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II Economic Impact of U.S. Budget Policies

Author(s):
Martin Mühleisen, and Christopher Towe
Published Date:
January 2004
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Cardarelli Roberto and Kose Ayhan 

The U.S. fiscal position has deteriorated significantly in recent years. In 2000, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected surpluses in the range of 3 percent of GDP for the next 10 years and for the federal debt to be nearly paid down by 2010. Since then, partly because of the economic downturn, but also reflecting policy initiatives to boost spending and cut taxes, the budgetary balance has swung into substantial deficit. The fiscal deficit seems likely to reach over 4 percent of GDP in FY2004 and to remain significant well into the future.

The turnaround in the fiscal situation—and calls for further tax cuts—have revived the long-standing debate about the macroeconomic impact of fiscal policies. On the one side has been the view that tax cuts generate positive supply-side benefits sufficient to offset the negative effects of higher fiscal deficits on interest rates and lower private investment (CEA, 2003a). Others, however, have questioned the size of the supply-side benefits, and have argued that higher deficits would ultimately lower output.

This discussion tends to support the view that budget deficits have adverse effects in the longer run, both domestically and abroad. In particular, model-based simulations on the administration’s FY2004 budget proposals, as well as a review of the recent crowding-out literature, suggest that recent U.S. fiscal policies would boost output in the short run, but, in the longer run, larger deficits would tend to cause interest rates to rise above and output to fall below baseline.1 Moreover, empirical evidence suggests that higher levels of U.S. public debt would have undesirable spillovers, causing an increase in global interest rates.

Simulations of the FY2004 Budget Proposal

Previous episodes of large fiscal expansion in the United States raise questions about the effectiveness of fiscal stimulus. There are three recent cases in which the federal fiscal balance fell by at least 1½ percent of GDP, in cyclically adjusted terms, over a two-year period (Figure 2.1). In the first episode, during 1965–67, structural outlays rose by 1¾ percent of GDP, mainly because of military spending on the Vietnam war. In the second and third episodes, tax cuts caused structural revenues to fall by 1 percent of GDP during 1974 and 1976 and by 2¼ percent of GDP during 1981–83, respectively. Although the tax cuts were associated with some acceleration in real GDP growth over subsequent three-year periods, real GDP growth declined, or remained essentially unchanged, in each of the subsequent 10 years (Table 2.1).

Figure 2.1.Two-Year Changes in Structural Fiscal Variables

(In percent of potential GDP, 1963–2002)

Source: IMF staff estimates based on CBO data.

Table 2.1Change in Real GDP Growth Before and After Large Fiscal Expansions(In percent)
1965–671974–761981–83
Post–3-year average less pre–3-year average–2.11.73.3
Post–10-year average less pre–10-year average–1.1–0.30.3
Source: IMF staff estimates.
Source: IMF staff estimates.

Simulations of the FY2004 budget proposals also suggest that the short-term stimulus would wane quickly. Table 2.2 summarizes the results of analyses of the FY2004 budget proposals, mainly based on U.S. macroeconometric models maintained by Macroeconomic Advisers (MA) and Global Insight (GI). Both models predict that the proposals would have a significant positive effect on output growth over the next two years. However, the boost to aggregate demand would be more modest thereafter because of the crowding out of private investment from higher real interest rates.2

Table 2.2.Estimates from Large-Scale Models(Real GDP growth, change from baseline; in percent)
Study by:CEA1CBO2MA3GI4HF5
Model Used:n.a.MAGIMAGIGIAverage
20030.40.50.40.50.20.30.4
20041.11.31.31.00.80.61.0
2003–07 (average)0.20.61.30.00.10.10.4

Most analyses indicate that the budget would dampen output in the long term. In most macroeconomic models, the decline in public and national saving implied by the FY2004 budget proposals would lead to higher real interest rates and lower capital accumulation—for example, in the M A model the effect is to lower labor productivity by about ½ percentage point in 2017, relative to the baseline scenario (Figure 2.2).

