. She sets out the example of how the success of the New Deal economic policies was undermined by a return to orthodox economic practices in 1937 triggering a new recession:
The recovery from the Depression is often described as slow because America did not return to full employment until after the outbreak of the second world war. But the truth is the recovery in the four years after Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 was incredibly rapid. Annual real GDP growth averaged over 9%. Unemployment fell from 25% to 14%. The second world war aside, the United States has never experienced such sustained, rapid growth.

However, that growth was halted by a second severe downturn in 1937-38, when unemployment surged again to 19% (see chart). The fundamental cause of this second recession was an unfortunate, and largely inadvertent, switch to contractionary fiscal and monetary policy. One source of the growth in 1936 was that Congress had overridden Mr Roosevelt’s veto and passed a large bonus for veterans of the first world war. In 1937, this fiscal stimulus disappeared. In addition, social-security taxes were collected for the first time. These factors reduced the deficit by roughly 2.5% of GDP, exerting significant contractionary pressure.

Also important was an accidental switch to contractionary monetary policy. In 1936 the Federal Reserve began to worry about its “exit strategy”. After several years of relatively loose monetary policy, American banks were holding large quantities of reserves in excess of their legislated requirements. Monetary policymakers feared these excess reserves would make it difficult to tighten if inflation developed or if “speculative excess” began again on Wall Street. In July 1936 the Fed’s board of governors stated that existing excess reserves could “create an injurious credit expansion” and that it had “decided to lock up” those excess reserves “as a measure of prevention”. The Fed then doubled reserve requirements in a series of steps. Unfortunately it turned out that banks, still nervous after the financial panics of the early 1930s, wanted to hold excess reserves as a cushion. When that excess was legislated away, they scrambled to replace it by reducing lending. According to a classic study of the Depression by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, the resulting monetary contraction was a central cause of the 1937-38 recession.

The 1937 episode provides a cautionary tale. The urge to declare victory and get back to normal policy after an economic crisis is strong. That urge needs to be resisted until the economy is again approaching full employment. Financial crises, in particular, tend to leave scars that make financial institutions, households and firms behave differently. If the government withdraws support too early, a return to economic decline or even panic could follow. …


Now is also the time to think about our long-run fiscal situation. Despite the large budget deficit President Obama inherited, dealing with the current crisis required increasing the deficit substantially. To switch to austerity in the immediate future would surely set back recovery and risk a 1937-like recession-within-a-recession. But many are legitimately concerned about the longer-term budget situation. That is why the president has laid out a plan to shrink the deficit he inherited by half and has repeatedly emphasised the need to reduce the long-term deficit and put the debt-to-GDP ratio on a declining trajectory. In this regard, health-care reform presents a golden opportunity. The fundamental source of long-run deficits is rising health-care expenditures. By coupling the expansion of coverage with reforms that significantly slow the growth of health-care costs, we can dramatically improve the long-run fiscal situation without tightening prematurely.
Paul Krugman made essentially the same argument earlier this week – even though the crisis seems to be easing, don’t abandon the fiscal stimulus effort yet and return to business as usual.

You can read Romer’s entire piece here and Krugman’s column here.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

Far be it for us, but we have to be PATIENT!