Monday, October 25, 2010

Filling the Gap

What do you do when you find out that the house that you live in is not worth as much as you thought? Or you realize your salary will not increase at the speed you anticipated? Or you simply realize that your debt levels are higher than what you had assumed? The recipe is likely to be a combination of reducing spending and coming out with some good ideas to increase your income.

Many advanced economies face a situation of excessive debt (public, private or both) that resembles one of the examples above. As a result, we talk about the need for fiscal adjustment, deleveraging in the private sector, increased saving, etc. But all these adjustments are required at a time when the economy is suffering from the consequences of a very deep recession. While those adjustments are necessary, they can have negative consequences on the economy (i.e. lower growth) which will make the adjustment more painful. As an example, it might be necessary to lower the consumption to income ratio, but the pain that the consumers will feel depends on what happens to the denominator (income); it is easier to reduce the consumption to income ratio when income is growing than when income is stagnant or even decreasing.

I do not think that many disagree with this logic but there are two aspects where I find some confusion in the discussion: they are about the speed (how fast to go?) and timing (when to start?) of the adjustment.

On the speed of adjustment, we read many times the argument that the adjustment needs to be fast. We hear, for example, the need for ambitious targets for government debt reduction or how we have to ensure that households’ or companies’ balance sheets become healthy as soon as possible. There are some merits to these arguments. Governments need to show commitment to sustainability and consumers or companies need to be in a financial position to be able to do business as usual. But there is also an argument that says that we need to go slowly. The argument comes from what economists call “consumption smoothing” that refers to the principle that most individuals prefer a stable consumption pattern to a volatile one. If you win the lottery, it makes sense to spread the new income across many years. If, on the contrary, you realize that your wealth is smaller than what you thought, it also makes sense to spread the pain over many years. This logic applies to individuals as well as to governments, as discussed in our previous blog entry.

The second issue is timing. How to you achieve the necessary adjustment without hurting growth and income? Here the analogy of an individual fails to capture the complexity of this issue for a whole economy. As an individual I can reduce my consumption as much as I want without affecting my income. As a country, this is not true, as my consumption is linked to somebody else’s income. Of course, there is the rest of the world and a country could potentially reduce its consumption if the rest of the world replaced the demand for the locally produced goods but this is unlikely. This issue of timing is even more important in the current environment because we just went through a very deep recession. Should the adjustment towards reduced spending start now? When should governments start reducing budget deficits? The answer depends on our assessment of the output gap (the difference between potential and actual output). While there might be some questions about the size of the output gap, there is no doubt that it is significant. If this is the case, even if our main objective is to bring the necessary adjustment to the economy by reducing spending the best way to do this is by reducing the output gap first.

Many times, reducing the output gap is portrayed as getting out of the crisis by spending more (which some see as a contradiction because excessive spending is seen as the cause of the crisis). This is not correct, reducing the output gap requires both spending and production. It is about ensuring that the economy produces as much as it can, generates the maximum (potential) amount of income so that the adjustment towards lower spending is done in the least painful manner.

Discussions on the size of the output gap are always subject to uncertainty and today we witness a debate about the extent to which structural issues, not just cyclical, are behind the current low level of output in advanced economies. I am willing to admit that we need a combination of policies to reduce the output gap and some might be seen as “supply-side” policies. But it is difficult to believe that a large and quick adjustment towards a path of lower spending will bring the economy closer towards potential in the short term; it is likely to make matters worse. And whether excess spending is responsible for the crisis we just went through is irrelevant. Regardless of how we got here, we need to figure out a way to reduce the output gap by ensuring that the level of income, spending, production are all as close as possible to potential and this means more of all of them, not less.

Antonio Fatás