Figure 2.2.Impact of 2003 Tax Cuts on Labor Productivity

(Deviation from baseline, in percent)

This result is confirmed by a CBO (2003) study that examines the budget proposals from the perspective of several alternative models. In a “textbook” neoclassical growth model, in which economic agents do not modify their behavior in response to expected future policy changes, the budget would lower GDP by ¾ percent below the base-line during 2009–13. Using life-cycle and infinite-horizon models, in which economic agents are forward looking, the CBO shows that the budget proposals would only increase long-run output if the tax cuts were anticipated to be reversed in the future. In this case, households work and save more to be able to pay for future taxes, offsetting the crowding-out effect (Table 2.3).3 The CBO’s analysis also illustrates that, in an open economy context, net inflows of foreign capital can help offset the decline in national saving and alleviate crowding out.

Table 2.3.Estimates from Small-Scale Models(Average change in GDP from CBO’s baseline, in percent)
2004–082009–13
Textbook growth model–0.2–0.7
Closed economy life-cycle growth model
Lower government consumption after 2013–0.3–1.5
Higher lump-sum taxes after 20130.50.3
Open economy life-cycle growth model
Lower government consumption after 2013–0.6–0.5
Higher lump-sum taxes after 20130.30.6
Infinite horizon growth model
Lower government consumption after 20130.2–0.6
Higher lump-sum taxes after 20130.91.4
Source: CBO (2003).
Source: CBO (2003).

Fiscal Deficits and Real Interest Rates

A key indicator of the extent to which budget policies risk crowding out private investment is their impact on interest rates. Consequently, most empirical analysis of crowding out has focused on the relationship between fiscal deficits and interest rates. This literature is summarized below.

Simulations of large-scale macroeconometric models generally indicate that budget deficits have a sizable effect on interest rates. In these models, the size of crowding out typically depends on the monetary policy reaction function, the interest rate sensitivity of investment, the openness of the economy, and on how expectations of future policies are modeled.4 In a recent survey, Gale and Orszag (2002) found that the average prediction of this type of models is that a 1 percentage point increase in the primary deficit-to-GDP ratio, caused by a tax cut, is followed by a 40 basis point increase in long-term interest rates after one year, and a 60 basis point increase after 10 years. This compares to an increase of 60 basis points and 130 basis points, respectively, if the same increase in the primary deficit is induced by higher government spending.

Econometric estimates of reduced-form models have often provided conflicting results on the relationship between fiscal deficits and interest rates. This likely reflects the difficulty that studies have faced in taking into account the extent to which long-term interest rates respond to expectations of future fiscal policies, rather than to the current policy stance.5 More recent papers that address this issue have found a positive and significant impact of expected budget deficits on expected future interest rates—averaging 35 basis points for a 1 percentage point increase in the deficit-to-GDP ratio, roughly in line with the estimates of the large-scale models (see Table 2.4).6

Table 2.4.Selected Studies on the Impact of Deficits on Real Interest Rates
Crowding-Out Effect (in basis points)1Interest Rates ConsideredFiscal VariableBusiness Cycle Regressor
Laubach (2003)2310-year Treasury bond yield expected over the next 5 yearsCBO 5-year-ahead forecastNo
Laubach (2003)365-year Treasury bond yield expected over the next 5 yearsOMB 5-year-ahead forecastNo
Laubach (2003)910-year Treasury bond yieldCBO 5-year-ahead forecastNo
Canzoneri, Cumba, and Diba (2002)60Slope of yield curve (10-year note less 3-month bill)CBO 5-year-ahead forecastNo
Canzoneri, Cumba, and Diba (2002)40Slope of yield curve (10-year note less 3-month bill)CBO 10-year-ahead forecastNo
Elmendorf (1993)49Change in 3-year Treasury bond yieldDRI forecast of deficit-to-GDP ratioUnemployment rate

Increase in interest rates caused by a l percentage point rise in the deficit-to-GDP ratio.

Increase in interest rates caused by a l percentage point rise in the deficit-to-GDP ratio.

