Are We at the Start of a Recession?

On Thursday morning, April 28, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its “advance” estimate for the change in real GDP during the first quarter of 2022. As shown in the first line of the following table, somewhat surprisingly, the estimate showed that real GDP had declined by 1.4 percent during the first quarter. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s “GDP Now” forecast had indicated that real GDP would increase by 0.4 percent in the first quarter. Earlier in April, the Wall Street Journal’s panel of academic, business, and financial economists had forecast an increase of 1.2 percent. (A subscription may be required to access the forecast data from the Wall Street Journal’s panel.)

Do the data on real GDP from the first quarter of 2022 mean that U.S. economy may already be in recession? Not necessarily, for several reasons:

First, as we note in the Apply the Concept, “Trying to Hit a Moving Target: Making Policy with ‘Real-Time’ Data,” in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.3 (Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.3): “The GDP data the BEA provides are frequently revised, and the revisions can be large enough that the actual state of the economy can be different for what it at first appears to be.”

Second, even though business writers often define a recession as being at least two consecutive quarters of declining real GDP, the National Bureau of Economic Research has a broader definition: “A recession is a significant decline in activity across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail trade.” Particularly given the volatile movements in real GDP during and after the pandemic, it’s possible that even if real GDP declines during the second quarter of 2022, the NBER might not decide to label the period as being a recession.

Third, and most importantly, there are indications in the underlying data that the U.S. economy performed better during the first quarter of 2022 than the estimate of declining real GDP would indicate. In a blog post in January discussing the BEA’s advance estimate of real GDP during the fourth quarter of 2021, we noted that the majority of the 6.9 percent increase in real GDP that quarter was attributable to inventory accumulation. The earlier table indicates that the same was true during the first quarter of 2022: 60 percent of the decline in real GDP during the quarter was the result of a 0.84 decline in inventory investment.

We don’t know whether the decline in inventories indicates that firms had trouble meeting demand for goods from current inventories or whether they decided to reverse some of the increases in inventories from the previous quarter. With supply chain disruptions continuing as China grapples with another wave of Covid-19, firms may be having difficulty gauging how easily they can replace goods sold from their current inventories. Note the corresponding point that the decline in sales of domestic product (line 2 in the table) was smaller than the decline in real GDP.

The table below shows changes in the components of real GDP. Note the very large decline exports and in purchases of goods and services by the federal government. (Recall from Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.1, the distinction between government purchases of goods and services and total government expenditures, which include transfer payments.) The decline in federal defense spending was particularly large. It seems likely from media reports that the escalation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will lead Congress and President Biden to increase defense spending.

Notice also that increases in the non-government components of aggregate demand remained fairly strong: personal consumption expenditures increased 2.7 percent, gross private domestic investment increased 2.3 percent, and imports surged by 17.7 percent. These data indicate that private demand in the U.S. economy remains strong.

So, should we conclude that the economy will shrug off the decline in real GDP during the first quarter and expand during the remainder of the year? Unfortunately, there are still clouds on the horizon. First, there are the difficult to predict effects of continuing supply chain problems and of the war in Ukraine. Second, the Federal Reserve has begun tightening monetary policy. Whether Fed Chair Jerome Powell will be able to bring about a soft landing, slowing inflation significantly while not causing a large jump in unemployment, remains the great unknown of economic policy. Finally, if high inflation rates persist, households and firms may respond in ways that are difficult to predict and, may, in particular decide to reduce their spending from the current strong levels.

In short, the macroeconomic forecast is cloudy!

Source: The BEA’s web site can be found here.

Glenn on Economic Growth and Its Social Consequences

Adam Smith bronze statue on Royal Mile Market square in front of Saint Gilles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Growth matters. A lot. A slightly higher rate of economic growth, sustained over time, can make the difference between a big increase in living standards and relative stagnation. Whether we can still generate strong and steady growth is a “$64,000 question” for the economy — the question. Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Lucas famously observed that once economists think of long-term growth, it is hard to think of anything else. A pro-growth policy agenda is a good idea because growth is a good idea.

But a deeper question remains: Is public support for growth guaranteed? Oren Cass of American Compass refers to growth and economists’ fealty to economic participation for all as “economic piety.” This critique resonates for a simple reason: Forces that propel growth invariably leave a wake of economic disruption for people in many places and political disruption for the nation. A serious discussion of pro-growth policy must account for that disruption.

