The large US current account deficit over the last decade – and the corresponding surpluses in China and elsewhere – have been interpreted in two very different ways. Many mainstream economists view the phenomena as primarily the outcome of a low rate of national saving in the United States, beginning with a large budget deficit (the other half of the “twin deficits.”) In this first view, the current account deficit is unsustainable, and will eventually result in a sharp depreciation of the dollar. But this unsustainability view has been challenged by a variety of other economists, with equally impeccable credentials. This paper enumerates eight arguments that they have given as to why we need not worry about the current account deficit. The paper is skeptical of all eight, and sides with the unsustainability view. But they deserve a hearing. The eight are: 1. The siblings are not twins. 2. Alleged investment boom. 3. Low U.S. private savings. 4. Global savings glut. 5. It’s a big world. 6. Valuation effects pay for it. 7. Intermediation rents pay for it. 8. Bretton Woods II.
The euro has arisen as a credible eventual competitor to the dollar as leading international currency, much as the dollar rose to challenge the pound 70 years ago. This paper uses econometrically-estimated determinants of the shares of major currencies in the reserve holdings of the world’s central banks. Significant factors include: size of the home country, rate of return, and liquidity in the relevant home financial center (as measured by the turnover in its foreign exchange market). There is a tipping phenomenon, but changes are felt only with a long lag (we estimate a weight on the preceding year’s currency share around .9). The equation correctly predicts out-of-sample a (small) narrowing in the gap between the dollar and euro over the period 1999-2007. This paper updates calculations regarding possible scenarios for the future. We exclude the scenario where the United Kingdom joins euroland. But we do take into account of the fact that London has nonetheless become the de facto financial center of the euro, more so than Frankfurt. We also assume that the dollar continues in the future to depreciate at the trend rate that it has shown on average over the last 20 years. The conclusion is that the euro may surpass the dollar as leading international reserve currency as early as 2015.
This paper was written for the Economic Policy Institute, and presented at a panel on Corporate and High Income Tax Cuts and The Economy: The Economics, History, and Public Debate of Supply-Side Policies at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, Sept. 12, 2008. The author would like to Imran Khan for research assistance and to thank Jack Frankel, Jeffrey Liebman, and EPI staff for useful suggestions.
Politicians have always faced the temptation to give their constituents tax cuts. But in recent decades “conservative” presidents have enacted large tax cuts that have been anything but conservative fiscally, and have justified them by appealing to theory. In particular, they have appealed to two theories: the Laffer Proposition, which says that cuts in tax rates will pay for themselves via higher economic activity, and the Starve the Beast Hypothesis, which says that tax cuts will increase the budget deficit and put downward pressure on federal spending. It is insufficiently remarked that the two propositions are inconsistent with each other: reductions in tax rates can’t increase tax revenues and reduce tax revenues at the same time. But being mutually exclusive does not prevent them both from being wrong. The Laffer Proposition, while theoretically possible under certain conditions, does not apply to US income tax rates: a cut in those rates reduces revenue, precisely as common sense would indicate. As detailed in the paper, this was the outcome of the two big experiments of recent decades: the Reagan tax cuts of 1981-83 and the Bush tax cuts of 2001-03, both of which contributed to record US budget deficits. It is also the conclusion of more systematic scholarly studies based on more extensive data. Finally, it is the view of almost all professional economists, including the illustrious economic advisers to Presidents Reagan and Bush. So thorough is the discrediting of the Laffer Hypothesis, that many deny that these two presidents or their top officials could have ever believed such a thing. But abundant quotes suggest that they did. The Starve the Beast Hypothesis claims that politicians can’t spend money that they don’t have. In theory, Congressmen are supposedly inhibited from increasing spending by constituents’ fears that the resulting deficits will mean higher taxes for their grandchildren. The theory fails on both conceptual grounds and empirical grounds. Conceptually, one should begin by asking: what it the alternative fiscal regime to which Starve the Beast is being compared? The natural alternative is the regime that was in place during the 1990s, which I call Shared Sacrifice. During that time, any congressman wishing to increase spending had to show how they would raise taxes to pay for it. Logically, a Congressman contemplating a new spending program to benefit some favored supporters will be more inhibited by fears of constituents complaining about an immediate tax increase (under the regime of Shared Sacrifice) than by fears of constituents complaining that budget deficits might mean higher taxes many years into the future. Sure enough, the Shared Sacrifice approach of the 1990s succeeded in eliminating budget deficits, and did so to a substantial degree by cutting the growth of spending. Compare this outcome to the sharp increases in spending that took place when President Reagan took office, when the first President Bush took office, and when the
second President Bush took office. As with the Laffer Hypothesis, more systematic econometric analysis confirms the rejection that these episodes suggests. These matters are not solely of interest to historians or economists. As of the time of writing, the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain appears set to drive its wagon down the same road in which Reagan and Bush have already worn deep ruts. The candidate is apparently selling the same snake oil: he says he believes that tax cuts increase revenues. His principle policy director disavows the Laffer Principle, just as the economists who advised Presidents Reagan and Bush did. But the views of the economic advisers become irrelevant when the candidate takes office. The Queen in Alice in Wonderland said that, with practice, she was able to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Most of us are more limited in our capacity for credulity. If John McCain believes both the Laffer Proposition (tax cuts raise revenues) and Starve the Beast (higher revenues lead to higher spending, anathema to conservatives), then as a good conservative, his duty is clear. He ought to run on a truly novel platform of higher tax rates! Why? Higher tax rates would reduce revenues (this is what Laffer says would happen) and thereby reduce spending (this is what Starve the Beast says would happen). If McCain continues to propose extending the Bush tax cuts, he should at least be forced to choose between the Lafferite defense and the “Starve the Beast” defense. Only then can the rest of us know which of the two mutually inconsistent propositions to refute.