So what does stimulus actually mean?

A reader sends in this question:

“What do governments actually mean when they say that we’re going to announce a 1 trillion dollar economic stimulus package? Does it mean that they’re going to spend that much money? Or they’re just going to give it to the industries? (if so what does that entail?)”

Keep the following in mind:

  • I’m going to assume that the person who asked the question hasn’t learnt macroeconomics in a formal setting just yet, and will therefore answer the question accordingly
  • I will describe a macroeconomic model using words, and keep it fairly simple
  • I will use examples from earlier crises
  • Let’s get started!

 

  • Think of the Indian economy as a patient, and think of monetary and fiscal policies as medicines that are going to be administered by doctors. The RBI governor is a doctor to this patient, as is the Finance Minister.
  • Any move pertaining to regulation of banks (allowing banks to ask for EMI’s later, reduction of interest rates, forbearance of loans) is medicine administered by the RBI.
  • Any move pertaining to reduction of taxes, introduction of subsidies, amnesty schemes for taxes due in the past, spending on specific projects (construction of roads bridges etc), changes to government employees salaries/pensions, payouts to firms or individuals (literally giving them money) is medicine administered by the finance minister.
  • Under normal circumstances, one doctor is plenty enough. In fact, macroeconomists often end up saying that if fiscal policy is going to provide the medicine, monetary policy should stand ready to counteract any excesses.

    There is a dilemma as to whether these two policies are complementary, or act as substitutes to each other for achieving macroeconomic goals. Policy makers are viewed as interacting as strategic substitutes when one policy maker’s expansionary (contractionary) policies are countered by another policy maker’s contractionary (expansionary) policies. For example: if the fiscal authority raises taxes or cuts spending, then the monetary authority reacts to it by lowering the policy rates and vice versa. If they behave as strategic complements, then an expansionary (contractionary) policy of one authority is met by expansionary (contractionary) policies of the other.

  • But when the patient is as ill as is the case now (and is going to get sicker in the days to come!), well then monetary and fiscal policy are not substitutes: both need to be at play at the same time.
  • For example, in the 2008 recession, American policymakers resorted to both monetary and fiscal policy measures (all countries did, to be clear. I’m just using the American example because its data is easier to find and present)
  • The monetary policymakers announced, among other things, TARP. By the way, astute readers might want to point out that this seems to have been run by the Treasury Department, not the Federal Reserve. True, not arguing with that. It’s complicated! Also, watch this movie.
  • And, among other things, the American government also announced ARRA. The original website is no longer up, but you can see this, or read this.

 

Now, all that being said, we’re going to take a look at fiscal policy alone from here on in. It is not that monetary policy isn’t important (oh dear lord, it is!) but the question is more focused on fiscal policies.

To understand the answer to this question, let’s go back to an earlier post of mine, and quote from it:

Let’s break this tweet by Paul Krugman down.

  • The government has decided that it will give away money. Ergo, fiscal policy.
  • To whom should it give the money? It can give the money to firms, or to households.
  • If it gives the money to households (in India for example, this would have been through Direct Benefits Transfer), might that help people more?
  • Or should it give the money to firms instead?
  • Payroll taxes, which is what is being spoken about in the tweet, is tax paid on behalf of employees to the government, by firms. Here’s Wikipedia:

    Payroll taxes are taxes imposed on employers or employees, and are usually calculated as a percentage of the salaries that employers pay their staff.[1] Payroll taxes generally fall into two categories: deductions from an employee’s wages, and taxes paid by the employer based on the employee’s wages. The first kind are taxes that employers are required to withhold from employees’ wages, also known as withholding tax, pay-as-you-earn tax (PAYE), or pay-as-you-go tax (PAYG) and often covering advance payment of income tax, social security contributions, and various insurances (e.g., unemployment and disability). The second kind is a tax that is paid from the employer’s own funds and that is directly related to employing a worker. These can consist of fixed charges or be proportionally linked to an employee’s pay. The charges paid by the employer usually cover the employer’s funding of the social security system, Medicare, and other insurance programs. It is sometimes claimed that the economic burden of the payroll tax falls almost entirely on the worker, regardless of whether the tax is remitted by the employer or the employee, as the employers’ share of payroll taxes is passed on to employees in the form of lower wages that would otherwise be paid.

