Understanding what a neutral macro-economic policy looks like

This is going to be a quick follow-on to the last post on monetary policy as the only game in town. I feel like the obvious question that post doesn’t answer is this one: what other policy tools should we use? And I want to tee up that question with this post.

First, remember that the fiscal balance is mostly pre-determined. It’s almost entirely the result of things outside of the government’s control like the private sector’s desire to save net of investment and the trade balance with influence from the currency. What the government does control is the spending and taxation choices.

I would argue that making spending and taxation choices based on a debt or deficit metric – the way the eurozone does by the way – creates undesirable reflexivity. What I’m saying is that the government is supposed to make tax and spending choices to fulfill the public purpose for which it was elected. And that means that when the deficit expands during a recession, a government which responds by cutting spending or raising taxes is abrogating its duties to meet a moving target.

The target moves because, by changing spending and taxation decisions based on a deficit or debt yardstick, the government changes how the private sector acts and ends up changing the ultimate debt and deficit. Look at Greece, for example. The reason the country kept missing its deficit targets was because the government’s austerity sucked money out of the private sector. And that lowered the private sector’s spending power, which lowered tax receipts and expanded the deficit. It made the deficit a moving target.

Goodhart’s Law tells you to never use a yardstick as a target for exactly this reason.

So what DO you do? The neutral macro policy is to let the cycle just happen and do nothing. Neutral means not deviating from the overall macro policy course in response to fluctuations in the business cycle.

Now on the monetary policy side, the central bank is supposed to move rates up and down to provide the amount of accommodation consistent with the medium-term economic outlook. But that is in part dependent on the fiscal side. And if the fiscal gear is in neutral, monetary policy would be better able to do what policy makers want.

For example, after a monster debt bubble and financial crisis, the US private sector wanted to deleverage. The neutral fiscal policy would have been to simply allow that deleveraging to take place and accept the deficit that resulted. Sure, one could add stimulus by cutting taxes or increasing spending. But that’s not neutral anymore than tightening to fix the deficit would be.

The reality is that government exists to fulfill a public purpose. And if the political system is effective, it would be fulfilling that purpose at all times irrespective of where we are in the business cycle. Neutral policy is to let the cycle play out with the existing fiscal and monetary tools on offer, leaving the existing taxation and spending decisions in place.

The desire to add stimulus is a sign that the fiscal stabilizers aren’t robust enough, that the social safety net is too porous, and that macro policy in the last cycle wasn’t neutral. The desire to act pro-cyclically and cut deficits in the face of a private sector deleveraging is simply a misunderstanding of the constraints on fiscal policy in a fiat currency world.

I hope that explanation puts my thoughts on the limitations of monetary policy in context.


Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty five years of business experience. He has also been a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College.