How Creative Tax Policy Can Substitute for Devaluation

Taxes are the Swiss Army Knife of economic and social policy. With enough ingenuity, you can attempt almost any policy goal, from encouraging health insurance to discouraging pollution to stimulating the economy, to name just three. Over at Bloomberg Businessweek, Rina Chandran explains yet another use: helping a troubled economy achieve the moral and economic equivalent of a currency devaluation, without actually devaluing. That’s particularly intriguing for countries in the Euro zone:

The idea of fiscal devaluation originates with John Maynard Keynes. [Harvard Professor Gita] Gopinath’s insight was to advocate fiscal devaluation for Europe’s beleaguered currency union in a 2011 paper she co-authored with her colleague Emmanuel Farhi and former student Oleg Itskhoki, now an assistant professor at Princeton. …

The paper examines a “remarkably simple alternative” that doesn’t require countries to abandon the euro and devalue their currencies to revive growth through exports, Gopinath says. By increasing value-added taxes while cutting payroll taxes, a government can affect gross domestic product, consumption, employment, and inflation much as a currency devaluation would.

The higher VAT raises the price of imported goods as foreign companies pay the levy on the products and services they export to that country. The lower payroll tax helps offset the extra sales tax for domestic companies, reducing the need for them to raise prices. Since exports are VAT-exempt, the payroll cost saving allows producers to sell goods more cheaply overseas, simulating the effect of a weaker currency, according to the paper. The policy also can help on the fiscal front, as increased competitiveness can lead to higher tax revenue, Gopinath says.

A New Price Tag for Stimulus: $814 Billion

Last week the Congressional Budget Office released updated budget projections — a treasure trove of information for budget wonks. For example, CBO released new estimates of the direct budget costs of the 2009 stimulus bill, officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

CBO now estimates that ARRA will cost $814 billion from 2009 through 2019. That’s up from the original $787 billion estimate, but down from the revised, $862 billion estimate released in January.

Spending exceeded original expectations because both unemployment and food prices rose more than anticipated, driving up the cost of extended unemployment benefits and expanded food stamp benefits. On the other hand, spending estimates have come down because “recently enacted legislation rescinded some of the funds appropriated in ARRA and limited the period in which higher payments under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [formerly known as food stamps] will be available.” (CBO did not update estimates for the tax provisions in ARRA.)

For a discussion of why the $814 billion figure (formerly known as the $862 billion figure or the $787 billion figure) is not really the right measure of stimulus, see this post.

On a related note: Earlier today, CBO released an updated analysis of the economic effects of ARRA. It estimates that ARRA reduced unemployment in the current quarter by 0.8 to 2.0 percentage points. In other words, without that stimulus CBO believes that the unemployment rate today would be between 10.3 percent and 11.5 percent, not the 9.5 percent reported in July.

Will Illinois Go Bankrupt Because of Scott Brown?

A sharp reader offers the following hypothesis (which I have edited):

Illinois is fundamentally bankrupt. It has less than $1 million in cash, pays vendors net 90, and owes its state university $450 million that it cannot pay. Oh, and it also has $60 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

Now that the Republicans have 41 votes in the Senate, Illinois can’t count on any federal aid. The President’s home state will thus become insolvent.

(For some background on Illinois’s budget woes, see this link.)

My reader expresses similar concerns about California (where Governor Schwarzenegger’s budget assumes $6.9 billion in federal aid) and New York.

All of which raises a question for policymakers and municipal bond investors. Does the election of Scott Brown mean that the Senate will be unwilling to give federal aid to the states? The $862 billion stimulus bill last year (formerly known as the $787 billion stimulus bill) included substantial state aid, and it squeaked through the Senate with exactly 60 votes. Now the Democrats (and the Independents who caucus with them) account for only 59 votes.

Does that bode ill for struggling states and the investors who own their debt? Only time will tell. But I wouldn’t count the states out just yet.

The stimulus bill could have had 62 votes, but Senator Kennedy didn’t vote and Senator Franken hadn’t yet been seated. If the Senate majority can coordinate the same coalition–including Republican Senators Snowe and Collins of Maine–they will have one vote to spare for any new jobs bill (formerly known as a stimulus bill). In addition, with his paean to tax cuts in the State of the Union, the President was signaling that he wants to find enough common ground with congressional Republicans to get a jobs bill passed.

In the short run, then, I wouldn’t be surprised if substantial state aid finds its way into the jobs bill. That may buy Illinois and other struggling states some time.

In the long run, however, the reader is probably right that fiscally-strapped states will find the Senate less welcoming.

Legalistic answer to the title question: No. States can’t seek protection in bankruptcy court, so Illinois can’t technically go bankrupt.

A New Price Tag for Stimulus: $862 billion, not $787 billion

Amongst its usual cracker jack budget projections yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office provided a few toy surprises for budget watchers. One is an updated estimate of the direct budget costs of the 2009 stimulus bill, officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

CBO originally estimated that ARRA would cost $787 billion from 2009 through 2019. Its new estimate is $862 billion, about $75 billion higher.

Key changes to the estimate:

  • Food stamps (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program): $34 billion more than expected
  • Build America Bond program: $26 billion more
  • Unemployment compensation: $21 billion more
  • Medicaid: $3 billion less than expected
  • Other spending: $3 billion less

(CBO did not make any updates for the tax provisions in ARRA.)

For an earlier discussion of the stimulus being bigger than expected, see this post.

For a discussion of why the $862 billion figure (formerly known as the $787 billion figure) is not really the right measure of stimulus, see this post.

Note: CBO provides many details about ARRA in Appendix A of yesterday’s report.

Some Questions about TARP’s Future

As I discussed the other day, using TARP to pay for new jobs programs faces some serious practical issues. First, the administration is limited in how it can deploy existing TARP funds. It should be straightforward to use more funds to support lending to small businesses (which TARP already does to some extent), but it would take great legal ingenuity to use it to fund infrastructure projects or aid to state and local governments.  Indeed, in an article titled “Use of Cash from TARP Hits Hurdle“, the Wall Street Journal reports that top Democrats have concluded that TARP money can’t be used for either of those ideas.

Second, legislative use of TARP money are limited by budget scoring rules, which currently would attribute only 50 cents of budget savings to each dollar by which TARP’s authority might be reduced. And even then, careful budgeteers would realize that such savings are make-believe if, as seems likely, any such limits would apply only to TARP authority that was unlikely to be used anyway.

In short, the rhetoric about using TARP to finance various proposals seems to have gotten ahead of reality.

The President’s speech at the Brookings Institution today provided some additional insight into the Administration’s plans for TARP, but some important questions still remain.

Here are the President’s three forward-looking statements about TARP (he also made some comments about TARP’s origin and history, but that’s a topic for another day):

I’m asking my Treasury Secretary to continue mobilizing the remaining TARP funds to facilitate lending to small businesses. …

[W]ith a fiscal crisis to match our economic crisis, we also must be prudent about how we fund [initiatives to accelerate the pace of private hiring].  So to help support these efforts, we are going to wind down the Troubled Asset Relief Program — or TARP — the fund created to stabilize the financial system so banks would lend again. …

TARP is expected to cost the taxpayers at least $200 billion less than what was anticipated just this past summer.  And the assistance to banks, once thought to cost taxpayers untold billions, is on track to actually reap billions in profits for the taxpaying public.  So this gives us a chance to pay down the deficit faster than we thought possible and to shift funds that would have gone to help the banks on Wall Street to help create jobs on Main Street.

If I am reading that right, the President would like to (a) continue Treasury’s existing effort to support small business lending through TARP, (b) wind down the TARP program, and (c) shift funds to other purposes. That leaves me with some important questions, including:

  • Does the administration plan to expand TARP’s small business lending support or just execute the one that’s already been announced? (NB: The President also endorsed several other steps to help small businesses, including easier access to SBA loans.)
  • Does “wind down the TARP program” mean that Secretary Geithner won’t use his authority to extend the program beyond December 31, 2009? If I were him I would sleep much better at night if I had some “dry powder” in an extended TARP, just in case we have another September-October of 2008. Such a replay seems highly unlikely (knock on wood), but if that exceedingly remote event did happen, I wouldn’t want to be the Treasury Secretary who went up to Capitol Hill to ask for a TARP II.

Can TARP Be Used to Pay for a New Jobs Program?

Washington is abuzz with the idea that Congress, the White House, or both may try to use unspent TARP funds as a way to promote job creation (see, e.g., this WSJ story and this WaPo story). Over the past two days, many reporters have asked me about the mechanics of this idea–can the government really use unspent TARP money this way? Here’s my best answer (given what I have learned so far).

There are two basic ways that our leaders could try to use TARP money to pay for new initiatives: through executive action or through new legislation.

Executive Action

Treasury Secretary Geithner has the ability to use TARP funds largely as he sees fit, as long as those uses are within the boundaries set out by the original legislation. As you may have noticed, the exact location of those boundaries–well, even the rough location of those boundaries–has been a topic of great debate during TARP’s existence. But the basic idea is that TARP can be used to purchase troubled assets, which the bill defines as follows:

(A) residential or commercial mortgages and any securities, obligations, or other instruments that are based on or related to such mortgages, that in each case was originated or issued on or before March 14, 2008, the purchase of which the Secretary determines promotes financial market stability; and

(B) any other financial instrument that the Secretary, after consultation with the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, determines the purchase of which is necessary to promote financial market stability, but only upon transmittal of such determination, in writing, to the appropriate committees of Congress.

If our leaders want to use TARP through executive action, they will have to come up with programs that fit within these limits. Additional support for small-business financing or home mortgages could certainly be structured to fit within these parameters; indeed, TARP already has programs for both of those. It would require substantial ingenuity, however, to figure out a way to support some of the other ideas being floated (e.g., aid to local governments).

New Legislation

The second approach would be for Congress to enact legislation that would increase spending on various programs and then pay for it, at least in part, by reducing the amount of money in the TARP program.

There have already been at least two pieces of legislation that have taken this approach:

Continue reading “Can TARP Be Used to Pay for a New Jobs Program?”

How Much Did Cash-for-Clunkers Boost Auto Sales?

The busy folks at the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) released a quartet of studies today, covering the economic impacts of:

I suspect that other bloggers (not to mention the regular media) will have lots to say on the stimulus analyses, so I started my reading with the clunkers piece, which I found quite interesting.

News accounts often describe the program as a success because almost 700,000 people participated in it in just a few weeks. But, as CEA emphasizes in their new study, the fact that someone participated in the program does not necessarily mean that they bought a car because of it. Indeed, CEA estimates that the 690,000 auto sales under the program boosted 2009 auto sales by only 330,000:


What about the other 360,000?

Continue reading “How Much Did Cash-for-Clunkers Boost Auto Sales?”

Tracking the Stimulus: Update

Good news: The website now includes information about the tax components of the stimulus, not just the spending components:


According to the chart, an estimated $62.5 billion made its way out the door in tax reductions through the end of August. The corresponding spending data indicate that $88.8 billion in federal spending made its way out the door by August 28.

Putting these together, you get an estimated $151.3 billion in combined tax reductions and spending increases through the end of August.

Continue reading “Tracking the Stimulus: Update”

More Stimulus Spending Than Originally Projected

Lots of budget news this morning, with the release of the newest projections from the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office.

One headline is that spending on the stimulus will be higher than expected. As reported by Lori Montgomery at the Washington Post (ht EconomistMom):

The $787 billion economic stimulus package President Obama signed earlier this year is likely to cost “tens of billions of dollars” more than expected, helping to drive projections for next year’s budget deficit to $1.5 trillion, White House budget director Peter Orszag told reporters.

With unemployment climbing, costs for a variety of stimulus programs are running higher than anticipated, Orszag said, including expanded unemployment benefits, food stamps and energy grants. In an interview embargoed for release Tuesday morning, Orszag said he could not estimate the overall cost of the package, but he called Republican estimates of $900 billion “slightly high.”

The $900 billion estimate that Peter mentions is reported in this letter from former CBO Director Doug Holtz-Eakin to Republican House Leader John Boehner.

The CBO also addresses this issue in its report (box on pp. 10-11). The box discusses lots of pesky nuances about budget accounting and the timing of payments. Perhaps the most interesting observation, consistent with the OMB quote above, is that:

The higher-than-expected unemployment rate has led CBO to raise its estimates of spending in 2009 for ARRA [i.e., stimulus] provisions that affect unemployment compensation (by $7 billion) and Medicaid (by $1 billion).

In other words, the weaker economy has added $8 billion to stimulus spending in fiscal 2009 alone with, presumably, more to come in fiscal 2010.

These developments further complicate the challenging task of tracking the stimulus.

Tracking the Stimulus

In her recent speech about the impact of the stimulus effort, Christina Romer, Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, noted that “as of the end of June, more than $100 billion had been spent.”

If you visit the government web site tracking the stimulus (, however, it will tell you that the government had paid out only about $60 billion by July 3. (You can find this figure in the chart at the lower right hand corner of the home page.)

Why does Christi report a figure so much larger than the one reported on the official website? Because isn’t tracking all of the budget effects of the stimulus.

Christi’s figure includes the $60 billion of spending reported on plus an internal estimate, prepared by Treasury, of the tax reductions resulting from the stimulus effort through June 24. Those tax reductions are obviously a big deal, totaling $40 billion or slightly more through the end of June.

Based on conversations with friends and journalists, I get the sense that some users of do not realize that its figures cover only the spending side of the stimulus story, not the tax side.

As a result, I think is (unintentionally) confusing people into thinking that the stimulus effort to date is smaller than it has actually been.

I have two suggestions for how to fix this:

Step 1: Reduce Confusion: should slap a warning label on the home page chart (and everywhere else it reports aggregate figures) that says something like: “These figures reflect only the new Federal spending that has resulted from the recovery act. The act also included significant tax reductions that aren’t reflected here.” 

Step 2: Provide the Information: Of course, it would be even better if Treasury would release official estimates of the week-by-week or month-by-month tax reductions flowing from the recovery act. These figures would obviously be estimates — and thus not able to be audited to the same degree as the spending programs — but would be invaluable to analysts trying to track the impact of the stimulus effort.

P.S. As I noted last week, the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that the total budget impact of the stimulus effort reached about $125 billion through the end of July.