On 10 March, the House of Representatives gave final approval to President Biden’s $1.9tr fiscal stimulus plan (the American Rescue Plan). Worth over 9% of GDP, this represents the third stage of an unparalleled boost to the US economy. In March 2020, President Trump secured congressional agreement for a $2.2tr package (the CARES Act). Then in December 2020, a bipartisan COVID relief bill, worth $902bn, was passed by Congress.
By comparison, the Obama package in 2009 in response to the impending recession following the financial crisis was $831bn (5.7% of GDP).
The American Rescue Plan
The Biden stimulus programme consists of a range of measures, the majority of which provide monetary support to individuals. These include a payment of $1400 per person for single people earning less than $75 000 and couples less than $150 000. These come on top of payments of $1200 in March 2020 and $600 in late December. In addition, the top-up to unemployment benefits of $300 per week agreed in December will now continue until September. Also, annual child tax credit will rise from $2000 annually to as much as $3600 and this benefit will be available in advance.
Other measures include $350bn in grants for local governments depending on their levels of unemployment and other needs; $50bn to improve COVID testing centres and $20bn to develop a national vaccination campaign; $170bn to schools and universities to help them reopen after lockdown; and grants to small businesses and specific grants to hard-hit sectors, such as hospitality, airlines, airports and rail companies.
Despite supporting the two earlier packages, no Republican representative or senator backed this latest package, arguing that it was not sufficiently focused. As a result, reaction to the package has been very much along partisan lines. Nevertheless, it is supported by some 90% of Democrat voters and 50% of Republican voters.
Is the stimulus the right amount?
Although the latest package is worth $1.9tr, aggregate demand will not expand by this amount, which will limit the size of the multiplier effect. The reason is that the benefits multiplier is less than the government expenditure multiplier as some of the extra money people receive will be saved or used to reduce debts.
With $3tr representing some 9% of GDP, this should easily fill the estimated negative output gap of between 2% and 3%, especially when multiplier effects are included. Also, with savings having increased during the recession to put them some 7% above normal, the additional amount saved may be quite small, and wealthier Americans may begin to reduce their savings and spend a larger proportion of their income.
So the problem might be one of excessive stimulus, which in normal times could result in crowding out by driving up interest rates and dampening investment. However, the Fed is still engaged in a programme of quantitative easing. Between mid-March 2020 and the end of March 2021, the Fed’s portfolio of securities held outright grew from $3.9tr to $7.2tr. What is more, many economists predict that inflation is unlikely to rise other than very slightly. If this is so, it should allow the package to be financed easily. Debt should not rise to unsustainable levels.
Other economists argue, however, that inflationary expectations are rising, reflected in bond yields, and this could drive actual inflation and force the Fed into the awkward dilemma of either raising interest rates, which could have a significant dampening effect, or further increasing money supply, potentially leading to greater inflationary problems in the future.
A lot will depend what happens to potential GDP. Will it rise over the medium term so that additional spending can be accommodated? If the rise in spending encourages an increase in investment, this should increase potential GDP. This will depend on business confidence, which may be boosted by the package or may be dampened by worries about inflation.
Additional packages to come
Potential GDP should also be boosted by two further packages that Biden plans to put to Congress.
The first is a $2.2tr infrastructure investment plan, known as the American Jobs Plan. This is a 10-year plan to invest public money in transport infrastructure (such as rebuilding 20 000 miles of road and repairing bridges), public transport, electric vehicles, green housing, schools, water supply, green power generation, modernising the power grid, broadband, R&D in fields such as AI, social care, job training and manufacturing. This will be largely funded through tax increases, such as gradually raising corporation tax from 21% to 28% (it had been cut from 35% to 21% by President Trump) and taxing global profits of US multinationals. However, the spending will generally precede the increased revenues and thus will raise aggregate demand in the initial years. Only after 15 years are revenues expected to exceed costs.
The second is a yet-to-be announced plan to increase spending on childcare, healthcare and education. This should be worth at least $1tr. This will probably be funded by tax increases on income, capital gains and property, aimed largely at wealthy individuals. Again, it is hoped that this will boost potential GDP, in this case by increasing labour productivity.
With earlier packages, the total increase in public spending will be over $8tr. This is discretionary fiscal policy writ large.
- Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill wins final approval in House
Reuters, Susan Cornwell and Makini Brice (10/3/21)
- Biden’s Covid stimulus plan: It costs $1.9tn but what’s in it?
BBC News, Natalie Sherman (6/3/21)
- Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Challenge: End the Coronavirus Crisis Faster
New York Times, Jim Tankersley and Sheryl Gay Stolberg (22/3/21)
- Joe Biden writes a cheque for America – and the rest of the world
The Observer, Phillip Inman (13/3/21)
- Spend or save: Will Biden’s stimulus cheques boost the economy?