The administration’s FY2004 budget proposals were accompanied by estimates of much smaller effects of deficits on interest rates. These estimates were based on a neoclassical framework developed by Elmendorf and Mankiw (1999), in which real interest rates in the steady state equal the marginal productivity of capital, which in turn depends on the capital share of income and the income-to-capital ratio. Using historical averages for these parameters, and assuming that a one-dollar increase in public debt reduces the long-run stock of capital by 60 cents, a 1 percentage point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio leads to an increase of real interest rates of only around 2–3 basis points (CEA, 2003a).7

However, these arguments do not provide significant comfort. For example, Laubach (2003) notes that the estimates above would be consistent with an increase of interest rates of approximately 15 basis points following a permanent 1 percentage point increase in the deficit-to-GDP ratio. Moreover, while the CEA’s analysis suggests a relatively modest interest rate effect, this is predicated on a substantial degree of crowding out. In the CEA’s example, a 5 percent of GDP increase in government debt would lower the capital stock by around 3 percent of GDP, which, given estimates of the gross marginal productivity of capital of around 10 percent, would be consistent with a permanent reduction in output of roughly one-third of a percent.

International Implications of Higher U.S. Public Debt

The integration of capital markets over the last three decades suggests the possibility of important spillovers from U.S. fiscal policy to the rest of the world. Higher fiscal deficits and public debt in one country will tend to absorb global savings and might cause higher world interest rates. This proposition is examined below.

Country-specific real interest rates have tended to move together over the last three decades. Table 2.5 shows that the real interest rate correlations for industrialized countries are all positive and generally quite high, which, some authors have argued, suggests the existence of a “world” real interest rate.8

Table 2.5.Correlations of G-7 Real Interest Rates1(1977–2002)
CanadaGermanyUnited KingdomJapanUnited StatesFranceItaly
Canada1
Germany0.71
United Kingdom0.60.41
Japan0.70.70.51
United States0.60.30.50.51
France0.60.50.60.70.51
Italy0.70.50.70.50.50.81
World0.80.80.70.80.60.80.8
Source: OECD.

Interest rates are 12-month Euromarket interest rates deflated by the same period CPI inflation rate. The world real interest rate is the simple average of national rates.

Source: OECD.

Interest rates are 12-month Euromarket interest rates deflated by the same period CPI inflation rate. The world real interest rate is the simple average of national rates.

Figure 2.3 shows the evolution of different proxies for this rate: the unweighted average of the national rates, their GDP-weighted average, and a measure based on the first principal component of the national rates. Each of these indices significantly increased during most of the 1980s, a period of rapid growth of world public debt, but declined over most of the next decade despite still-high levels of world public debt.

Figure 2.3.World Government Net Debt-to-GDP Ratio and World Real Interest Rate

(In percent)

Source: IMF staff estimates based on OECD, Economic Outlook data.

Several studies have suggested that “world” fiscal policy matters for determining national real interest rates. Net public debt is found to be a significant determinant of the “world” real interest rate in Helbling and Wescott (1995) and of national real interest rates in Orr and Conway (2002). Ford and Laxton (1999) estimate the impact of world government net debt and consumption on national real interest rates of selected industrialized countries. They find that a 1 percentage point increase in world net government debt raises real interest rates by around 20 basis points. The main results and estimation methodologies adopted by these three papers are reported in Table 2.6.

