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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bad economics and bad forecasting inform Deficit commisssion

Continuing with James K. Galbraith's critique of the Deficit Commission empaneled to, apparently, get social security and Medicare on the table, i.e., chopping block.

Galbraith's testimony continues from yesterday:

Let me now turn to the economic questions. A first economic question is, what caused the deficits and rising public debt? The answer comes in two parts: present deficits and projected future deficits.

2. Current Deficits and Rising Debt were Caused by the Financial Crisis.

Overwhelmingly, the present deficits are caused by the financial crisis. The financial crisis, the fall in asset (especially housing) values, and withdrawal of bank lending to business and households has meant a sharp decline in economic activity, and therefore a sharp decrease in tax revenues and an increase in automatic payments for unemployment insurance and the like. According to a new IMF staff analysis, fully half of the large increase in budget deficits in major economies around the world is due to collapsing tax revenues, and a further large share to low (often negative) growth in relation to interest payments on existing debt. Less than ten percent is due to increased discretionary public expenditure, as in stimulus packages.

This point is important because it shows that the claim that deficits have resulted from "overspending" is false, both in the United States and abroad.

3. Future Deficit Projections are Generally Based on Forecasts which Begin by Assuming Full Recovery, but this Assumption is Highly Unrealistic.

Unlike the present deficits, expected future deficits are not usually considered to be due to continued recession and high unemployment. To understand how the discussion of future deficits is being framed, it is necessary to grasp the work of the principal forecasting authority, the Congressional Budget Office. CBO's projections proceed in two steps. First, they wipe out the current deficits, over a very short time horizon, by assuming a full economic recovery. Second, they create an entirely new source of future deficits, essentially out of whole cloth. The critical near-term assumption in the CBO baseline concerns employment. CBO claims to expect a relatively rapid return, over five years, to high levels of employment, and the baseline incorporates a correspondingly high rate of real growth in the early recovery from the great crisis. If this were to happen, then tax revenues would recover, and ordinarily the projected deficits would disappear. This is what did happen under full employment in the late 1990s.

But under present financial conditions this scenario of a rapid return to high employment is highly unrealistic. It can only happen if the credit system finances economic growth, which implies a rising level of private (household and company) debt relative to GDP. And that clearly is not going to happen. On the contrary, de-leveraging in the private sector is sure to remain the rule for a long time, as mortgages and other debts default or are paid down, and as many households remain effectively insolvent due to their mortgage debt.

With high unemployment, high public deficits are inevitable. The only choice is between an active deficit, incurred by putting people to work or otherwise serving national needs -- such as providing a decent retirement and health care to the aged -- and a passive deficit, incurred because at high unemployment tax revenues necessarily fail to cover public spending. Cutting public spending or raising taxes, now or in the future, by any amount, cannot reduce a deficit due to high unemployment. The only fiscal effect is to convert an active deficit into a passive one -- with disastrous economic and social effects.

4. Having Cured the Deficits with an Unrealistic Forecast, CBO Recreates them with Another, Very Different, but Equally Unrealistic Forecast.

In the CBO models, high future deficits and rising debt relative to GDP are expected. But the source is not a weak economy. It is a set of assumptions describing an economy after full recovery from the present crisis. In the CBO forecasts, big future deficits arise from a combination of (a) rapidly rising health care costs and (b) rising short-term interest rates, in the context of (c) a rapid return to high employment and (d) continued low overall inflation. This combination produces, mechanically, a very large net interest payout and a rapidly rising public debt in relation to a slowly rising nominal GDP.

Even if CBO were right about recovery, which it is not, this projection is internally inconsistent and wholly implausible. It isn't going to happen. Low overall inflation (at two percent) is inconsistent with the projected rise of short-term interest rates to nearly five percent. Why would the central bank carry out such a policy when no threat of inflation justifies it? But the assumed rise in interest rates drives the projected debt-to-GDP dynamic.

Similarly, the rise in projected interest payments is inconsistent with low nominal inflation. Interest payments rising to over 20 percent of GDP by mid-century would constitute new federal spending similar in scale to the mobilization for World War II. Obviously this cannot happen with two percent inflation. And although a higher inflation rate is undesirable, arithmetically it means a lower debt-to-GDP ratio.

Finally, rapidly rising health care costs and low overall inflation are mutually consistent only if all prices except health care are rising at less than that low overall inflation rate -- including energy and food prices in a time of increasing scarcity. This too is extremely unlikely. Either overall health care costs will decelerate (relieving the so-called Medicare funding problem) or the overall inflation rate will accelerate -- reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio.

In sum: the economic forecasts on which you are being asked to develop a credible plan for reducing deficits over the medium term are a mess. The unemployment and growth forecasts are implausibly optimistic, while the inflation and interest rates projections are implausibly pessimistic and mutually inconsistent.

Good policy cannot be based on bad forecasts. As a first step in your work -- long overdue -- the Commission should require the development of internally consistent, and factually plausible, economic forecasts on which to base future deficit and debt projections.

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