A conventional pro-growth policy agenda can be enhanced by support for openness to markets, ideas, and new ways of doing things, and for the ability of firms to adapt to change. Such an enhanced agenda would center on infrastructure broadly defined, development and dissemination of better management practices, and reduced barriers to competition.

Yet the political process, and even many a conservative, is openly skeptical of such an agenda. This skepticism is rooted not in disagreement over the future of scientific advances or of organizational adaptation — but in a concern that growth’s benefits be shared broadly. Addressing this skepticism head-on is essential for rebuilding social support for growth and for countering well-meaning but potentially harmful policies.

The system that needs defending is a mature and successful one. Adam Smith, the great proponent of the “invisible hand” (not the visible hand of a state-directed economy), saw openness and competition as worth the candle. His 1776 publication of The Wealth of Nations came before what we would recognize today as industrial capitalism, though technological change and globalization were features of economic debates in the aftermath of Smith’s ideas.

Smith’s radical insight is central to economic policy today: National prosperity (the “wealth of a nation”) is represented by consumption of goods and services by its people — i.e., their living standards. The goal of the economy in Smith’s telling was to make the economic pie as large as possible. His advocacy of free markets and competition rested on their ability to boost consumption possibilities.

Two centuries later, Nobel laureates Kenneth Arrow and Gérard Debreu added the jargon and mathematics of contemporary economics to formalize Smith’s intuition. While individuals and firms act independently, competitive markets lead to an efficient allocation of resources and a maximized economic pie. Friedrich Hayek, another Nobel laureate, hailed the virtue of a decentralized competitive price system in maximizing economic activity.

Smith’s radicalism draws from his attack on mercantilism—the economic orthodoxy of the day—which stressed a zero-sum view of trade and state intervention to promote and protect certain firms and industries. (Sound familiar?) His second radical insight was that the “nation” did not mean the sovereign and the well-connected. In Smith’s view, individuals as consumers—all people—were kings. Finally, channeling the sympathetic concern espoused in his earlier classic, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith championed mass participation in the productive economy as a precondition for human flourishing.

It is fair to say that Smith lacked a theory of per capita growth in the economy over time; indeed, he wrote before the massive increase in living standards attendant upon the Industrial Revolution. After 1800, per capita income in the United Kingdom — and the United States — witnessed a 30-fold increase. There have also been major improvements in the quality of goods and services that such a statistic doesn’t quite capture. And, of course, many of today’s offerings — from smartphones to computers to air-conditioning — were not available even in 1900, let alone 1800.

That lacuna in Smith’s theory partly reflects technical difficulties in modeling growth. Higher output can come from growth in inputs such as labor and capital, but what determines their growth? Today’s economists highlight population growth and society’s willingness to work, save, and invest. Still more important is growth in productivity, or the efficiency with which inputs are used to produce goods and services.

Smith’s pin-factory example — in which output rose with the specialization of tasks — links how things are done with the level of productivity. But what factors determine productivity growth over time? Today’s economic analysis focuses on technology and the process of generating ideas. Since economic growth is still crucial for people seemingly marginalized by capitalism, it’s worth asking whether the economic foundations expressed in The Wealth of Nations are still relevant today. Where does growth come from now? And do those sources still require openness and competition?

The short answer is that they do, but to see why, we need to focus on the ideas of two prominent economists after 1800: Edmund Phelps and Deirdre Nansen McCloskey.

Phelps, a Nobel laureate, has done much to connect growth to Smith’s foundational ideas. He starts with Smith’s emphasis on a great many individuals (not the state or privileged firms) searching for new and better ways of doing things. This relentless search produces innovative ideas, processes, and goods that drive growth — but only if the political economy allows openness. Smith’s messy, “bottom up” version of the market therefore puts mass innovation at the heart of economic growth. Phelps’s argument reflects how Smithian societies committed to openness are best able to prosper and promote growth.

This argument has two important applications. The first is to debunk the sometimes fashionable view of secular productivity decline — that we have run short of new things to discover and exploit. The second is to give an answer to economies struggling with growth in a period of structural changes from technology and globalization. Slowdowns in innovation are likely not due to scientific barrenness but to walls against openness and change — that is, fears of disruption.

Phelps’s concern with economic dynamism draws him to Smith’s arguments against mercantilist tinkering in the economy. Like Smith, he worries about the hidden costs of tinkering with competition by blocking change from the outside and by enabling rent-seeking on the inside. These “corporatist” policies — fashionable among some conservatives at present — inevitably embolden vested interests and cronyism, slowing change and growth. Even seemingly small interventions can subtly diminish innovation, a point to which I’ll return.

