Brad Setser

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Using Fiscal Policy to Drive Trade Rebalancing Turns Out To Be Hard

by Brad Setser

The idea behind “fiscally-driven external rebalancing” is straightforward.

If countries with external (e.g. trade) surpluses run expansionary fiscal policies, they will raise their own level of demand and increase their imports. More expansionary fiscal policies would generally lead to tighter monetary policies, which also would raise the value of their currencies. And if countries with external (trade) deficits run tighter fiscal policy, they will restrain their own demand growth and thus limit imports. Firms in the countries with tighter fiscal policies and less demand will start to look to export to countries with looser fiscal policies and more demand.

This logic fits well with IMF orthodoxy: the IMF generally finds that fiscal policy has a significant impact on the external balance, unlike trade policy.*

But it often encounters opposition, as it implies that the fiscal policy that is right for one country can be wrong for another. Many Germans, for example, think they need to run fiscal surpluses to set a good example for their neighbors. Yet the logic of using fiscal policy to drive external trade adjustment runs in the opposite direction. To bring its trade surplus down, Germany would need to run a looser fiscal policy. The positive impact of such policies on demand in Germany (and other the surplus countries) would spillover to the global economy and allow countries with external deficits to tighten their fiscal policies without creating a broader shortfall of demand that slows growth.

So one implication of using fiscal policy to drive trade rebalancing is that there is no single fiscal policy target (or fiscal policy direction) that works for all countries. Budget balance for example isn’t always the right goal of national fiscal policy. Some countries need to run fiscal deficits to help bring their external surpluses down.

That idea certainly encounters resistance. And as practical matter, the IMF’s latest estimates show that Europe hasn’t used fiscal policy to help facilitate its own internal adjustment.**

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The Story in TIC Data Is That There Is Still No (New) Story

by Brad Setser

The basic constellation in the post-BoJ QQE, post-ECB QE world marked by large surpluses in Asia and Europe but not the oil-exporters has continued.

Inflows from abroad have come into the U.S. corporate debt market—and foreigners have fallen back in love with U.S. Agencies. Bigly. Foreign purchases of Agencies are back at their 05-06 levels in dollar terms (as a share of GDP, they are a bit lower).

And Americans are selling foreign bonds and bringing the proceeds home. The TIC data doesn’t tell us what happens once the funds are repatriated.

Foreign official accounts (cough, China and Saudi Arabia, judging from the size of the fall in their reserves) have been big sellers of Treasuries over the last two years. As one would expect in a world where emerging market reserves are falling (the IMF alas has stopped breaking out emerging market and advanced economy reserves in the COFER data, but believe me! China’s reserves are down a trillion, Saudi reserves are down $200 billion, that drives the overall numbers). But the scale of their selling seems to be slowing. As one would expect given the stabilization of China’s currency, and the fall off in the pace of China’s reserve sales.

Broadly speaking, I think the TIC data of the last fifteen years tells three basic stories—I am focusing on the debt side, in large part because there isn’t any story in net portfolio equity flows since the end of the .com era. The U.S. current account deficits of the last fifteen years have been debt financed.

The first is the period marked by large inflows into Treasuries, Agencies, and U.S. corporate bonds: broadly from 2002 to 2007. It turns out—and you need to use the annual surveys to confirm this—that all the inflows into Treasuries and Agencies were from foreign central banks. The inflow into U.S. corporate bonds then was not. It was coming from European banks and the offshore special investment vehicles of U.S. banks. And it was mostly going into asset backed securities.

This is the “round-tripping” story that Hyun Song Shin like to emphasize (Patrick McGuire and Robert McCauley have also done a ton of work on the topic). It is clearly part of the story. But it also isn’t the entire story: foreign central bank demand for Agencies and Treasuries was equally important and equally real. The funding of the U.S. current account deficit then took a chain of risk intermediation to keep the U.S. household sector spending beyond its means: broadly speaking, foreign central banks took most of the currency risk, and private financial intermediaries in the U.S. and Europe took most of the credit risk. Sustaining the imbalances of the time took both; and the private sector leg broke down before the official sector leg.*

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Puerto Rico’s Coming Fiscal Adjustment (Still Too Big)

by Brad Setser

About two weeks ago, Puerto Rico’s oversight board approved Puerto Rico’s revised fiscal plan. The fiscal plan is roughly the equivalent in Puerto Rico’s case of an IMF program—it sets out Puerto Rico’s plan for fiscal adjustment. Hopefully it will make Puerto Rico’s finances a bit easier to understand.*

