Fiscal policy is 'out of control.' So what?

Harvard professor and economist Kenneth Rogoff speaks at a conference in Denmark in this October 2009 file photo. He recently called global fiscal policy "out of control."

Ken Rogoff, a Harvard professor, and one of the few economists who can claim to be prescient (this January 2008 NBER paper with Carmen Reinhart anticipated the economic fallout from the financial crisis in the U.S.), now warns that fiscal policy is out of control ... here, there, and everywhere.

Speaking in Tokyo, he actually used the phrase "out of control" to describe Japanese fiscal policy (debt to GDP is over 200% there), but also focused on Greece, the EU, and the U.S. The difficulty to curb fiscal stimulus during a recession means that monetary policy is likely to tighten first, and last week's Fed announcement pretty much fits in exactly with the Rogoff prediction. Actually, the political economy of fiscal versus monetary policy is something taught in economics classrooms for decades. Rogoff now predicts:

The U.S. is likely to tighten monetary policy before cutting government spending, sending “shockwaves” through financial markets, Rogoff said in an interview after the speech. Fiscal policy won’t be curbed until soaring bond yields trigger “very painful” tax increases and spending cuts, he said....

“Most countries have reached a point where it would be much wiser to phase out fiscal stimulus,” said Rogoff, who co- wrote a history of financial crises published in 2009. It would be better “to keep monetary policy soft and start gradually tightening fiscal policy even if it meant some inflation.”

It's interesting to note the 2008 NBER paper said:

A critical question is whether the U.S. crisis will prove similar to the most severe industrialized-country crises, in which case growth may fall significantly below trend for an extended period. Or will it prove like one of the milder episodes, where the recovery is relatively fast? Much will depend on how large the shock to the financial system proves to be and, to a lesser extent, on the efficacy of the subsequent policy response. (emphasis added)

What are the consequences?

The first consequence is that the U.S. recovery will be more difficult than it needs to be, followed by a systemic shock. It is impossible to anticipate what the U.S. economy will look or feel like in 2020 after that shock occurs.

The second consequence is global. For growth optimists like Dane, Bob, and me (and our readers, right?), it is very difficult to reconcile the gloomy short-term outlook with all of the historical evidence showing long-term acceleration in economic growth. (I'm reminded of the TED talk Alex Tabarrok gave a year ago). The reconciliation is, of course, growth is heterogenous among countries, states, and cities (people, too, for that matter). Japan and Greece seem determined if not destined to be fiscal train wrecks. America seems to be falling into the same trap, and not just because of next year's projected deficit, but because of the inability to institutionally even think about entitlement realities. So, yes, growth will happen, but it won't surge in nations with fiscal hangovers. Growth leadership starts with fiscal restraint, so we can look at this list of public debt by country to see who has the advantage. Names that stick out: China, Russia, Estonia, Chile, Australia, among others.

Does America eally want to pass the baton of global leadership? Of course not. Such batons are never passed. They're dropped.

UPDATE: Jim Hamilton makes the case that the Fed discount rate increase is not a signal of tighter monetary policy. I don't disagree, per above, but I doubt Jim would disagree with the claim that monetary policy is much more likely to tighten before fiscal policy (I give 50-1 odds). And I can guarantee that Jim would prefer to see real fiscal discipline, because he's been writing about that for years.

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