Yet such a critique must acknowledge the political consequences of disruption. Dynamism is messy. It creates growth in the aggregate, but with many individual losers as well as individual gainers.

McCloskey, an economic historian, has similarly identified the continuous, large-scale, voluntary, and unfocused search for betterment as the source of new ideas that can produce economic growth. She sees this “innovism” as primarily a cultural force, preferring the term to the more familiar “capitalism,” and connects innovism to economic liberalism. Echoing Smith, she emphasizes how an open economy allows individuals—from the moderately to the spectacularly talented—to “have a go.” This economic liberalism allows competition to enshrine liberty and mass flourishing.

In McCloskey’s telling, growth depends on a liberal tolerance and openness to change, which encourage many people to be alert to opportunity. Sustaining that tolerance as structural shifts bring economic misfortune to many individuals, however, requires more than devotion to Smith.

Therein lies the current economic-policy rub. Economists’ theories of growth bring to mind a coin: Sunny descriptions of growth and dynamism are “heads,” and hand-wringing over disruption is “tails.” As I observed earlier, growth is messy. It can push some individuals, firms, and even industries off well-worn and comfortable paths.

But Smith offers more in defense of growth than paeans to laissez-faire. Though he is sometimes caricatured as being anti-government in all cases, Smith was principally opposed to mercantilist privileges for specific businesses and industries and to the governmentalization of social affairs. He wanted government to provide what economists today call “public goods,” such as national defense, the criminal-justice system, and enforcement of property rights and contracts the institutional underpinnings of commerce and trade. He also favored support for infrastructure to keep commerce flowing freely.

But Smith went further: To prepare workers and enrich their lives, he called for government to provide universal education, and he drew a connection between education and liberty as well as work in a free society. But boosting participation in today’s economy—participation that provides support for growth—will require a bit more.

Not surprisingly, political reaction to economic disruption brings about — pardon the econ-speak—a “demand” for and “supply” of policy actions. Job losses, firm failures, and diminished industry fortunes bring about a demand for help, for adaptation. The political process responds with a supply of ideas in one of two forms: walls or bridges. Walls are protections against disruption or change. Bridges, ways to get somewhere or back, prepare individuals for the changed economy and help those whose economic participation has been disrupted reenter the workforce.

Proposals for walls are familiar. They can be physical, of course, but they needn’t be. Conservative populists advocate limits on trade and technology, in order to advance industrial policy. Some progressives advocate universal basic income. All these policies would diminish the prospects for economic advances.

The most prominent sort of wall today is what I call “modern corporatism.” It assumes that Smith was wrong: The “wealth of a nation” lies not in consumption or living standards (and so ultimately in growth) but in jobs, good jobs, even particular good jobs, with good manufacturing jobs the very paradigm. The sort of tinkering with the market that drew Smith’s ire may actually be a necessary way of recentering economic policy on jobs, so the theory goes. Opportunities for work, and for the dignity it can bring, are surely important.

A gentle industrial policy devised by social scientists who are worried about jobs is not the answer. It results in state tinkering for special interests, precisely the kind of thing that prompted Smith’s criticism of mercantilism. Moreover, as University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales argues in A Capitalism for the People, it risks a vicious cycle: A little bit of tinkering becomes a lot of tinkering—and anyone who cannot justify special privileges is left out, calling into question social support for growth. Nevertheless, industrial policy has caught the attention of elected officials on the right, from Donald Trump to Josh Hawley to Marco Rubio. While national security and the border can be exceptions as concerns, advice from Milton Friedman to the party of Ronald Reagan this is not.

That said, economists’ invocation of Smith as a proponent of let-’er-rip laissez-faire is neither faithful to Smith nor particularly helpful to individuals and communities buffeted by disruption. With today’s rapid and long-lasting technological change and globalization, “having a go” requires support for acquiring new skills when they are needed.

That is why we need more bridges. Bridges take us somewhere and bring us back. The journey to somewhere is about preparation for new opportunities. The journey back is about reconnecting to the productive economy when economic forces beyond our control have knocked us away.

Economic bridges have three features. The first is that they help people overcome a specific challenge on their way to economic flourishing — they don’t provide that outcome directly. The second is that wider society builds the bridge, through private organizations, governments, or public–private partnerships, as globalization and technological change have introduced significant risks that individuals by themselves cannot avoid. The third feature is that they avoid restraints on openness to changes in markets and ideas.