I have been a bit slow to comment on the updated fiscal plan, but wanted to offer my own take:

1) Best I can tell, the new plan has roughly 2 percentage points of GNP in fiscal adjustment in 2018 and 2019, and then a percentage point a year in 2020 and 2021. The total consolidation is close to 6 percent of GNP (using a GNP of around $65 billion, and netting out the impact of replacing Act 154 revenues with new tax)—see page p.10 of the revised plan, and my past posts on Puerto Rico’s fiscal math.**

2) The board adopted a more conservative baseline. Puerto Rico’s real economy is projected to contract by between 3 and 4 percent in 2018 and 2019 and by 1 to 2 percent in 2020 and 2021. I applaud the board for recognizing that the large fiscal consolidation required in 2018 and 2019 will be painful. The risks to the growth baseline—and thus to future tax revenues—should be balanced. There though is a risk that the board may still be understating the drag from consolidation. If Puerto Rico is currently shrinking by 1.5 percent a year without any fiscal drag, and if the multiplier is 1.5, then growth might contract by 2 to 3 percent in 2020 or 2021.

3) While creditors have complained that Puerto Rico isn’t doing enough, I worry that there is still too much consolidation too fast: Puerto Rico’s output is projected to fall by another 10 percentage points over the next five years, which would make Puerto Rico’s ten year economic contraction as deep as that experienced by Greece.

Sadly, this is a realistic outcome if you combine five to six percentage points of consolidation, a multiplier of 1.5 (especially as much of the consolidation is offsetting a fall in federal funding) and negative trend growth. There is a real risk that the coming contraction generates further outmigration, undermining the basis for any eventual recovery. Puerto Ricans are not required to stay on on-island. A shrinking population ultimately means a shrinking tax base.

4) The overwhelming majority of the adjustment is the result of the need to offset the exhaustion of pension assets and the loss of federal health care funds, not the result of projected debt service (the primary surplus in the plan is between 1 and 1.5 percent of GNP). Basically, Puerto Rico tried to avoid a draconian consolidation after its 2007 slump through running down pension assets (and for a while running up debt) and by taking advantage of Obama era policy changes—but now has run out of rope.

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Puerto Rico’s Daunting Fiscal Math (My View)

by Brad Setser

An applied economics question:

A country with no independent monetary policy, undergoing a ten-year slump that has reduced its real GDP on average by over a percentage point a year, needs to do a fiscal consolidation of roughly 10 percentage points of its GDP. How much does output fall?

The example is not entirely hypothetical.

Puerto Rico isn’t a country, but rather a territory of the United States. It is a part of the U.S. monetary and currency union—though it isn’t completely a part of the U.S. fiscal union (Puerto Ricans—and firms based in Puerto Rico—generally do not pay federal income tax). Puerto Rico’s gross national product (GNP) is down more than 14 percent since 2006 (the last data point is 2015, and the Government Development Banks’s high frequency indicator shows a further decline in 2016). GNP is the relevant measure—GDP is clearly inflated by the tax games played by firms operating in Puerto Rico. And the oversight board has asked Puerto Rico to show the impact of closing a $7 billion (just over 10 percent of GNP) fiscal gap through austerity. More on that later.

The answer—fairly obviously, I think—depends on your view of the fiscal multiplier. The Fed is raising rates: directionally it will be hurting, not helping. There is no monetary offset. If you use a multiplier of around 1.5 (well justified on the basis of recent analysis*) GNP should fall by roughly 15 percent.

That is huge, and it seems unreasonably large. But it is a function of asking for an unreasonably large fiscal adjustment in an economy that lacks the capacity to offset fiscal consolidation through monetary easing. Greece’s experience though shows that a massive fiscal consolidation can produce a massive fall in output. There is plenty of empirical cause to worry.

The Fiscal Gap

So why is the financing gap—$7 billion on average over ten years—so big?

That to me is the interesting bit.

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The IMF’s Recommended Fiscal Path For Japan

by Brad Setser

With a bit of technical assistance, I was able to do a better job of quantifying the IMF’s recommended fiscal path for Japan.

The IMF wants a 50 to 100 basis point rise in Japan’s consumption tax every year for the foreseeable future, starting in 2017. A 50 basis point rise would result in between 20 and 25 basis points of GDP in structural fiscal consolidation a year (the call for the tax increase is in paragraph 23 of the staff report, and is echoed in the IMF’s working paper).