Table 2.6.Selected Studies on the Impact of World Fiscal Variables on Real Interest Rates1
AuthorsCrowding-Out Effect (in basis points)1Interest Rates Considered as Dependent VariableFiscal RegressorExpected InflationMethodology and Period
Helbling and Wescott (1995)16–20World (GDP-weighted) 3-month Treasury bill yield.World (GDP-weighted) gross government debt-to-GDP ratio.Exponential smoothing.Cointegration analysis through dynamic OLS and error correction model (1960–93).
Helbling and Wescott (1995)37–50World (GDP-weighted) 3-month Treasury bill yield.World (GDP-weighted) net government debt-to-GDP ratio.Exponential smoothing.Cointegration analysis through dynamic OLS and error correction model (1960–93).
Helbling and Wescott (1995)0–13World (GDP-weighted) 10-year Treasury bond yield.World (GDP-weighted) gross government debt-to-GDP ratio.Exponential smoothing.Cointegration analysis through dynamic OLS and error correction model (1960–93).
Helbling and Wescott (1995)16–42World (GDP-weighted) 10-year Treasury bond yield.World (GDP-weighted) net government debt-to-GDP ratio.Exponential smoothing.Cointegration analysis through dynamic OLS and error correction model (1960–93).
Ford and Laxton (1999)17–23National 12-month Euromarket certificates of deposits’ interest rate.World (GDP-weighted) net government debt-to-GDP ratio.Same year CPI inflation rate.Pooled OLS and SURE time series estimation, imposing equality of coefficients across countries (1977–97).
Orr and Conway (2002)16National 10-year government bond yields.National net government debt-to-GDP ratio.Hodrick-Prescott filter of CPI inflation rate.Error correction model estimation, imposing equality of long-term coefficients across countries (1986:1–2002:1, countries: Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States).

Increase in interest rates caused by a l percentage point increase in the government debt-to-GDP ratio.

Increase in interest rates caused by a l percentage point increase in the government debt-to-GDP ratio.

We reexamined the relationship between national real interest rates and world public debt. The sample comprises 11 industrial countries—the G-7 countries plus Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—over the period 1977–2002. The interest rates used are the 12-month Euromarket interest rates on certificates of deposits, deflated by the same-period CPI inflation rate. We used two approaches: first, each country’s real interest rate was regressed by ordinary least squares (OLS) on two world fiscal variables, namely the net public debt-to-GDP ratio and the share of real GDP absorbed by government consumption and investment.9 Second, the data were pooled and the 11 equations were estimated as a system, imposing the constraint that the coefficients of the fiscal variables were the same across all countries.10 Instrumental variables were used to avoid potential biases stemming from the dependence of public debt on interest rates.11 The system estimates were derived using a generalized method of moment (GMM) estimation methodology, which yields consistent and asymptotically normal estimators under relatively unrestrictive assumptions on the error term and regressors.

The regression results generally confirm that an increase in world public debt affects national real interest rates but cannot rule out the existence of a break in the relationship over the 1990s. The OLS coefficients of the world fiscal variables have the right signs, but only in a few cases are significant at a 5 percent level (Table 2.7). The results also indicate that augmenting the OLS regressions with the country-specific public debt-to-GDP ratios does little to improve the results, as this coefficient is rarely both significant and positive.

Table 2.7.OLS Regressions of Real Interest Rates on World Fiscal Variables1
Wu-Hausman Test5
cWGND2WGA3DWGA4R2DWWGNDWGA
Belgium–16.31–0.051.071.130.500.59–2.49–0.52
(0.20)(0.34)(0.04)(0.38)
Canada–29.480.111.36–2.080.170.65–2.92–1.03
(0.02)(0.04)(0.01)(0.16)
Switzerland–12.950.080.54–0.050.101.00–1.98–0.13
(0.23)(0.11)(0.20)(0.95)
Germany–9.380.010.571.520.160.61–2.850.65
(0.36)(0.82)(0.15)(0.24)
Denmark–48.700.102.291.290.480.59–1.410.14
(0.00)(0.02)(0.00)(0.20)
United Kingdom–53.500.262.18–1.140.380.67–3.260.74
(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)(0.36)
Japan–40.050.071.861.160.490.46–3.861.05
(0.00)(0.29)(0.00)(0.35)
Netherlands–26.310.001.38–0.310.340.44–3.010.33
(0.04)(0.91)(0.01)(0.86)
United States–25.200.061.21–2.320.140.31–1.05–0.63
(0.30)(0.55)(0.21)(0.20)
France–67.100.232.890.480.420.63–1.52–0.26
(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)(0.55)
Italy–71.950.273.02–1.690.450.89–1.62–0.99
(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)(0.27)
Source: Authors’ calculations.

Data are semiannual from 1977:1 to 2002:2; p-values from Newey-West heteroskedasticity and autocorrelation-consistent standard errors are reported in parentheses. The dependent variables are the national 12-month Euromarket interest rates deflated by the same period CPI inflation rate.