Aljazeera, Cinnamon Janzer (9/3/21)
- After Biden stimulus, US economic growth could rival China’s for the first time in decades
CNN, Matt Egan (12/3/21)
- Larry Summers, who called out inflation fears with Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, says the US is seeing ‘least responsible’ macroeconomic policy in 40 years
Business Insider, John L. Dorman (21/3/21)
- With $1.9 Trillion in New Spending, America Is Headed for Financial Fragility
Barron’s, Leslie Lipschitz and Josh Felman (30/3/21)
- Biden unveils ‘once-in-a generation’ $2tn infrastructure investment plan
The Guardian, Lauren Gambino (31/3/21)
- Biden unveils $2tn infrastructure plan and big corporate tax rise
Financial Times, James Politi (31/3/21)
- The Observer view on Joe Biden’s audacious spending plans
The Observer, editorial (11/4/21)
- Draw a Keynesian cross diagram to show the effect of an increase in benefits when the economy is operating below potential GDP.
- What determines the size of the benefits multiplier?
- Explain what is meant by the output gap. How might the pandemic and accompanying emergency health measures have affected the size of the output gap?
- How are expectations relevant to the effectiveness of the stimulus measures?
- What is likely to determine the proportion of the $1400 stimulus cheques that people spend?
- Distinguish between resource crowding out and financial crowding out. Is the fiscal stimulus package likely to result in either form of crowding out and, if so, what will determine by how much?
- What is the current monetary policy of the Fed? How is it likely to impact on the effectiveness of the fiscal stimulus?
Over the weekend of the 5 and 6 February, the finance ministers of the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA) met to discuss the state of the world economy. They agreed that the recovery was still too fragile to remove the various stimulus packages adopted around the world. To do so would run the risk of plunging the world back into recession – the dreaded ‘double dip’.
But further fiscal stimulus involves a deepening of public-sector debt – and it is the high levels of debt in various countries, and especially the ‘Piigs’ (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), that is causing worries that their debt will be unsustainable and that this will jeopardise their recovery. Indeed, the days running up to the meeting had seen considerable speculation against the euro as worries about the finances of various eurozone countries grew.
Of course, countries such as Greece, could be bailed out by other eurozone countries, such as Germany of France, or by the IMF. But this would create a moral hazard. If Greece and other countries in deep debt know that they will be bailed out, this might then remove some of the pressure on them to tackle their debts by raising taxes and/or cutting government expenditure.
Group of 7 Vows to Keep Cash Flowing New York Times, Sewell Chan (6/2/10)
Forget cuts and keep spending, Brown told Independent, Sean O’Grady (9/2/10)
European debt concerns drive dollar higher during past week Xinhua, Xiong Tong (6/2/10)
G7 prefers to stay on stimulants Economic Times of India (7/2/10)
G7 pledges to maintain economic stimulus Irish Times (8/2/10)
Mr. Geithner, On What Planet Do You Spend Most of Your Time? Veterans Today (6/2/10)
Gold Price Holds $1,050 – Gold Correction Over? Gold Price News (8/2/10)
Darling ‘confident’ on economic recovery at G7 meeting BBC News (7/2/10)
Britain has to fight hard to avoid the Piigs Sunday Times (7/2/10)
Europe needs to show it has a crisis endgame Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau (7/2/10)
Speculators build record bets against euro Financial Times, Peter Garnham (8/2/10)
The wider financial impact of southern Europe’s Pigs Observer, Ashley Seager (7/2/10)
Medicine for Europe’s sinking south Financial Times, Nouriel Roubini and Arnab Das (2/2/10)
Yes, the eurozone will bail out Greece, but its currency has taken a battering Independent on Sunday, Hamish McRae (7/2/10)
- What is meant by a ‘double-dip recession? How likely is such a double dip to occur over the coming months?
- Why has there been speculation against the euro? Who gain and who lose from such speculation?
- Why might the ‘gold correction’ be over? Why might gold prices change again?
- What is meant by ‘moral hazard’? Does bailing out countries, firms or individuals in difficulties always involve a moral hazard?
- What is the case (a) for and (b) against a further fiscal stimulus to countries struggling to recover from recession?
- Would there be any problems in pursuing a tight fiscal policy alongside an expansionary monetary policy?
