At the start of 2013, the USA faces a ‘fiscal cliff’. By this is meant that, without agreement by Congress on new fiscal measures, the USA will be forced into tax rises and expenditure cuts of around $650 billion (over 4% of GDP). This would probably push the economy straight back into recession. This in turn would have a serious dampening effect on the global economy.
But why would fiscal policy be automatically tightened? The first reason is that tax cuts given under the George W. Bush administration during 2001–3 (largely to the rich) are due to expire. Also a temporary cut in payroll taxes and an increase in tax credits given by President Obama are also due to end. These tax increases would form the bulk of the tightening. The average US household would pay an extra $3500 in taxes, reducing after-tax income by around 6%.
The second reason is that various government expenditure programmes are scheduled to be reduced. These reductions in expenditure amount to around $110 billion.
It is likely, however, that Congress will agree to delay or limit the tax increases or expenditure cuts; politicians on both sides want to avoid sending the economy back into recession. But what the agreement will be is not at all clear at this stage.
Republicans are taking a tougher line than Democrats on cutting the budget deficit; they are calling for considerably less restraint in implementing the government expenditure cuts. On the other hand, they are likely to be less willing to raise taxes.
But unless something is done, the consequences for 2013 could be dire. The fiscal cliff edge rapidly approaches.
Nearly 90 percent of Americans would see taxes rise if ‘fiscal cliff’ hits Washington Post, Lori Montgomery (1/10/12)
Fiscal cliff a serious threat, but unlikely CNN Money, Chris Isidore (1/10/12)
“Fiscal cliff” fears may impede faster job growth Chicago Tribute, Lucia Mutikani (1/10/12)
Avert Fiscal Cliff With Entitlement Cuts, Tax Increases Bloomberg (2/10/12)
‘Fiscal cliff’ to hit 90% of US families Financial Times, James Politi (1/10/12)
Investors don’t want the US to fall off the fiscal cliff The Telegraph, Tom Stevenson (22/9/12)
Gauging the fiscal cliff BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (27/9/12)
The US fiscal cliff – and the fiscal chasm BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (2/10/12)
US fiscal cliff threat fails to galvanise policymakers Guardian Economics blog, Mohamed el-Erian (1/10/12)
Multiplying Europe’s fiscal suicide (technical) The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (1/10/12)
Q&A: The US fiscal cliff BBC News (7/11/12)
US election: Four more years… of what? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (7/11/12)
United States fiscal cliff Wikipedia
- Explain what is meant by the ‘fiscal cliff’ and what is its magnitude.
- What would be the multiplier implications of the USA ‘falling off the cliff’ both for the USA and for the rest of the world?
- What factors determine the size of the government expenditure and tax multipliers? What would be the problems of (a) underestimating and (b) overestimating the size of these multipliers?
- How can a fiscal stimulus be reconciled with a policy of reducing the size of the budget deficit as a proportion of GDP over the longer term?
- In what ways can the actions of Democrats and Republicans be seen as game playing? What are the possible payoffs and risks to both sides?
- Is relying on export growth to bring the world economy out of recession a zero sum game?
- Explain which is likely to be more effective in stimulating short- and medium-term economic growth in the USA: fiscal policy or monetary policy.
The possibility of currency and trade wars and how to avert them were major topics at the G20 meeting in Seoul on 11 and 12 November 2010. Some countries, such as the USA and the UK have been running large current account deficits. Others, such as China, Germany and Japan have been running large current account surpluses. But balance of payments accounts must balance. Thus there have been equal and opposite imbalances on the financial plus capital accounts. Large amounts of finance and capital have flowed from the trade-surplus to the trade-deficit countries. In particular China holds a vast amount of US dollar assets: a debt for the USA.
The trade and finance imbalances are linked to exchange rates. The USA has accused China of keeping its exchange rate artificially low, which boosts Chinese exports and further exacerbates the trade and finance imbalances. The USA is keen to see an appreciation of the Chinese yuan (also known as the renminbi). The Chinese response is that the USA is asking China to take medicine to cure America’s disease.
So was the meeting in Seoul successful in achieving a global response to trade and exchange rate problems? Has it averted currency and trade wars? Or were national interests preventing a concrete agreement? The articles look at the outcomes of the talks.