We once did better, much better. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln worked with Congress to pass the Morrill Act, directing resources to the development of land-grant colleges around the country, extending higher education to citizens of modest means, and enabling workers to develop skills for new industries, particularly in manufacturing. As World War II drew to a close, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress came together to enact the G.I. Bill, helping to educate returning troops for a changing economy.

Supporting economic growth and undergirding broad participation in the economy require similarly bold ideas. To begin, community colleges are the logical workhorses of skill development and retraining, and their presence in regional economies makes them attractive partners for employers. Yet community colleges have seen their state-level public support wither. The Biden administration calls for free tuition, which would boost demand but provide no support for community college to offer a practical education and an emphasis on completion. Amy Ganz, Austan Goolsbee, Melissa Kearney, and I proposed an alternative approach based on the land-grant-college model. We proposed a supply-side program of federal grants to strengthen community colleges — contingent on improved degree-completion rates and labor-market outcomes. To further encourage training, the federal government could offer a tax credit to compensate firms for the risk of losing trained workers. It could also increase the earned-income tax credit for workers with or without children.

New ideas are also needed to promote workers’ reentry into the workforce. Personal reemployment accounts, for example, would support dislocated workers and offer them a reemployment bonus if they found a new job within a certain period of time. The “personal” refers to individuals’ choosing from a range of training and support services. Another idea is to beef up support for place-based assistance to areas with stubbornly high rates of long-term nonemployment. Such support could be integrated with an increase in the earned-income tax credit and the supply-side investment in community colleges. Building on the decentralized approach in the land-grant colleges and grants to community colleges, expanded place-based aid would be delivered via flexible block grants encouraging business and employment.

Broad public support required for growth and dynamism requires both bridge-building and a political language that frames it. Growth, opportunity, and participation are good, and we do not need a new economics. But phrases like “transition cost” and “inevitable economic forces” must give way to bridges of preparation and reconnection.

‘Why did nobody see it coming?” a quizzical Queen of England questioned a quorum of economists at the London School of Economics about the global financial crisis as it emerged in late 2008. How could major disruptive forces build up over time and yet escape the attention of experts and leaders?

Of the disruptive structural changes accompanying economic dynamism, one might ask a similar question. Growth matters. But that growth is one side of a coin whose flip side is disruption is known, certainly to economists. Why has our political discourse not emphasized this basic point?

Why did we not see fatigue with change coming among the people who most had to bear its ill effects?

However foolishly, we did not. Some so-called conservatives today have responded by saying that we should limit change. Surely a better response is that we should seek ever more growth by allowing unfettered change, but also facilitate the establishing of ever more connections in a growing economy. That classical-liberal answer has the better place in American conservatism — and in American economic life.

— This essay is sponsored by National Review Institute. Originally published here.

Hoover Institution Podcast with Lawrence Summers and John Cochrane

Lawrence Summers (Photo from harvardmagazine.com.)
John Cochrane (Photo from hoover.org.)

In several of our blog posts and podcasts, we’ve discussed Lawrence Summers’s forecasts of inflation. Beginning in February 2021, Summers, an economist at Harvard who served as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, argued that the United States was likely to experience rates of inflation that would be higher and persist longer than Federal Reserve policymakers were forecasting. In March 2021, the members of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee had an average forecast of inflation of 2.4 percent in 2021, falling to 2.0 percent in 2022. (The FOMC projections can be found here.)

In fact, inflation measured by the CPI has been above 5 percent every month since June 2021; the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation—the percentage change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures—has been above 5 percent every month since October 2021. Summers’s forecasts of inflation have turned out to be more accurate than those of the members of the Federal Open Committee. 

In this podcast, Summers discusses his analysis of inflation with four scholars from the Hoover Institution, including economist John Cochrane. Summers explains why he came to believe in early 2021 that inflation was likely to be much higher than generally expected, how long he believes high rates of inflation will persist, and whether the Fed is likely to be able to achieve a soft landing by bringing inflation back to its 2 percent target without causing a recession. The first half of the podcast, in particular, should be understandable to students who have completed the monetary and fiscal policy chapters (Macroeconomics, Chapters 15 and 16; Economics, Chapters 25 and 26).  Background useful for understanding the podcast discussion of monetary policy during the 1970s can be found in Chapter 17, Sections 17.2 and 17.3.

Glenn’s Opinion Column on the Economics of an Increase in Defense Spending

Graphic from the Wall Street Journal.

Glenn published the following opinion column in the Wall Street Journal. Link here and full text below.