The IMF doesn’t want Japan to continue relying on fiscal stimulus packages, which typically have funds for public investment and the like (paragraph 23). As a result, there is a 60 basis points of GDP consolidation from the roll-off of past stimulus packages (the change in the structural primary balance is in both table 1 on p.38 table 4 on p.41 of the staff report).

That implies 80 to 85 basis points of GDP in structural fiscal consolidation.

But, in the staff working paper (not formal advice, but it clearly reflects the IMF’s overall recommendations), the preferred policy scenario shows an 80 basis point of GDP increase in temporary transfers and public wages to support the proposed incomes policy (this is in the working paper appendix, in table I.1 on p. 33).

Net it all out; the result is basically a neutral stance, not the consolidation I initially suspected. The 0.5 percent of GDP fall in general government net lending/borrowing in table 2 on p. 25 of the working paper stems from a fall in interest payments and an increase in nominal GDP that is projected from the new incomes policy.*

Actually if you look at table 4 in the staff report, Japan’s is expected to receive more in interest income than in pays out in interest in 2017. Japan’s government is projected receive 1.6 percent of GDP in interest on its assets (including its foreign reserves, which are largely held by the ministry of finance) and pay 1.3 percent of GDP in interest on its debt. The total fiscal deficit is thus smaller than the primary fiscal deficit in 2017. Welcome to the world of negative interest rates.

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Do Not Count (European) Fiscal Chickens Before They Hatch

by Brad Setser

The Wall Street Journal, building on a point made by Peterson’s Jacob Kirkegaard, seems convinced that the policy mood has shifted, and Europe is now poised to use fiscal policy to support its recovery.

I, of course, would welcome such a shift. The eurozone runs an external surplus, is operating below potential (in large part because of a premature turn to austerity in 2010 that led to a double-dip recession) and in aggregate has ample fiscal space.

And the public policy case for such a fiscal turn keeps getting stonger. Jan in ‘t Veld’s new paper (hat tip Paul Hannon of the WSJ) suggests that a sustained fiscal expansion in Germany and the Netherlands could have a substantial impact on the rest of the eurozone. A sustained 1 percent of GDP increase in public investment in Germany and the Netherlands helps raise output and lower debt in their eurozone partners.* in ‘t Veld writes:

“Spillovers to the rest of the eurozone are significant … GDP in the rest of the eurozone is around 0.5% higher.”

But it seems a bit too early to break out the champagne.

Actual 2017 fiscal policy has not been set in the key countries, but it is not clear to me that the sum of the fiscal decisions of the main eurozone countries will result in a significant fiscal expansion across the eurozone. Indeed, I cannot even rule out a small net consolidation.

Germany has put forward its 2017 budget. Schauble’s rhetoric has changed a bit. But Citibank estimates that it only would reduce Germany’s structural fiscal surplus by about 0.1 percent of GDP (10 basis points of GDP). It is a step in right direction, but only a baby step. Real loosening doesn’t seem on the cards before 2018.

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There Really Is No Reason for Germany Not to Do a Fiscal Stimulus Right Now

by Brad Setser

Back in May, Greg Ip of the Wall Street Journal argued that Germany didn’t need to stimulate its economy through an increase in public investment as its economy was already growing at a decent clip, and unemployment was low.

I wasn’t convinced then, and I am still not convinced.

A stimulus is needed to reorient Germany’s economy away from exports, to keep private wage growth up and to open up space for Germany’s trade partners in the euro area to adjust without falling into a deflationary trap. Adjustment doesn’t happen magically.

There is solid evidence that Germany’s level of public investment is a bit too low for its long-term health.

And now there is also a growing cyclical case for a German stimulus. German growth is projected to slow significantly in 2017. Reuters reports:

“DIW … lowered its 2017 growth forecast for Germany to 1.0 percent from 1.4 percent.”

Other forecasts are a bit more optimistic, but all expect some slowdown in growth.

And the 2016 surplus is on track to top a percentage point of German GDP. In nominal terms, the surplus should exceed last years’s €30 billion surplus. Germany is clearly not fiscally constrained.

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What To Do When Countries With Fiscal Space Won’t Use It?

by Brad Setser

This isn’t another post about Germany.

Rather it is about Korea, in many ways the Germany of East Asia.

Korea has a current account surplus roughly equal to Germany’s—just below 8 percent in 2015, versus just over 8 percent for Germany.