G20 pledge to avoid currency war gets lukewarm reception Guardian, Phillip Inman and Patrick Wintour (12/11/10)
G20 fails to agree on trade and currencies Financial Times, Chris Giles, Alan Beattie and Christian Oliver (12/11/10)
Main points of the G20 Seoul summit document Reuters (12/11/10)
Factbox: Outcome of the Seoul G20 summit Reuters (12/11/10)
No deal: Seoul’s G20 summit fails to deliver on currencies, trade imbalances The Australian, Laurence Norman and Ian Talley, Dow Jones Newswires (12/11/10)
G20 to tackle US-China currency concerns BBC News (12/11/10)
The expectations game BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (12/11/10)
Obama: Imbalances threaten growth BBC News (12/11/10)
Obama leaves G-20 empty-handed on currency spat msnbc (12/11/10)
The ghost at the feast The Economist, Newsbook blog (12/11/10)
Forget summit failures, look at G20 record Financial Times, Christian Oliver, Chris Giles and Alan Beattie (12/11/10)
Obama warns nations not to rely on exports to US BBC News (13/11/12)
G20 summit distracted by ‘currency wars’ Guardian, Mark Weisbrot (12/11/10)
Current account targets are a way back to the future Financial Times podcasts, Martin Wolf (2/11/10) (Click here for transcript)
Ben Bernanke hits back at Fed critics BBC News (19/11/10)
Why should you care about currency wars? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (9/11/10)
G20 Korea, home page
Korean G20 site
2010 G-20 Seoul summit Wikipedia
- What are the causes of the large trade imbalances in the world?
- What problems arise from large trade imbalances?
- What is meant by beggar-my-neighbour policies?
- Are moves towards freer trade a zero-sum game? Explain.
- Are moves towards protectionism a zero-sum game? Explain.
- Are attempts to get a realignment of currencies a zero-sum game? Explain.
- How successful has the G20 been over the past two or three years?
- Would it be desirable for governments to pursue current account targets?
Recent data on the US economy suggest that it may be heading back towards recession. Confidence is waning as growth slows. US GDP growth figures for the second quarter of 2010 have just been revised downwards: from 2.4% to 1.6%. And although growth is still quite strongly positive, unemployment is not coming down.
Most economists still think that the US economy will avoid a double dip, but many think that it is nevertheless a distinct possibility. For example, economists at Goldman Sachs put the likelihood of a double-dip recession at 25% to 30%, which although less than 50% is still a substantial risk.
Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, told a gathering of bankers and economists in Wyoming on August 27 that the Fed “will do all that it can” to avoid a double dip. According to Bernanke:
In many countries, including the United States and most other advanced industrial nations, growth during the past year has been too slow and joblessness remains too high… Central bankers alone cannot solve the world’s economic problems. That said, monetary policy continues to play a prominent role in promoting the economic recovery and will be the focus of my remarks today.
Bernanke outlined four monetary policy options that could be pursued, the first three of which were real possibilities for the Fed if economic growth did stall.
• The first would be to sell long-term government securities on the open market – a form of open-market operation. This quantitative easing would expand the money supply and should push long-term interest rates down (short-term interest rates are already virtually zero).
• The second would be to reduce interest rates paid to banks on reserves held in the Fed. These are currently around 0.25% and hence the scope for reductions here are very limited
• The third would be to promise to keep short-term interest rates low for a longer period than markets currently expect, thereby assuring markets that borrowing would remain cheap for some considerable time.
• The fourth option, and one not currently contemplated by the Fed, would be to raise the inflation rate target above its current level of 1.5% to 2%.
The first of the following two podcasts, which includes an interview with US Managing Editor of the Financial Times, Gillian Tett, looks at what the Fed might do. Is the solution to expand aggregate demand through monetary policy or are the problems more structural in nature? The other podcasts and the articles look at Bernanke’s proposals and their scope for avoiding a double dip.