NATO Needs More Guns and Less Butter

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has challenged Western assumptions about security, economics and the postwar world order. In Europe and the U.S., public finances have long favored social spending over public goods such as defense. While President Biden doubled down on his proposal to increase social spending during his State of the Union address, Russia’s aggression highlights the shortcomings of this model. Western democracies now face a more uncertain and dangerous world than they did two weeks ago. Navigating it will require significantly higher levels of defense and security spending.

But change will be difficult, and the magnitude of what needs to be done is sobering. The U.S. currently spends 3.2% of gross domestic product on defense—roughly half of Cold War spending levels relative to GDP. An increase in spending of even 1% of GDP would amount to about $210 billion. That’s about 5% of the total federal spending level using a 2019 pre-Covid baseline. While Covid spending was large, it was transitory. Defense outlays would be much longer-lasting, an insurance premium or transaction cost for dealing with a more dangerous world.

The U.S. is not alone. Germany’s announcement of €100 billion in additional defense spending this year represents an increase of just over 0.25% of GDP, leaving Berlin still under the 2% commitment agreed to by North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies. Increasing Europe’s defense spending merely to the agreed-on level would require significant outlays. Such spending increases would occur against the backdrop of elevated public debt relative to GDP, brought on in part by heightened borrowing during the Covid pandemic and the earlier global financial crisis. High levels of public debt make it unlikely that countries will want to pay to increase their defense spending with new borrowing.

Paying for higher levels of defense spending will force most governments either to raise taxes or cut spending. Tax increases raise risks to growth. The larger non-U.S. NATO economies are already taxed to the hilt. Tax revenue relative to the size of the economy in France (45%), Germany (38%), Canada (34%) and the U.K. (32%) doesn’t leave much room to tax more without depressing economic activity. The U.S. has a lower tax share of GDP—about 17.5% at the federal level and 25.5% in total—but its patchwork quilt of income and payroll taxes makes tax increases more costly by distorting household and business decisions about consumption and investment.

A significant tax increase in the U.S. would need to be accompanied by fundamental tax reform, dialing back income taxes (as with the 2017 reduction in corporate tax rates) and increasing reliance on consumption taxes. A broad-based consumption tax could be implemented by imposing a tax at the business level on revenue minus purchases from other firms (a “subtraction method” value-added tax). Alternatively, the tax system could impose a broad-based wage and business cash-flow tax, with a progressive wage surtax on high earners. These consumption-tax alternatives would be efficient and equitable in a revenue-neutral tax reform. And they are crucial in avoiding decreases in savings, investment and entrepreneurship that accompany a tax increase.

Since the 1960s, spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid has come to dominate the federal budget. Outlays for these programs have almost doubled since then as a share of GDP to 10.2% today, and the Congressional Budget Office projects they will consume about another 5% of GDP annually by 2040. Spending offsets to accommodate higher defense spending would surely require slowing the growth in social-insurance spending. As with tax increases, there are trade-offs. It is possible to slow the growth of this spending while preserving access to such support for lower-income Americans. Accomplishing that will require focusing net taxpayer subsidies on lower-income Americans, along with undertaking market-oriented health reforms. Such changes require serious attention.

The U.S. and its NATO allies will face a challenging set of economic trade-offs and political realities in achieving higher defense spending. The challenge will be exacerbated by additional private investment needs in a more dangerous world of investment risks, skepticism about globalization, and cybersecurity threats. 

In the U.S., the failure of the 2010 Simpson-Bowles Commission’s proposed spending and tax reforms to spark a serious discussion is a warning sign. So, too, is the antipathy of Democratic and Republican officials alike toward creating the fiscal space necessary to accommodate greater defense spending. Such challenges don’t cause threats to vanish. They require leadership—now.

The Controversy over Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

On Sunday, February 6, the New York Times ran an article on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) on the front page of its business section with the title, “Time for a Victory Lap.” Link here, subscription may be required. (Note: The title of the article was later changed on the nytimes.com site to “Is This What Winning Looks Like?” perhaps because of the controversy linked to below.)

The article led to a controversy on Twitter (but, then, what topic doesn’t lead to a controversy on Twitter?). Social media is, obviously, not always the best place to discuss economic theory and policy, but instructors and students interested in the debate may find the following links useful both because of the substantive issues raised and as an example of how debates over economic policy can sometimes become heated.

Harvard economist Lawrence Summers reacts negatively to the content of the New York Times article (and to MMT) here.

Economics blogger Noah Smith also reacts negatively to the article here. Smith’s blog post discussing the article at length is here, subscription may be required.

