Is the US fiscal stimulus working?

One of the problems of economics is that reality rarely works out like theory. Indeed it is rather like the military dictum that tells us that a battle plan rarely survives first contact with the enemy. However we are currently seeing the world’s largest economy giving us a worked example of the policy being pushed by central bankers. Indeed it rushed to do so as we look back to the Jackson Hole symposium in the summer of 2017.

With tight constraints on central banks, one may expect—or maybe hope for—a more active response of fiscal policy when the next recession arrives.

Back on August 29th of that year I noted a paper presented by Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko which went on to tell us this.

We find that in our sample expansionary government spending shocks have not been followed by persistent increases in debt-to-GDP ratios or borrowing costs (interest rates, CDS spreads). This result obtains especially when the economy is weak. In fact, a fiscal stimulus in a weak economy may help improve fiscal sustainability along the metrics we study.

Since then those two voices have of course been joined by something of a chorus line of central bankers and their ilk. But there was somebody listening or having the same idea as in short order Donald John Trump announced his tax cuts moving us from theory to practice.

Where are we now?

Led me hand you over to CNBC from two days ago.

The U.S. fiscal deficit topped $1 trillion in 2019, the first time it has passed that level in a calendar year since 2012, according to Treasury Department figures released Monday.

The budget shortfall hit $1.02 trillion for the January-to-December period, a 17.1% increase from 2018, which itself had seen a 28.2% jump from the previous year.

There is a sort of back to the future feel about that as the US returns to levels seen as an initial result of the credit crunch. If we look at the US Treasury website it needs a slight update but gives us an overall picture.

Year-end data from the September 2019 Monthly Treasury Statement of Receipts and Outlays of the United States Government show that the deficit for FY 2019 was $984 billion, $205 billion higher than the prior year’s deficit[3]. As a percentage of GDP, the deficit was 4.6 percent, an increase from 3.8 percent in FY 2018.

So the out-turn was slightly higher but we see something a little awkward. If the US economy was booming as the Donald likes to tell us why was their a deficit in the first place and why is it rising?

We see that on the good side revenues are rising.

Governmental receipts totaled $3,462 billion in FY 2019. This was $133 billion higher than in FY 2018, an increase of 4.0 percent,

But outlays have surged.

Outlays were $4,447 billion, $339 billion above those in FY 2018, an 8.2 percent increase.

Economic Growth

Three, that’s the Magic Number
Yes, it is, it’s the magic number
Somewhere in this hip-hop soul community
Was born three: Mase, Dove and me
And that’s the magic number

It turns out that inadvertently De La Soul were on the ball about the economic growth required to make fiscal policy look successful. So there was method in the apparent madness of President Trump proclaiming that the US economy would grow at an annual rate of 3% or more. In doing so he was mimicking the numbers used in the UK,for example, after the credit crunch to flatter the fiscal outlook. Or a lot more bizarrely ( the UK does at least occasionally grow by 3%) by the current coalition government in Italy.

Switching now to looking at what did happen then as 2018 progressed things looked okay until the last quarter when the annualised growth rate barely scraped above 1%. A brief rally back to target in the opening quarter of last year was followed by this.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 2.1 percent in the third quarter of 2019 (table 1), according to the “third” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the second quarter, real GDP increased 2.0 percent. ( US BEA )

If we now move forwards there is this.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 1.1% for 2019:Q4 and 1.2% for 2020:Q1.

News from this week’s data releases decreased the nowcast for 2019:Q4 by 0.1 percentage point and left the nowcast for 2020:Q1 broadly unchanged.

Negative news from international trade data accounted for most of the decrease.

Should this turn out to be accurate then it will be damaging for the deficit because the revenue growth we observed earlier ( 4%) will fade. There is a risk of the deficit ballooning should things weaken further and outlays rise to to social spending and the like if the labour market should turn.So far it has only signalled a slowing of real wage growth.

Cost of the debt

A rising fiscal deficit means that the national debt will grow.

As deficits have swelled, so has the national debt, which is now at $23.2 trillion. ( CNBC )

Or as the Congressional Budget Office puts it.

Debt. As a result of those deficits, federal debt held by the public is projected to grow steadily, from 79 percent of GDP in 2019 to 95 percent in 2029—its highest level since just after World War II. ( care is needed here as it only counts debt held by the public not the total)

But as I pointed out back in August 2017 the baying pack of bond vigilantes seem soundly muzzled these days.

 So we have seen central banks intervening in fiscal policy via a reduction in bond yields something which government’s try to keep quiet. We have individual instances of bond yield soaring such as Venezuela but the last few years have seen central banking victories and defeats for the vigilantes.

So as a consequence we find ourselves in an era of “Not QE” asset purchases and more importantly for today’s purposes a long bond ( 30 year) yield of 2.25% or less than half of what it was at times in 2011. So the debt has grown but each unit is cheap.

The government’s net interest costs are also anticipated to
grow in 2019, increasing by $47 billion (or 14 percent),
to $372 billion.

This means that the total costs are much lower than would have been expected back in the day.

Comment

Has it worked? Party so far in that the economic outcome in the US was better than that in the UK, Europe and Japan. But the “winning” as President Trump likes to put it faded and now we see that economic growth at an expected just over 1% is rather similar to the rest of us except the fiscal deficit and national debt are higher. So whilst it was nice now we look ahead to a situation where it could become a problem. I do not mean in the old-fashioned way of rising bond yields because let’s face it “Not QE” would become “Not bond buying” to get them back lower.

But if you keep raising the debt you need economic growth and should the present malaise continue then the US will underperform the CBO forecasts which expect this.

After 2019, consumer spending and purchases of goods and services by federal, state, and local governments
are projected to grow at a slower pace, and annual output growth is projected to slow—averaging
1.8 percent over the 2020–2023 period—as real output returns to its historical relationship with
potential output.

There is also another problem which the CBO has inadvertently revealed showing that the certainty with which some speak is always wrong.

The largest factor contributing to that change
is that CBO revised its forecast of interest rates downward, which lowered its projections of net interest
outlays by $1.4 trillion.

So the fiscal stimulus has helped so far but now the hard yards begin and they will get a lot harder in any further slow down. In the end it is all about the economic growth.

The Investing Channel