Like Germany, Korea has a tight fiscal policy. Korea retained a structural fiscal surplus throughout the global crisis (it relied on exports to drive its initial recovery, thanks to the won’s large depreciation in the crisis).* After sliding just a bit between 2012 and 2015, Korea’s fiscal surplus is now heading up again.

Korea’s public debt is below that of Germany.

And as I noted on Monday, Korea’s real exchange rate is well below its pre-crisis levels. So for that matter is Germany’s real exchange ate. According to the BIS, Korea’s real exchange rate so far this year is about 15 percent below its 2005-2007 average; Germany’s real effective exchange rate is about 10 percent below its 2005-2007 average.

The IMF—in its newly published staff report on Korea—recognizes that Korea has fiscal space, and encourages the Koreans to do a bit of stimulus. The IMF also, smartly, recommends beefing up Korea’s rather stingy social safety net.

The Koreans though do not seem all that interested in spending more.

Yes, there is officially a stimulus. But as the Fund notes it will be funded by “revenue over-performance”* rather than any new borrowing.**

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Germany is Running a Fiscal Surplus in 2016 After All

by Brad Setser

It turns out Germany has fiscal space even by German standards!

Germany’s federal government posted a 1.2 percent of GDP fiscal surplus in the first half of 2016. The IMF was forecasting a federal surplus of 0.3 percent (and a general government deficit of 0.1 percent of GDP—see table 2, p. 41); the Germans over-performed.*

Germany’s ongoing fiscal surplus contributes to Germany’s massive current account surplus, and the large and growing external surplus of the eurozone (the eurozone’s surplus reached €350 billion in the last four quarters of data, which now includes q2). The external surplus effectively exports Europe’s demand shortfall to the rest of the world, and puts downward pressure on global interest rates. Cue my usual links to papers warning about the risk of exporting secular stagnation.


Martin Sandbu of the Financial Times puts it well.

“The government’s surplus adds to the larger private sector surplus which means the nation as a whole consumes much less than it produces, sending the excess abroad in return for increasing financial claims on the rest of the world. German policymakers like to say that the country’s enormous trade surplus is a result of economic fundamentals, not policy—but as far as the budget goes, that claim is untenable. Even if much of the external surplus were beyond the ability of policy to influence, that would be a case to use the government budget to counteract it, not reinforce it.”

The Germans tend to see it differently. Rather than viewing budget surpluses as a beggar-thy-neighbor restraint on demand, they believe their fiscal prudence sets a good example for their neighbors.

But its neighbors need German demand for their goods and services far more than they need Germany to set an example of fiscal prudence. It is clear—given the risk of a debt-deflation trap in Germany’s eurozone partners—that successful adjustment in the eurozone can only come if German prices and wages rise faster than prices and wages in the rest of the eurozone. The alternative mechanism of adjustment—falling wages and prices in the rest of the eurozone—won’t work.

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IMF Cannot Quit Fiscal Consolidation (in Asian Surplus Countries)

by Brad Setser

In theory, the IMF now wants current account surplus countries to rely more heavily on fiscal stimulus and less on monetary stimulus.

This shift makes sense in a world marked by low interest rates, the risk that surplus countries will export liquidity traps to deficit economies, and concerns about contagious secular stagnation. Fiscal expansion tends to lower the surplus of surplus countries and regions, while monetary expansion tends to increase external surpluses.

And large external surpluses should be a concern in a world where imbalances in goods trade are once again quite large—though the goods surpluses now being chalked up in many Asian countries are partially offset by hard-to-track deficits in “intangibles” (to use an old term), notably China’s ongoing deficit in investment income and its ever-rising and ever-harder-to-track deficit in tourism.

In practice, though, the Fund seems to be having trouble actually advocating fiscal expansion in any major economy with a current account surplus.

Best I can tell, the Fund is encouraging fiscal consolidation in China, Japan, and the eurozone. These economies have a combined GDP of close to $30 trillion. The Fund, by contrast, is, perhaps, willing to encourage a tiny bit of fiscal expansion in Sweden (though that isn’t obvious from the 2015 staff report) and in Korea—countries with a combined GDP of $2 trillion.*

I previously have noted that the Fund is advocating a 2017 fiscal consolidation for the eurozone, as the consolidation the Fund advocates in France, Italy, and Spain would overwhelm the modest fiscal expansion the Fund proposed in the Netherlands (The IMF is recommending that Germany stay on the fiscal sidelines in 2017).

The same seems to be true in East Asia’s main surplus economies.

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