Former Fed economist Claudia Sahm defends the article (and MMT) here.

Jeanna Smialek, the author of the New York Times article, reacts to critics of the article here and to Noah Smith’s blog post here. Smith responds to her response here.

Jason Furman of Harvard’s Kennedy School provides a brief discussion of whether MMT has had much influence on monetary policy here

We discuss MMT in the Apply the Concept, “Modern Monetary Theory: Should We Stop Worrying and Love the Debt?” in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.6 and in Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.6.

The National Debt Just Hit $30 Trillion. Who Owns It?

On February 1, 2022, a headline in the Wall Street Journal noted that: “U.S. National Debt Exceeds $30 Trillion for the First Time.” The national debt—or, more formally, the federal government debt—is the value of all U.S. Treasury securities outstanding. Treasury securities include Treasury bills, which mature in one year or less; Treasury notes, which mature between 2 years and 10 years; Treasury bonds, which mature in 30 years; U.S. savings bonds purchased by individual investors; and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), which, unlike other Treasury securities, have their principal amounts adjusted every six months to reflect changes in the consumer price index (CPI).  

With a value of $30 trillion, the federal government debt in early February is about 120 percent of GDP, a record that exceeds the ratio of government debt to GDP during World War II. In 2007, at the beginning of the Great Recession of 2007–2009, the ratio of government debt to GDP was only 35 percent. (We discuss the federal government debt in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.6 and in Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.6.)

There are many important economic issues involved with the federal government debt, but in this blog post we’ll focus just on the question of who owns the debt.

The pie chart below shows the shares of the debt held by different groups. The largest slice shown is for “intragovernmental holdings,” which represent ownership of Treasury securities by government trust funds, notably the Social Security trust funds. The Social Security system makes payments to retired or disabled workers. The system operates on a pay-as-you-go basis, which means that the payroll taxes collected from today’s workers are used to make payments to retired workers. Because of slowing population growth, Congress authorized an increase in payroll taxes above the level necessary to make current payments. The Social Security system has invested the surplus in special Treasury securities that the Treasury redeems when the funds are necessary to make payments to retired workers. (In the Apply the Concept “Is Spending on Social Security and Medicare a Fiscal Time Bomb?” in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.1, we discuss the long-term funding problems of the Social Security and Medicare systems.)

Some economists argue that the value of these Treasury securities should not be counted as part of the federal government debt because the securities are not marketable in the way that Treasury bills, notes, and bonds are and because the securities represent a flow of funds from one federal agency to another federal agency. If we exclude the value of these securities, the national debt on February 1, 2022 was $23.5 trillion rather than $30.0 trillion. 

The Federal Reserve System holds about 19 percent of federal government debt. The Fed buys and sells Treasury securities as part of its normal conduct of monetary policy. In addition, the Fed accumulated large holdings of Treasury securities as part of its quantitative easing operations during and following the 2007–2009 financial crisis and from 2020 to 2022 during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. (We discuss quantitative easing in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.3.)

About 27 percent of the debt is held by foreign central banks, foreign commercial banks, and foreign investors. The largest amount of Treasury debt is held by Japan, followed by China and the United Kingdom. All other countries combined hold about 16 percent of the debt.

U.S. commercial banks hold more than 15 percent of the debt. Banks hold Treasury securities partly because since the 2007–2009 financial crisis most interest rates, including those on loans and on corporate and municipal bonds, have been very low compared with historic averages. The interest rates on these assets are in some cases too low to compensate banks for the risk of owning the assets rather than default-risk free Treasury securities. In addition, large banks are required to meet a liquidity coverage ratio, which means that they have to hold sufficient liquid assets—those that can be easily converted into cash—to meet their need for funds in a financial crisis. Many banks meet their liquidity requirements, in part, by owning Treasury securities. 

The remaining Treasury securities—about 16.5 percent of the total federal government debt—are held by the U.S. nonbank public. The nonbank public includes financial firms—such as investment banks, insurance companies, and mutual funds—as well as individual investors.

Sources: Amara Omeokwe, “U.S. National Debt Exceeds $30 Trillion for First Time,” Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2022; “Debt to the Penny,” fiscaldata.treasury.gov; “Major Foreign Holders of Treasury Securities,” ticdata.treasury.gov; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

New 1/25/22 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss inflation, inflation, inflation.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they talk about the leading economic issue of early 2022 – inflation! They discuss the resurgence of inflation to levels not seen in 40 years due to a combination of miscalculations in monetary and fiscal policy. The role of Quantitative Easing (QE) – and its future – is discussed in depth. Listen today to gain insights into the economic landscape.