‘No magic wand’ for US economy BBC Today Programme, Mark Mardell and Gillian Tett (27/8/10)
Fed Offers Higher Ground In Economic Mudslide NPR, Scott Horsley (28/8/10)
Roubini Interview Excerpt Bloomberg, Nouriel Roubini (27/8/10)
Bernanke Says Fed Will Do `All It Can’ to Ensure U.S. Recovery Bloomberg, Craig Torres and Scott Lanman (27/8/10)
What ammunition does the Fed have left? Reuters (27/8/10)
Fed is prepared to keep U.S. out of recession, Bernanke vows Los Angeles Times, Jim Puzzanghera (28/8/10)
Bernanke soothes rattled markets Telegraph (28/8/10)
Ben Bernanke promises to step in as US economy veers back towards recession Guardian, Katie Allen (27/8/10)
Shoot out at Jackson Hole – the world’s central bankers take aim at deflation Independent, Sean O’Grady (27/8/10)
Treasury Two-Year Yields Increase Most Since April After Bernanke Speech Bloomberg, Cordell Eddings (28/8/10)
Bernanke speech shows effort to find Fed consensus One News Now, Jeannine Aversa (28/8/10)
Analysis: The uncomfortable mathematics of monetary policy Reuters, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa (28/8/10)
Ben Bernanke calls for help to revive the stuttering US economy Guardian, Richard Adams (28/8/10)
Fed stands by to boost US growth Financial Times, Robin Harding, Michael Mackenzie and Alan Rappeport (27/8/10)
Bernanke outlines options for Fed Financial Times, Robin Harding (27/8/10)
The Economic Outlook and Monetary Policy Ben Bernanke (27/8/10)
US Bond Rates Yahoo Finance
US interest rates Federal Reserve Statistical Release
- Why is growth in the US economy slowing?
- Why has the recovery from recession in the USA so far not resulted in a reduction in unemployment?
- What structural problems are there in the US economy?
- What further scope is there for monetary policy in stimulating the US economy?
- What are the arguments for the Fed introducing a new programme of quantitative easing?
- How important are expectations in determining whether the US recovery will be maintained or whether there will be a double-dip recession?
- What impact did Bernanke’s speech have on bond markets and why?
President Obama has proposed a major reform of the US banking system. This follows on from the proposed levy to be imposed on banks’ assets announced a few days ago (see “We want our money back and we’re going to get it”).
There are two elements to the new proposals. The first is to limit the size of banks’ market share. Currently, banks’ deposits are not permitted to exceed 10% of total retail deposits in the USA. This 10% limit would be extended to cover wholesale deposits and other liabilities. The idea is to reduce concentration and increase competition. At present the largest four banks hold over half the total assets of banks in the USA.
The second element involves separating casino banking from retail banking. This would be achieved by barring retail banks from owning or investing in private equity or hedge funds or from engaging in ‘proprietary trading operations’. As the second BBC article below states:
Proprietary trading involves a firm making bets on financial markets with its own money, rather just than carrying out a trade for a client in which only the client’s money is at risk.
This comes close to restoring the Glass-Steagall Act, which was repealed in 1999. The Act, which was passed in 1933 in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street cash and the subsequent Great Depression, separated commercial banking and investment banking. It was designed to prevent customers’ deposits being exposed to the riskier activities of investment banking.
What have been the reactions to President Obama’s announcement? Are these reactions justified? Will the proposals prevent another banking crisis and credit crunch? The following articles explore these questions.
Obama hammers the banks Financial Times, Tom Braithwaite and Francesco Guerrera (22/1/10)
Obama pushes new bank regulation (including video) BBC News (21/1/10)
Q&A: Obama’s bank curbs BBC News, Martin Webber (21/1/10)
Obama announces dramatic crackdown on Wall Street banks (including video) Guardian, Jill Treanor (21/1/10)
Barack Obama bank reforms: Trying to fix a broker society Telegraph, Louise Armitstead and Helia Ebrahimi (23/1/10)
Glass-Steagall lite The Economist (22/1/10)
Obama’s Plan Finally Attacks “Too Big to Fail” The Huffington Post, Neil K. Shenai (21/1/10)
Obama Sizes Handcuffs For Banks Forbes, Liz Moyer (21/1/10)
Obama’s Showdown With Wall Street Forbes, Richard Murphy (22/1/10)
President Obama shows the way Independent (23/1/10)
Wall Street’s $26m lobbyists gear up to fight Obama banks reform The Observer, Andrew Clark (24/1/10)
Obama’s drawn first blood – now it’s the UK’s turn The Observer, Ruth Sunderland (24/1/10)
Gordon Brown to push for ‘Tobin tax’ after Wall Street crackdown Guardian, Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor (22/1/10)
Myners: UK does not need to copy Obama banking reforms Guardian, Andrew Clark, Jill Treanor, Paul Owen (22/1/10)
Debate on London’s banking system The Observer, Will Hutton and Boris Johnson (24/1/10)
What Obama’s bank reforms really mean BBC News blogs, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (22/1/10)
Davos 2010: Central bankers seethe behind closed doors BBC News, Tim Weber (29/1/10)
- What are the arguments for and against separating retail banking from the more risky elements of investment banking?
- Should banks be allowed to fail? Explain your answer and whether it is necessary to distinguish different types of banks.
- Would putting a limit on the market share of banks prevent them from achieving full economies of scale?
- Why did banking shares fall after President Obama’s announcement? Was this a ‘good sign’ or a ‘bad sign’?
- What is meant by the ‘broker-dealer’ function of banks? Explain each of the specific types of broker-dealer function.
- Compare recent UK measures to control banks with those in the USA.
Trade relations between the USA and China have deteriorated recently. There are two key issues: the exchange rate and trade protectionism.
The Chinese currency, the yuan or renmimbi, since 2005 has been officially pegged to a trade-weighted basket of other currencies. In recent months, however, as the dollar has fallen relative to other major currencies, so too has the yuan. It seems as if the peg is with the dollar, not with the basket. From March to December 2009, the exchange rate index of the dollar depreciated by 16 per cent. Yet the exchange rate between the yuan and the dollar hardly changed. In other words, the yuan depreciated along with the dollar against other world currencies, such as the euro, the pound and the yen. The trade advantage that this was giving to the USA with other countries did not apply to China.
Complaints continued that cheap Chinese goods were flooding into the USA, threatening US jobs and undermining US recovery. The Chinese currency was argued to be undervalued relative to its purchasing-power-parity rate. For example, the July 2009 Big Mac index showed the yuan undervalued by 49% against the dollar (see Economics 7e, Box 25.4 for a discussion of the Big Mac index).
The USA, and other countries too, have been putting diplomatic pressure on the Chinese to revalue the yuan and to remove subsidies on their exports. At the same time various protectionist moves have been taken. For example, on December 31 2009 the US International Trade Commission voted to impose tariffs on the $2.8 billion worth of steel-pipe imports from China. The tariffs would be between 10.4% and 15.8%.
The following articles look at these trade and exchange rate issues. Are we heading for a deepening trade war between the USA and China?
Currency contortions The Economist (17/12/09)
Beijing dismisses currency pressure Financial Times, Geoff Dyer (28/12/09)
China aims for 10pc growth and won’t appreciate yuan The Australian (29/12/09)
Wen stands firm on yuan China Daily (28/12/09)
China’s premier says banks should curb lending BusinessWeek, Joe McDonald (27/12/09)
China insists will reform yuan at its own pace Forexyard, Aileen Wang and Simon Rabinovitch (31/12/09)
US slaps new duties on Chinese steel Financial Times, Alan Rappeport (30/12/09)
Chinese Steel Pipes Face Heavy U.S. Duties BusinessWeek, Daniel Whitten (31/12/09)
The US-China Trade War Is Here The Business Insider, Vincent Fernando (10/12/09)
Year dominated by weak dollar Financial Times, Anjli Raval (2/1/10)
- Explain what is meant by the ‘purchasing-power-parity (ppp) exchange rate’.
- Why is the yuan (or ‘renmimbi’) undervalued in ppp terms?
- What are the the implications of an undervalued currency for that country’s current and financial account of the balance of payments?
- What would be the implications of a revaluation of the yuan for (a) China and (b) China’s trading partners?
- Discuss Premier Wen Jiabao’s statement, “The basic stability of the renminbi is conducive to international society”.
- What forms of protectionism have been used by (a) China and (b) China’s trading partners? Who gains and who loses from such protectionism?