WGND is the GDP-weighted average of national net government debt-to-GDP ratio, with the only exclusion of Switzerland. GDP is converted using purchasing power parity exchange rates.

WGA is the GDP-weighted average of national real government absorption (consumption plus investment) as a share of GDP.

DWGA is the first difference of WGA.

t-statistics of the Wu-Hausman test for the exogeneity of WGND and WGA. The null hypothesis is exogeneity. The list of instruments used comprises the second and third lags of WGND and WGA. Critical values are from the standardized normal distribution (10 percent = ±1.28, and 5 percent = ± 1.64).

Source: Authors’ calculations.

Data are semiannual from 1977:1 to 2002:2; p-values from Newey-West heteroskedasticity and autocorrelation-consistent standard errors are reported in parentheses. The dependent variables are the national 12-month Euromarket interest rates deflated by the same period CPI inflation rate.

WGND is the GDP-weighted average of national net government debt-to-GDP ratio, with the only exclusion of Switzerland. GDP is converted using purchasing power parity exchange rates.

WGA is the GDP-weighted average of national real government absorption (consumption plus investment) as a share of GDP.

DWGA is the first difference of WGA.

t-statistics of the Wu-Hausman test for the exogeneity of WGND and WGA. The null hypothesis is exogeneity. The list of instruments used comprises the second and third lags of WGND and WGA. Critical values are from the standardized normal distribution (10 percent = ±1.28, and 5 percent = ± 1.64).

The system estimates show that both world public debt and government absorption are significant determinants of national real interest rates. A 1 percentage point increase in the world government debt-to-GDP ratio induces an increase in national real interest rates of around 10 basis points over the 1997–2002 period (Table 2.8). This result is robust to the addition of other variables, such as those capturing the business cycle and monetary policy and inflation changes, although the relatively scarce number of available observations makes it difficult to test for the stability of the coefficients over the period considered.12 Moreover, as most of the desirable properties of GMM estimators are only valid asymptotically, the point estimates should be taken with caution.

Table 2.8.Joint GMM Estimation of National Real Interest Rates Imposing Equality of Coefficients Across Equations1
WNGD20.120.090.150.150.160.13
(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)
WGA21.341.341.671.661.922.79
(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)
DWGA21.24–0.041.100.860.621.41
(0.00)(0.88)(0.00)(0.00)(0.05)(0.00)
Euro dummy3–1.47–0.68–0.94–0.88–0.75–0.32
(0.00)(0.01)(0.00)(0.00)(0.00)(0.02)
UNE40.47
(0.00)
DINFL50.20
(0.00)
DIRS60.14
(0.00)
LAF70.17
(0.27)
PBAL80.99
(0.00)
J-statistic92.7510.800.110.117.235.58
(0.99)(0.46)(0.99)(0.99)(0.78)(0.89)

Data are semiannual from 1977:1 to 2002:2. Total system observations: 566. p-values are in parentheses. The heteroskedasticity and autocorrelation-consistent covariance matrix is estimated based on the Newey and West estimator. The vector of instruments comprises the second and third lags of WNGD and the other regressors.

See Table 2.7.

Dummy for 1999:1–2002:2.

World (GDP-weighted) unemployment rate.

Change in world (GDP-weighted) CPI inflation rate.

Change in world (GDP-weighted) short-term real interest rate (CPI inflation deflated).

World (GDP-weighted) labor force growth.

Change in world (GDP-weighted) primary balance.

Model specification test The null is that the model is well specified. Critical values are from a chi-square distribution with 11 degrees of freedom (equal to the number of overidentifying restrictions in the system).

Data are semiannual from 1977:1 to 2002:2. Total system observations: 566. p-values are in parentheses. The heteroskedasticity and autocorrelation-consistent covariance matrix is estimated based on the Newey and West estimator. The vector of instruments comprises the second and third lags of WNGD and the other regressors.

See Table 2.7.

Dummy for 1999:1–2002:2.

World (GDP-weighted) unemployment rate.