Glenn’s New Book Was Published Today

Link to Yale University Press’s website.

Link to Amazon page.

Link to availability at local independent bookstores in your area.

The Case of the Missing Highways

In November 2021, Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed the trillion dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, often referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIF). The bill included funds for:

  • Highways and bridges
  • Buses, subways, and other mass transit systems
  • Amtrak, the federally sponsored corporation that provides most intercity railroad service in the United States, to modernize and expand its service
  • A network of charging stations for electric cars
  • Maintenance and modernization of ports and airports
  • Securing infrastructure against cyberattacks and climate change
  • Increasing access to clean drinking water
  • Expansion of broadband internet, particularly in rural areas
  • Treating soil and groundwater pollution

As with other infrastructure bills, although the federal government provides funding, much of the actual work—and some of the funding—is the responsibility of state and local governments. For instance, nearly all highway construction in the United States is carried out by state highway or transportation departments. These state government agencies design new highways and bridges and contract primarily with private construction firms to do the work.

Because state and local governments carry out most highway and bridge construction, Congress doesn’t always achieve the results they intended when providing the funding.  Bill Dupor, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, has discovered a striking example of this outcome. In 2009, in response to the Great Recession of 2007–2009, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). (We discuss the ARRA in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.5 and Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.5.) Included in the act was $27.5 billion in new spending on highways. This amount represented a 76 percent increase on previous levels of  federal spending on highways. As Dupor puts it, Congress and the president had “great hopes for the potential of these new grants to create and save construction jobs as well as improve highways.”

Surprisingly, though, Dupor’s analysis of data on the condition of bridges, on miles of highways constructed, and on the number of workers employed in highway construction shows that the billions of dollars Congress directed to infrastructure spending under ARRA had little effect on the nation’s highways and bridges and did not increase employment on highway construction.

What happened to the $27.5 billion Congress had appropriated? Dupor concludes that after receiving the federal funds most state governments:”cut their own contributions to highway capital spending which, in turn, … [freed] up those funds for other uses. Since states were facing budget stress from declining tax revenues resulting from the recession, it stands to reason that states had the incentive to do so.”

He finds that following passage of ARRA many states cut their spending on highway infrastructure while at the same time increasing their spending on other things. For instance, Maryland cut its spending on highways by $73 per person while increasing its spending on education by $129 per person. 

Can we conclude that that Congressional infrastructure spending under ARRA was a failure and the funds were wasted? To answer this question, first keep in mind that when it authorizes an increase in infrastructure spending, Congress often has two goals in mind:

  1. To maintain and expand the country’s infrastructure
  2. To engage in countercyclical fiscal policy

The first goal is obvious but the second can be important as well. Typically, Congress is most likely to authorize a large increase in infrastructure spending during a recession. When the ARRA was passed in the spring of 2009, Congress and President Obama were clear that they hoped that the increased spending authorized in the bill would reduce unemployment from the very high levels at that time.  (Economists and policymakers debated whether additional countercyclical fiscal policy was needed at the time Congress passed the BIF in late 2021. Although the Biden administration argued that the spending was needed to increase employment, some economists argued that the BIF did little to deal with the supply problems then plaguing the economy.)

We discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.2 (Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.2), how expansionary fiscal policy can increase real GDP and employment during a recession. If Dupor’s analysis is correct, Congress failed to achieve its first goal of improving the country’s infrastructure. But Dupor’s findings that states, in effect, used the federal infrastructure funds for other types of spending, such as on education, means that Congress did meet its second goal. That conclusion holds if in the absence of receiving the $27.5 billion in funds from ARRA, state governments would have had to cut their spending elsewhere, which would have reduced overall government expenditures and reduced aggregate demand. 

As this discussion indicates, the details of how fiscal policy affects the economy can be complex. 

Sources: Gabriel T. Rubin and Eliza Collins, “What’s in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill? From Amtrak to Roads to Water Systems,” wsj.com, November 6, 2021; Bill Dupor, “So Why Didn’t the 2009 Recovery Act Improve the Nation’s Highways and Bridges?” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, Vol. 99, No. 2, Second Quarter 2017, pp. 169-182; Greg Ip, “President Biden’s Economic Agenda Wasn’t Designed for Shortages and Inflation,” wsj.com, November 10, 2021; and Executive Office of the President, “Updated Fact Sheet: Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” whitehouse.gov, August 2, 2021. 

Is the U.S. Economy Heading “Back to the ‘60s”?

A recent publication by economists Regis Barnichon, Luiz E. Oliveira, and Adam H. Shapiro at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco asks that provocative question. “The ‘60s” is a reference to the events that led to the U.S. economy experiencing more than 10 years of high inflation rates. Below is a graph similar to Chapter 15, Figure 15.1 in Macroeconomics (Economics, Chapter 25, Figure 25.1) that shows the inflation rate in the United States as measured by the percentage change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for each year since 1952. Economists call the years from 1968 though 1982 the “Great Inflation” because inflation was greater during that period than during any other period in the history of the United States.

As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 17, Section 17.2 (Economics, Chapter 27, Section 27.2), many economists believe that the Great Inflation began as a result of the Federal Reserve attempting to keep the unemployment rate below the natural rate of unemployment for a period of several years. As predicted by the Phillips Curve, the inflation rate increased and, as Milton Friedman and Edmund Phelps had argued would likely happen, the expected inflation rate eventually increased. The inflation was made worse during the 1970s by two supply shocks resulting from sharp increases in oil prices.

Is the United States on the edge of repeating the experience of the Great Inflation? Earlier this year, Olivier Blanchard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics wrote a paper arguing that the U.S. economy was at significant risk of experiencing a significant acceleration in inflation. His paper included a figure similar to the one below showing the combinations of inflation and unemployment during each year of the 1960s. The figure shows a substantial acceleration in inflation over the course of the decade.

Blanchard notes that: 

“The history of the Phillips curve is one of shifts, largely due to the adjustment of expectations of inflation to actual inflation. True, expectations have [currently] been extremely sticky for a long time, apparently not reacting to movements in actual inflation. But, with such overheating, expectations might well deanchor. If they do, the increase in inflation could be much stronger.” 

….

“If inflation were to take off, there would be two scenarios: one in which the Fed would let inflation increase, perhaps substantially, and another—more likely—in which the Fed would tighten monetary policy, perhaps again substantially. Neither of these two scenarios is ideal. In the first, inflation expectations would likely become deanchored, cancelling one of the major accomplishments of monetary policy in the last 20 years and making monetary policy more difficult to use in the future. In the second, the increase in interest rates might have to be very large, leading to problems in financial markets.”

The authors of the San Francisco Fed publication are more optimistic. They begin their discussion by observing that because of the pandemic, the state of the labor market is more difficult to assess than in most years. They note that the unemployment rate of 4.8 percent in September 2021 was only slightly below the average unemployment rate over the past 30 years and well above the low unemployment rates of 2019 and early 2021. So, on the basis of the unemployment rate, policymakers at the Fed and in Congress might conclude that the inflation the U.S. economy is experiencing is not the result of overly tight labor markets such as those of the late 1960s. But the job openings rate(sometimes called the vacancy rate) is telling a different story. Job openings are positions that are both available to be filled within the next 30 days and for which firms are actively recruiting applicants from outside the firm. (According to the BLS: “The job openings rate is computed by dividing the number of job openings by the sum of employment and job openings and multiplying that quotient by 100.”)

The authors of the San Francisco Fed study note that “the vacancy rate is well above its 30-year average … and has surpassed its historic highs from the late 1960s … indicating that employers are having a difficult time filling positions. Confirming this high vacancy rate, the fraction of small businesses reporting that job openings are hard to fill is at historic highs ….” The figures below show the vacancy rate and the unemployment rate since January 2016.

The authors combine the unemployment rate and the vacancy rate into a statistic—the vacancy-to-unemployment ratio—that they demonstrate has historically done a better job of explaining movements in inflation than has the unemployment rate.  They expect that expansionary fiscal policy will result in an increase in vacancy-to-unemployment ratio and, therefore, an increase in the inflation rate. But they share the view of Blanchard and many other economists that a key issue is “the stability of longer-run inflation expectations.” 

We know that in the 1960s, several years of rising inflation made long-run inflation expectations unstable—in terms of the discussion in Chapter 17, the short-run Phillips curve shifted up. We don’t yet know what will happen to inflation expectations in late 2021 and in 2022, so we can’t yet tell how persistent current rates of inflation will be. 

Sources: Regis Barnichon, Luiz E. Oliveira, and Adam H. Shapiro, “Is the American Rescue Plan Taking Us Back to the ’60s?,” FRBSF Economic Letter, No. 2021-27, October 18, 2021; Olivier Blanchard, “In Defense of Concerns over the $1.9 Trillion relief Plan,” piie.com, February 18, 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.