Latest figures suggest that Japan could be entering a ‘double-dip’ or ‘W-shaped’ recession. In the second quarter of 2009, Japan managed to achieve a modest 0.9% growth after four quarters of contraction. Growth then accelerated to 1.2% in the third quarter. It now seems likely, however, that the fourth quarter could see a contraction of the economy again – or at best a slow-down in growth. Prices are falling as demand remains stagnant, and this deflation could encourage people to hold back from spending as they wait for prices to fall further.
As the British government announces planned spending cuts to tackle the rapidly mounting public-sector deficit and debt, so Japan has just announced a massive further fiscal stimulus of ¥7.2 trillion (£50 billion) or 1.5% of GDP. Although Japan’s public-sector deficit is no longer the highest of the G7 countries – 7.4% of GDP, compared with 12.6% for the UK, 11.4% for the USA and 8.2% for France (see OECD Economic Outlook November 2009, summary of projections – its debt, currently at 190% of GDP, is by far the highest of the G7 countries (this compares with 115% for Italy, 76% for France, 73% for Germany, 69% for the UK and 65% for the USA).
More than half of the fiscal stimulus will go on increases in government expenditure, especially on public works. However, much of the spending is in the form of a transfer to regional governments, which would otherwise be forced to make spending cuts because of falling tax revenues. So is the stimulus too much, too little, or of little relevance? Read the linked articles below, which consider the issues.
Japan growth estimate slashed Sydney Morning Herald (9/12/09)
Double dip could be taking shape for Japanese economy Market Watch, Lisa Twaronite (9/12/09)
Japan to boost recovery with giant stimulus plan Sydney Morning Herald, Kyoko Hasegawa (8/12/09)
Japan steps up stimulus spending Sydney Morning Herald (8/12/09)
Japan public debt to hit record this fiscal year AsiaOne News (Singapore) (8/12/09)
Japan govt unveils $81 bln economic stimulus Economic Times of India (8/12/09)
Japan’s economic growth figure lowered BBC News (9/12/09)
Japan agrees $81bn stimulus package BBC News (8/12/09)
Japan unveils $80bn of direct spending in $274bn stimulus package Telegraph (8/12/09)
It is Japan we should be worrying about, not America Telegraph (1/11/09)
Japan keeps pouring money into its ailing economy Times Online, Leo Lewis (9/12/09)
Japan’s Leader Promotes $81 Billion Stimulus Plan New York Times, Hiroko Tabuchi (8/12/09)
Japan sets out $81bn stimulus plan Financial Times, Mure Dickie (8/12/09)
Fiscal challenges ahead The Asahi Shimbun (Japan) (8/12/09)
Bond jitters as Japan launches yet another stimulus plan Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (8/12/09)
New Stimulus Won’t Save Japan From Deflation, Soaring Deficit Money Morning, Jason Simpkins (8/12/09)
- Use the threshold concepts of stocks and flows to explain the difference between public-sector deficits and public-sector debt.
- Why might an economy go into a ‘double-dip’ or ‘W-shaped’ recession?
- For what reasons might this latest stimulus package be regarded as (a) too large and (b) too small to tackle Japan’s macroeconomic problems?
- Discuss the proposed policy of banning firms from hiring temporary workers.
- Why does deflation (in the sense of falling prices) create a problem for governments?
- What are the implications for the market for Japanese government bonds of the latest stimulus package?
The early part of the current recession, dating from April 2008, had much in common with the Great Depression dating from June 1929. But the Great Depression lasted three years. So does this grim prospect await the world this time round? Or have we learned the lessons of the past and will the policies of giving economies a large fiscal stimulus, combined with bank rescues and quantitative easing, help to pull the world out of recession this year? The following articles look at the issues.
The recession tracks the Great Depression Martin Wolf, Financial Times (16/6/09)
A Tale of Two Depressions Barry Eichengreen, Kevin H. O’Rourke, Vox (4/6/09)
Economics: How the world economy might recover its poise Financial Times (15/6/09)
Weak recovery in sight but damage from crisis likely to be long-lasting, says OECD OECD (24/6/09)
OECD sees strongest outlook since 2007 Financial Times (24/6/09)
Press Release Board of Governors of the US Federal Reserve System (24/6/09)
You might also like to watch the following two videos. The first uses historical footage to examine the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. The second is an interview with Joseph Stiglitz about whether the recession of 2008/9 is heading for another Great Depression.
The 1929 Crash (1 of 6) Nibelungensohn, YouTube (27/2/09). Note that you can link to the other five parts of this from this link.
Joseph Stiglitz: ‘This is worse than the Great Depression’ NBC Nightly News (10/2/09)
- Why may the past be a poor guide to the present and future?
- What dangers are there from the policies of expanding aggregate demand through fiscal and monetary policies?
- Explain why the ‘race to full recovery is likely to be long, hard and uncertain.