Sunday, February 8, 2009

Stimulating paradox

I read an intriguing article yesterday about the fundamental paradox that underlies the global phenomenon that is currently known as an ‘economic stimulus package’. The basic gist is that to justify spending billions of dollars the government has to scare the crap out of everyone to justify it. In doing so, they radically increase the chances that people will want to save instead of spend. They could have alternatively just said everything was fine, downplayed the situation as a media beat-up, and done nothing. At the moment, doing nothing is exactly what I think is the best thing for governments.

But let’s take a moment to look at the theoretical arguments surrounding the stimulus. I am going to raise quite a few economic theories that have been subject to debate a long time, so please do a little research if anything interests you.

Keynesian theory suggests that recession is caused by a wave of pessimism that flows through society, impacting on business decisions. It has some merit. One business sees another buckling down for tough times ahead, so they do the same, and so on until everyone has reduced production, but no one knows why. Real herd mentality in action. The economists’ prescription for getting out of a Keynesian style recession (Yes that there are different types of recession that require different policy responses. For example one caused by a ‘supply shock’ to a key resource.) is for government to intervene in markets to maintain demand and employment, in addition to ‘talking up’ the economy to raise business confidence. It seems that the current policy response forgot to mention that things will be fine, and went for the big spend – the exact problem raised in the paradox article.

But there is more. The opposition raised a very interesting point about the merit of giving people cash to spend, when the principle economic theories of consumption suggest that only a very small proportion will be spent. Milton Friedman’s Permanent Income Hypothesis (PIH) explains how people choose how much to spend based on their long-term expectations of income. Thus it would be expected that a one off payment will be diluted amongst household spending over a long period.

The opposition has a few more economic theories up their sleeve as well. One of the main maco-economic models, the IS LM BP model, that links together interest rates and output of the economy taking into account international trade and foreign exchange, makes clear that in a country with a floating exchange rate, fiscal policy (government spending) will be rendered completely ineffective.

Further, the Barro-Ricardian equivalence hypothesis (which doesn’t gain much acceptance anymore, but makes a very good point) also suggests that fiscal stimulus will be ineffective, whether financed through debt or taxes. Since any money the government has is raised through taxes, and any debt they incur must be paid by future taxes along with interest, people will realise that this round of debt funded spending is actually equivalent to RAISING TAXES. And what kind of stimulus would that be.

My final point is about the continual decline in interest rate, and the possibility of a liquidity trap. In short, a liquidity trap occurs when lowering interest rates does not increase the supply of money. Banks are already reluctant to lend, and since their real returns are minimal once the nominal interest rate approaches the inflation rate, they fail to approve more loans even though the interest rate is lower. I would suggest that there may be a little of this occurring, especially if the current interest rates drops are perceived as temporary measures.

In any case, we will never know if the fiscal (and the Reserve Bank's monetary) stimulus did anyone any good, because we have no basis from which to measure the success of failure of the policy. Maybe we could have given the money to just half the states and done a bit of a real life experiment. The political claims will be obvious - Rudd Bank will claim success no matter what the outcome, because 'it saved us from the worst of it', while the opposition will blame the stimulus for any further deterioration of economic output. Neither of them are right. We are subject to the whims of international markets, and no policy of ours have a noticeable impact.

Before I go I just want to let you know that I am more of a subsriber to the theory of creative destruction. This theory suggests that recessions are a necessary part of development. A recession is simply a process of 'destroying' outdated and outmoded production systems to enable the 'creation' of production chains for new goods and services. Followers of this theory would see a recession as a sign of development, and not something to be avoided.

Unfortunately governments have a hard time persuading people that some short term pain is worth the long term gain.

That’s all for now folks.


  1. If stimulus has no real effect, then arguably we could reduce our projected deficits?

  2. Do you mean reduce as in make them larger negative values (eg - 25 to -35), or reduce as in make them smaller negative values (eg -25 to -15)?

    I would think the former.

  3. Have I got this right?

    If we stimulate our way out of this with debt, we'll have to pay it off with either more real growth or inflation. Either way debt escalates.

    An alternative is debt destruction, which equals a lot of 'pain' for most but a relatively clean slate to start from

  4. Nice article mate. Hit the nail on the head right there. The idea of stimulus is to encourage investment and growth whereas the dire warnings are likely to dent confidence and have the opposite effect and arguably a greater negative impact. Great link to the business Spectator article.

  5. Hey Cameron,

    Great blog buddy. Keep up the good work. Very interesting post. I love creative destruction and that is the way I feel about it. Only the government is doing it's damnedest to avoid it. Free market my bum.

  6. Thanks Morgan. I will try and keep the ideas and discussion flowing.

    And yes, creative destruction has a lot of merit in principle, but governments unfortunately need to appeal to the voters. It is a tough call for a government to tell people that we have to take the good with the bad, and that it will get better in the future. The opposition who blames the current government and promises to take action will probably stand a good chance of getting in. So parties on both sides need to keep up the charade.