Budget and Economic Outlook for 2011 and Beyond

October 21, 2010

I am honored to be speaking today to “Town Hall Los Angeles,” which has been providing a public forum for discussion of important issues since 1937. My remarks highlight aspects of my testimony to the Senate Budget Committee a few weeks ago. (Sorry, Town Hall LA does not use slides, so there is nothing to accompany this summary.)

CBO and most private forecasters expect that the economic recovery will proceed at a modest pace during the next few years. In the forecast that we completed this summer, the unemployment rate remains above 8 percent until 2012. Two key factors influence that forecast. First, international experience suggests that recoveries from recessions that were spurred by financial crises tend to be slower than average. Following such a crisis, it takes time for consumers to rebuild their wealth, for financial institutions to restore their capital bases, and for nonfinancial firms to regain the confidence required to invest in new plant and equipment; all of those forces tend to restrain spending. Second, our projection is conditioned on current law, under which both the waning of fiscal stimulus and the scheduled increases in taxes (resulting from the expiration of previous tax cuts) will temporarily subtract from growth, especially in 2011.

Weak economic growth has serious social consequences. About 9½ percent of the labor force is officially unemployed, but many other people are underemployed or have become discouraged and left the labor force. The increase in unemployment is not uniform across demographic groups or regions; rather, the unemployment rate has risen disproportionately for less-educated workers, for men, and for people living in certain states. Moreover, the incidence of unemployment lasting longer than 26 weeks has been the highest by far in the past 60 years. CBO published an issue brief in April about the personal consequences of job losses.

Policymakers cannot reverse all of the effects of the housing and credit boom, the subsequent bust and financial crisis, and the deep recession. However, in CBO’s judgment, there are both monetary and fiscal policy options that, if applied at a sufficient scale, would increase output and employment during the next few years. In a report last January, we analyzed a diverse set of temporary policies and reported their two-year effects on the economy per dollar of budgetary cost, what one might call the “bang for the buck.” The overall effects of those policies would depend also on the scale at which they were implemented; making a significant difference in an economy with an annual output of nearly $15 trillion would involve a considerable budgetary cost.

In brief, CBO found the following: A temporary increase in aid to the unemployed would have the largest effect on the economy per dollar of budgetary cost. A temporary reduction in payroll taxes paid by employers would also have a large bang-for-the-buck, as it would both increase demand for goods and services and provide a direct incentive for additional hiring; this approach also could be scaled to a significant magnitude. Temporary expensing of business investments and providing aid to states would have smaller effects, and yet smaller effects would arise from a temporary increase in government spending on infrastructure or a temporary across-the-board reduction in income taxes.

However, there would be a price to pay for fiscal stimulus: Those same fiscal policy options would increase federal debt, which is already larger relative to the size of the economy than it has been in more than 50 years—and is headed higher. If policymakers wanted to achieve both stimulus and sustainability, a combination of policies would be required: changes in taxes and spending that would widen the deficit now but reduce it relative to baseline projections after a few years.

To illustrate this point, we analyzed both the short-term and longer-term effects of various options for extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, extending higher exemption amounts for the AMT, and reinstating the estate tax as it stood in 2009 (adjusted for inflation). As I reported in the recent testimony, permanently or temporarily extending all or part of the expiring income tax cuts would boost income and employment in the next few years relative to what would occur under current law. That would occur because, all else being equal, lower tax payments increase demand for goods and services and thereby boost economic activity. That increase in demand is crucial because we think that economic growth in the near term will be restrained by a shortfall in demand. A permanent extension of the tax cuts would provide a larger boost to income and employment in the next two years than would a temporary extension. In addition, an extension of all of the provisions would provide a larger boost than would an extension of all provisions except those applying only to high-income taxpayers.

But the effects of extending those tax cuts on the economy in the longer term would be very different from their effects during the next two years. The longer-term effects would be the net result of two competing forces: All else being equal, lower tax revenues increase budget deficits and thereby government borrowing, which reduces economic growth by crowding out investment. At the same time, lower tax rates boost growth by increasing people’s saving and work effort. Those effects on the supply of labor and capital are crucial because we think that economic growth over that longer horizon will be restrained by supply factors. For some of the options, our estimates of the net effect of these forces based on different models and assumptions span a broad range. But the averages of the estimates across different models and assumptions indicate that all four of the options we analyzed—permanently or temporarily extending all or part of the expiring income tax cuts—would probably reduce national income in 2020 relative to what would otherwise occur. Beyond 2020, the reductions in income from all four of the policy options would become larger—especially for the permanent extensions.

Similarly, permanent large increases in spending that were not accompanied by reductions in other spending or tax increases would also put federal debt on an unsustainable path. For example, if discretionary appropriations apart from those for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan increased at the rate of growth of nominal GDP, rather than increasing just with inflation as assumed in our baseline, debt held by the public would reach nearly 80 percent of GDP by 2020.