  • So when there is a payroll tax holiday, firms no longer have to pay these taxes. So who is benefiting here? Firms or the employees of firms? To the extent that the firm no longer has to pay these taxes, it has more money with itself. It can either keep this money and use it for other things, or it can pass on this money to the employees. What will actually happen is tricky to predict, and trickier still to measure!
  • For example, imagine the Indian government says to the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics (GIPE) that the Tax Deducted at Source (TDS) from the professors salaries need no longer be given over to the government. (To people who know their macro, I know it is not the same thing. Treat this as an illustrative example)
    • If GIPE was due to pay me a 100 rupees every month, it would deduct 10 (that’s the TDS) and pass it on to the government. That need be done no longer.
    • But the government doesn’t say that this money should be given to the professors instead – GIPE can do with it whatever it wishes.
    • Will (should) GIPE pass on this money to the professors? Or use this to pay other people employed by GIPE? Or just keep it with GIPE (who knows when the college will reopen, hoarding cash may be a good idea). Or… anything else you can think of, really!
  • So “giving” to industries really can mean a variety of things. And it really depends on what industry chooses to do with this money. You could apply conditionalities and say you will only get the money if:
    • It’s passed on to employees
    • You qualify because your firm falls in an important sector (employs a lot of people, is important from a social viewpoint, is critical to combat the virus etc)
    • Anything else you can think of
  • Or the government could spend the money itself! Build roads, bridges, dams, employ thousands more teachers, temporary employees – but all of this is assuming we can control the spread of the virus, of course. Without that, all of this is difficult, if not impossible to achieve.

 


So the correct answer to the question that the reader asks is: all of the above. At this point in time, a good fiscal policy move will be to spend, and give tax benefits to firms and households. This is roll out the big guns territory, no half measures will do.

Homework:

A useful exercise to do: go through the fiscal stimulus announced by our government, and try and pinpoint which parts are directly in the hands of the people, which in the hands of the firms, and which is spending by government on building out infrastructure etc. Here’s one article to help you along.

Homework Part Deux:

Are we Rawlsian?

Homework Part Trois:

Are we Rawlsian enough?

 

Looking for Silver Linings

Prakshal Jain from the Gokhale Institute writes in:

Hello Sir
Hope you are doing well

Current fiscal and Monetary measures (not stimulus as Parchure Sir mentioned) that are undertaken by Government to infuse money and ensure consumption of essential goods in the hand of public to fight the lockdown situation is actually a blessing.
Our economy needed these reforms since a very long period of time and government has been ignoring it, so can this injection result in some sort of economic upliftment?
Secondly, can more measures like these to the various sectors can help us fight economic slowdown?

I’m treating this as an extremely Rawlsian take. Read more about Rawls here, and his most famous book here.

Rawls’s positive distributive thesis is equality-based reciprocity. All social goods are to be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution would be to everyone’s advantage. The guiding idea is that since citizens are fundamentally equal, reasoning about justice should begin from a presumption that cooperatively-produced goods should be equally divided. Justice then requires that any inequalities must benefit all citizens, and particularly must benefit those who will have the least. Equality sets the baseline; from there any inequalities must improve everyone’s situation, and especially the situation of the worst-off. These strong requirements of equality and reciprocal advantage are hallmarks of Rawls’s theory of justice.

I understand Prakshal as asking if the corona virus has made our government (and indeed, governments the world over) more Rawlsian in its outlook, and if that is, on balance, a good thing.

Three things come to mind:

  • First: It is a given that the poor will be the most badly hit in these times. See here for a list of recommendations (each of which is worthy of greater debate and potential implementation), follow this Twitter handle to get a sense of how bad things are (or are going to get). Any government would have no choice but to help out the poorest sections of society: it is a moral imperative. From that perspective, yes, the government is more Rawlsian right now than as of a week ago, and that is a great, great thing.
  • Second: The crucial part is the phrase “on balance”. The government is more Rawlsian right now because of the corona virus lockdown, and it is all but certain that the lockdown will do more harm than the government will do good where the economic well-being of the poorest of the poor is concerned.
    Let me be clear: this is not me accusing the government of not doing enough. This is me saying that the problem is far too big for anybody to handle. So even if you were a person who thought we should be more Rawlsian, this is surely far too high a price to pay.
  • Third: And this relates to Prakshal’s final question (will more such initiatives help?), absolutely yes. Governments, NGO’s, civil society – everybody can and must chip in to help out.

Prakshal, if this doesn’t answer your question, please let me know. Thank you for writing in!

Paul Krugman on a Roller Coaster

This made my day. Via MR: