An amazing mea culpa from the IMF’s chief economist on austerity

Consider it a mea culpa submerged in a deep pool of calculus and regression analysis: The International Monetary Fund’s top economist today acknowledged that the fund blew its forecasts for Greece and other European economies because it did not fully understand how government austerity efforts would undermine economic growth.

The new and highly technical paper looks again at the issue of fiscal multipliers – the impact that a rise or fall in government spending or tax collection has on a country’s economic output.

IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard writes that the fund misjudged the impact of austerity on European economies. (Stephen Jaffe/IMF)

 

That it comes under the byline of fund economic counselor and research director Olivier Blanchard is significant. Fund research is always published with the caveat that it represents the views of the researcher, not the institution itself. But this paper comes from the top, and attempts to put to rest an issue that has been at the center of debate about how fast countries should move in their efforts to tame large debts and deficits.

If fiscal multipliers are small, countries can cut spending faster or raise more in taxes without much short-term damage. If they are large, then the process can become self-defeating, at least in the short run, with each dollar of government spending cuts, for example, costing the economy more than a dollar in lost output and thus actually increasing debt-to-GDP ratios.

That is what has been happening with a vengeance in Greece, where fund forecasters, as part of the country’s first bailout program in 2010, predicted that the nation could cut deeply into government spending and pretty quickly bounce back to economic growth and rising employment.

Two years later, the Greek economy is still shrinking and unemployment is at 25 percent.

Of course no two circumstances are alike. Shut out of international bond markets, Greece had little choice but to begin bringing its public finances into line or face a catastrophic default. Financing wasn't available to sustain prior spending levels. For an economy that has been reeling for several years, however, a billion or two in extra government programs or investment could have kept a few small businesses open and kept a few more families employed and spending.

“Forecasters significantly underestimated the increase in unemployment and the decline in domestic demand associated with fiscal consolidation,” Blanchard and co-author Daniel Leigh, a fund economist, wrote in the paper.

That somewhat dry conclusion sums up what amounts to a tempest in econometric circles. The fund has been accused of intentionally underestimating the effects of austerity in Greece to make its programs palatable, at least on paper; fund officials have argued that it was its European partners, particularly Germany, who insisted on deeper, faster cuts. The evolving research on multipliers may have helped shift the tone of the debate in countries like Spain and Portugal, where a slower pace of deficit control has been advocated.

But the paper includes some subtle and potentially troubling insights into how the fund works. Blanchard – effectively the top dog when it comes to economic science at the fund – writes in the paper that he could not actually determine what multipliers economists at the country level were using in their forecasts. The number was implicit in their forecasting models – a background assumption rather than a variable that needed to be fine-tuned based on national circumstances or peculiarities.

Heading into a crisis that nearly tore the euro zone apart, in other words, neither Blanchard or any one of the fund's vast army of technicians thought to reexamine whether important assumptions about the region would still hold true in times of crisis.

That, it turns out, was a big mistake. Multipliers vary over time: They may be low in a country where the economy is growing, interest rates are normal  and the banking system is sound. As this research showed, they get larger if interest rates are low, output is falling and the banking system is creaky – conditions that make everyone, from households to investors, less likely to spend, and thus makes the role of government-generated demand that much more important.

Blanchard and Leigh deduced that IMF forecasters have been using a uniform multiplier of 0.5, when in fact the circumstances of the European economy made the multiplier as much as 1.5, meaning that a $1 government spending cut would cost $1.50 in lost output.

What are the implications for the future?

This paper may not be an official position of the IMF, but coming from the agency’s top economist, it is bound to change how the agency generates forecasts.

As for fiscal policy – an issue of interest as the U.S. debate turns towards austerity – Blanchard and Leigh said a better understanding of multipliers does not produce any definitive conclusions.

Many countries still need to cut their deficits – some faster, some slower, depending on a host of other factors.

“The results do not imply that fiscal consolidation is undesirable,” the two write. “Virtually all advanced economies face the challenge of fiscal adjustment in response to elevated government debt levels and future pressures on public finances from demographic change. The short-term effects of fiscal policy on economic activity are only one of the many factors that need to be considered in determining the appropriate pace of fiscal consolidation for any single country.”

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