Change in world (GDP-weighted) CPI inflation rate.

Change in world (GDP-weighted) short-term real interest rate (CPI inflation deflated).

World (GDP-weighted) labor force growth.

Change in world (GDP-weighted) primary balance.

Model specification test The null is that the model is well specified. Critical values are from a chi-square distribution with 11 degrees of freedom (equal to the number of overidentifying restrictions in the system).

With these caveats in mind, the estimates suggest that the 15 percentage point increase in the U.S. public debt ratio, projected by the CBO to result from recent budget measures, would lead to an average ½–1 percentage point increase in national real interest rates over the next decade.

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1See Section I for a description of the administration’s original FY2004 budget proposals and of the tax legislation that was passed in May 2003.
2The studies differ somewhat from each other. The CBO study examines the implications of the entire FY2004 budget proposals, whereas the others focus only on the Economic Growth Package. The study does not report which model is used but notes that “the particular values of the numerical estimates presented reflect judgments regarding the implementation of the proposals” (CEA, 2003b, p. 8).
3In the “textbook” growth model, labor supply increases because of lower marginal tax rates, but output declines because higher government and private consumption crowd out capital accumulation. It is only when expectations of higher taxes after 2013 induce additional savings that the tax cuts have a positive impact on savings, investment, and output (as in the two models with forward-looking agents). This effect is larger in an infinite-horizon model because agents take into account the higher tax burden on their descendants. In all models, maximum effect is achieved if the future increase in taxation is sought through higher lump-sum taxes. Estimates assuming an increase in future marginal tax rates fall in the range of those presented in Table 2.3.
4For a brief description of some of these models in the context of a dynamic scoring analysis of fiscal policy measures, including two large-scale structural models of the U.S. economy used by the Federal Reserve, see Mauskopf and Reifschneider (1997).
5Among the studies that find no statistically significant relationship between fiscal deficits and interest rate are the ones by Plosser (1987) and Evans (1987), which proxied expected fiscal deficits using forecasts from vector autoregressive models (VAR). However, the usefulness of this method to capture actual expectations is subject to a series of limitations (Elmendorf, 1993).
6A caveat for these results is that the reduced-form relationship between expectations of future budget deficits and interest rates could be driven by changes in the expectations of output growth. However, Elmendorf (1996) shows that this relationship is robust to the explicit introduction of a variable capturing expectations on the future state of the business cycle.
7The assumption made by CEA (2003a) is that, while private savings do not respond at all to the increase in public debt, around a third of the decrease in national savings is offset by larger capital flows from abroad.
8Using panel data techniques, Gagnon and Unferth (1995) show that national real interest rates do not persistently deviate from a common world interest rate, defined as the simple average of the rates of nine OECD countries. The only exception seems to be the United States, a result that the authors suggest may reflect the country’s lower trade integration with the rest of the world. On the correlations reported in Table 2.5, note that since 1999 the European countries that joined the euro have essentially shared the same interest rate.
9This captures the two channels through which fiscal policy is supposed to crowd out private investments: the “portfolio” channel (via higher public debt) and the “transaction” channel (via higher government spending). Following Ford and Laxton (1999), the change in real government consumption is also used as a regressor. As economic theory suggests that both the fiscal variables, expressed as a share of GDP, and the real interest rates are stationary, no attempt is made to estimate a long-run relationship between these variables using a cointegration approach.
10This approach improves the efficiency of the estimators if disturbances are correlated across countries and also increases significantly the degrees of freedom because it allows estimating the coefficients of the fiscal variables using a much larger number of observations.
11The list of instruments consists of the lagged values of the world net government debt-to-GDP ratio plus the other fiscal regressors, which are taken as predetermined. The Wu-Hausman test reported in Table 2.7 supports this choice, because it failed to exclude the exogeneity of the world net public debt-to-GDP ratio in the interest rates OLS regressions, while it could not rule out the exogeneity of government consumption. This may reflect that government consumption does not include interest paid on the stock of debt.
12A Chow test on the stability of the coefficients in two sub-samples of equal size rejects the null of stability.

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