What do policy makers do when they face record federal budget deficits and trade deficits, high real interest rates, unusually high unemployment -- and then the economy starts to slow down?
That question is more than academic. Although there is a dispute about the economy's immediate course, many analysts and policy makers are concerned that the recent downturn in economic activity may require an answer to that question soon.
The textbook and traditional remedies to an economic slowdown are well known:
* A personal tax cut or a boost in government spending would stimulate the economy.
* A looser monetary policy would reduce interest rates, helping the housing industry and also making it easier for consumers and businesses to borrow. Lower rates could lead to a lower value for the dollar, helping U.S. manufacturers who compete with imports.
But the underlying problems in the economy have made the traditional remedies much riskier or even foreclosed them altogether.
Several leading economists from across the political spectrum were asked what they would do if the economy were entering a growth recession, in which growth is too slow to keep the unemployment rate from rising. The economists don't all believe that such an event will occur, but if it does, they would advocate a range of options -- from a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget to doing nothing at all.
One key complication is the trade deficit, which is a major reason for the slowdown in economic activity in two of the last three quarters. The diversion of strong business and consumer demand from domestic products to imports has caused stagnation in production at the nation's factories, mines and utilities and is blamed for the reduction of 130,000 factory jobs since the beginning of the year.
Ironically, a reason for the large influx in imports is the increase in incomes of Americans during the recovery, a factor that generally leads to a large influx in imports. In traditional economic theory, to reduce the amount of imports, policy makers slow down growth and thus reduce incomes. But that's not an appealing strategy in today's environment, when economic growth already seems to be slowing.
If, on the other hand, policy makers relaxed monetary policy, they would not just boost the domestic economy, but would likely increase imports as well
"In essence, the authorities have monetary levers, they have the traditional fiscal or Keynesian methods to do things that affect the efficiency of the economy," said David Munro, general director of macroeconomics and international economics with General Motors Corp. and a former economist with the Council of Economic Advisers. But because of the federal budget deficits and the trade problem, "They really don't have much left in their tool kit."
"The options are very, very, very few," said Martin Anderson, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and former domestic policy analyst in the Reagan administration.
"It's perfectly true that the deficit restricts your fiscal policy options," said Alice Rivlin, director of economic studies programs at the Brookings Institution.
Several recent economic indicators point to a continued economic slowdown. In two of the last three quarters, real economic growth was below 2 percent -- it was 1.3 percent in the first three months of this year -- and the unemployment rate has held at 7.3 percent for the last three months. New orders for factory-made goods have declined in eight of the last 12 months, suggesting more sluggish growth in the months ahead.
Consumer demand remains strong, growing at a 4.7 percent real rate in the first quarter this year. However, much of that purchasing power is going to imports, which are running at an annual rate of about $130 billion already.
The question arises, at what point does a policy maker take action?
"I see no reason to conclude that growth in the neighborhood of 3 percent is so low to take policy action to boost it to 4 percent," said Andrew Brimmer, a private economist and formerly a member of the Federal Reserve Board. "The economy is on a path providing a modest amount of jobs almost enough to compensate for growth in the labor force and declining productivity."
However, if the economy is declining, as many economists now insist, the policy makers have few, if any, options to do anything about it.
Brimmer said that a tax increase is the only option to revive a sagging economy in the face of high federal budget deficits.
A tax increase would reduce the deficit quickly because it appears unlikely that Congress and the Reagan administration will reduce the deficit by a meaningful amount, Brimmer said.
The deficit should be reduced because it is keeping interest rates high and helping the value of the dollar rise. When the dollar is strong, exports become expensive relative to foreign goods, so more imports are purchased by businesses and consumers.
However, the rule of thumb has been never to increase taxes during a slowdown, because taxes reduce disposable income and thus depress spending. Brimmer said, however, that reducing the deficit is more important than the effects of a tax increase and that the adverse effects on the economy would not be that great.
"The initial impact is a depressant," Brimmer said. "But then it would be stimulative to investment in the long run because you would get real long-term rates down."
The tax increase he envisioned would reduce real growth by about 0.5 percentage point during the first year of the tax. "But I anticipate in two to three years out, I expect a boost in the growth rate of 3 percent with interest rates down," Brimmer said.
Although reducing the deficit is on every economist's wish list, it would have to be accompanied by an increase in the money supply to offset the contractionary effects of less government spending, economists said. Without the offsetting monetary stimulus, a reduction in the fiscal stimulus could drive the economy into a recession, economists said.
Many economists said that the only solution to a sluggish economy is action by the Federal Reserve Board to increase the growth of the money supply.
However, GM's Munro said that the monetary option may increase consumption and investment, but the fear of the inflation caused by higher money growth "could worsen confidence about inflation. That would almost surely drive up interest rates," Munro said.
Munro also said one option would be to streamline regulations and tax reform to make the economy more efficient. However, it would take too long to have an effect.
"If we do now find ourselves in a growth recession, there's not a whole lot we can do except muddle through it," Munro said.
Charles Schultze and Alan Greenspan, former chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers, Rivlin and William Nordhaus, a professor at Yale University, said that the only available option is to increase the money supply.
Rivlin said that increasing the money supply could create a risk of inflation in the future. But she said she would be willing to take the risk to get interest rates down.
Schultze said there is little threat of accelerating inflation because there is still excess capacity at the nation's factories and in the labor market, reducing the risk of demand pressures from bottlenecks in manufacturing or higher wage demands.
The economy had been growing at a rate exceeding 4 percent without producing runaway inflation, so that if money growth were increased to move the economy at that rate, rampant price hikes shouldn't necessarily occur, Schultze said. "If 2 percent growth is not inflationary, the fact that the Fed has to fuel it won't increase inflation," Schultze said.
However, Schultze added a cautionary note. The decline in interest rates produced by faster money growth could lead to a dramatic plunge in the dollar that would be likely to cause an outflow of foreign capital. That capital has helped finance the federal budget and trade deficits. If it should leave suddenly without equivalent reduction in those deficits, interest rates would have to be propped up to keep attracting foreign money.
Schultze said that work still should be done to reduce the deficit, but its effects won't be felt for some time. Other economists, however, said that deficit reduction could become effective psychologically, that people would react positively to the knowledge that a reduction package had been passed and that interest rates would come down.
Anderson said that "nobody really knows what's going to happen" to interest rates, inflation and other variables in the economy if growth continues to slow.
"I don't think people realize what an unusual economy this is," with large deficits and high interest rates," Schultze said. In the short run, "it's difficult to interpret where we're going and how we'll get there."