(Co-authored with Amandeep Kaur)
The macroeconomic uncertainty in times of COVID-19 pandemic is hard to measure. Economists and policymakers use the variable “output gap” to capture the “slack”. It is a deviation between potential output and actual output, which is a standard representation of a “cycle”. The potential output is an unobserved variable. There is an increasing concern about the way we measure the potential output—decomposing the output into trends and cycles. This is because the business cycle always is not a “cycle”. Sometimes, the “cycle is the trend’, as rightly argued by IMF Chief economist Gita Gopinath in her paper with Mark Aguir (bit.ly/38vuOCd).
When the macroeconomic crises and recessions tend to “permanently” push down the level of a country’s GDP, it is inappropriate to assume that output will bounce back to previous levels. It is argued that the output gap is ill-measured. An IMF paper highlights the significance of hysteresis (the dependence of economic path on history) in analysing the output dynamics in crisis (bit.ly/2WC06S9). In the backdrop of Covid-19 crisis, there is a renewed interest in “hysteresis” and business cycles. The IMF paper argues that the state of the economy and the level of GDP are history-dependent (“hysteresis”). The hysteresis has urgent relevance for designing apt fiscal and monetary policies to tackle low demand during a recession.
The persistence of sluggish growth and weak macroeconomic recovery have robbed the sleep of many economic policymakers and academicians. For instance, in 2009, in the Economic Report of the US President for 2009, the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) have forecasted a fast rebound of economic growth in the aftermath of global financial recession. However, the macro scholars have responded to CEA’s claim - that “recessions are followed by quick rebounds” - with vehement blog debates (bit.ly/2KqYbNT). The debate was highly technical and predominantly based on whether the growth time series has unit-roots. With the empirical evidence of more than a decade, we know now that recession was not followed by quick growth rebound. The researchers identified that the secular fall in growth was due to the productivity slowdown, legacies of debt crisis, chronic deficiency of demand, labour market challenges and decline in the equilibrium real interest rates.
The output gap is a crucial variable in the macroeconomic policymaking, by both central banks and the fiscal authorities. The central banks base their inflation targeting for setting the policy interest rate on the deviation of inflationary expectations from its nominal anchor and a measure of the output gap to capture the “economic slack”. Similarly, fiscal authorities measure “cyclically-adjusted fiscal stance” to analyse public debt sustainability.
With zero lower bound on nominal interest rates, the monetary policy has proved inefficacious as a countercyclical policy tool to reset the economy to pre-crisis growth levels. The fiscal re-dominance at the same time, though desirous, has been bound to the fiscal austerity wave and tight fiscal rules. The world nations have missed the chance to reset the economy to the pre-crisis levels through “fiscal re-dominance”.
In India, MoF has not used cyclically neutral fiscal constructs for policymaking. However, RBI’s inflation targeting is inclusive of output gap estimations. The recurrence of forecasting errors in growth by multilateral agencies, including IMF points to the fact that weak economic recovery was not widely expected. This led to a rethinking about “output gap” itself.
A recent blogpost in VoxEU by IMF economists pointed out that “the frequency of output gap discussions is positively correlated with a country’s income level: 66% of IMF staff reports covering advanced economies mentioned the output gap, versus 29% for emerging markets, and only 5% for low-income countries. In the latter, structural issues are often of greater relevance”. (bit.ly/3h8b0Zg). The IMF scholars found a limited connection between the size of the output gap and policy recommendations. They suggest caution in using output gap estimates for policymaking during the Covid-19 recovery. Ex-ante, a higher output gap is expected to be linked with a tighter monetary policy stance. However, analysing both levels and changes in output gaps and policy advice, they found only a slight positive link between the level of the output gap and the recommended tightening of monetary policy, but a very limited trend for fiscal policy and public debt management. In the Presidential Address1 by Oliver Blanchard in American Economic Association (AEA) meetings in Atlanta in January 2019, he had put it up front that “public debt has no fiscal costs if real rate of interest is not greater than real rate of growth of economy”. He also highlighted that high public debt is not catastrophic if “more debt” can be justified by clear benefits like public investment or “output gap” reduction. He also highlighted the “hysteresis effects” (the persistent impact of short-run fluctuations on the long-term potential output) and suggested that a temporary fiscal expansion during a contraction could even reduce debt on a longer horizon.
There is an increasing recognition of the fact that public investment has suffered from fiscal consolidation across advanced and emerging economies. This is particularly important, when public investment is one of the crucial determinants in strengthening private corporate investment in the context of emerging economies2. He mentioned that if we are worried about a “bad equilibrium”, it is better to have a “contingent fiscal rule” (which may not need to be used) rather than steady fiscal consolidation.
Economic cycles defined as a succession of crises that followed periods of prosperity, though these peaks and troughs do not follow a given frequency or periodicity (bit.ly/3h9xQ2C) . The assumption that demand shocks have only a transitory impact on the economy needs a relook. Even demand shocks can have a permanent impact on output. The persistent effects of recessions imply that “cycles” themselves affect the trend. With the persistence of cyclicality, the economy will not rebound to prior trend and persistence can be seen as the permanent “scars” left by the recession (bit.ly/2WC06S9). Therefore, In a crisis, the output gap may become more difficult to measure and interpret. In addition, as argued by the IMF economists, there are no obvious silver bullets that address the paucities of output gap construction.
Romer (NBER, 2020) (bit.ly/3pd7foi) suggested the use of “confidence intervals” when presenting output gap results and emphasising on both upside and downside risks in—Covid-19 induced crisis and growth recovery—policy discussions would be useful. Though output gaps remain a popular measure for capturing “slacks”, their relevance for policymaking in Covid-19 crisis is controversial due to the methodological challenges to arrive at the potential output. In the context of emerging economies, the business cycles and the level of economic growth need a different interpretation incorporating the “hysteresis”.
1. The speech is posted in https://piie.com/commentary/speeches-papers/public-debt-and-low-interest-rates
2. Chakraborty, Lekha 2016: ‘Fiscal Consolidation, Budget deficits and Macro economy, New Delhi: Sage Publications.
An earlier version of this post was published in the Financial Express, December 23, 2020.
Lekha Chakraborty is Professor, amd Amandeep Kaur is Economist, NIPFP, New Delhi.
The views expressed in the post are those of the authors only. No responsibility for them should be attributed to NIPFP.