Bernanke Offers Little Help On Budget Deficit

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Thursday, 28 April 2011 05:51

Given the deficit obsession of the Washington media it is remarkable that none of the reporters covering Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke's press conference noted the fact that he offered little help on dealing with the budget deficit. There were two obvious steps that he could have taken.

First, the main reason that the deficit has soared in the last few years is that the economy collapsed following the bursting of the housing bubble, which Bernanke apparently failed to see. (We are a very forgiving lot in Washington.) If the unemployment rate was brought down quickly by more aggressive monetary policy, then the deficit could be reduced by an enormous amount.

In 1996, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected a deficit of almost $250 billion (@ 2.6 percent of GDP) for the 2000 fiscal year. The country actually had a budget surplus of almost the same size in fiscal 2000, representing a shift from deficit to surplus in the year 2000 of more than 5 percentage points of GDP.

Congress did not approve any major tax increases in this 4-year period, nor were there any major unscheduled cuts to spending. Rather this shift from deficit to surplus of more than 5 percentage points of GDP ($750 billion in today's economy) was attributable almost entirely to better than expected economic performance.

In 1996 CBO projected that the unemployment rate would be 6.0 percent in 2000. Unemployment actually averaged just 4.0 percent. This was due to the fact that Alan Greenspan ignored the overwhelming consensus in the economics profession and allowed the unemployment rate to fall below the conventionally accepted levels of the NAIRU.

This decision, which was made over the objections of the Clinton appointees to the Fed, allowed millions of more people to get jobs than would have otherwise been the case. It also allowed strong wage growth for people at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution as their labor was then in demand. And it reduced the budget deficit. Because Bernanke offered little hope of more aggressive Fed actions to reduce unemployment, he is not offering any similar growth dividend on the budget deficit.

The other potential help that Bernanke is not offering is holding large amounts of government debt. The Fed now holds close to $3 trillion in government debt and other assets. If it continued to hold this debt throughout the decade, rather than selling it back to the private sector, it would reduce interest payments by close to $1.5 trillion over the course of the decade. It could deal with any inflationary pressures resulting from these holdings by simply raising reserve requirements. Bernanke is not offering this help either.

It would have been useful to readers to point out what the Fed is not doing to help address the deficit.