What Happened in 2013? Two Clarifications Among Current Debates

January 16, 2015

Is it useful to clarify data and claims in the economics blogosphere? Probably not, but I’ll give it a shot, as there’s two sets of arguments that could use more light rather than heat.

What Happened in 2013? Sumner and Wren-Lewis

Scott Sumner wrote this about Simon Wren-Lewis:

“Simon Wren-Lewis also gets the GDP growth data wrong, in a way that makes austerity look worse. He claims that RGDP growth was 2.3% in 2012 and 2.2% in 2013 (the year of austerity in the US.) But that’s annual y-o-y data, and since the austerity began on January 1st 2013, you need Q4 over Q4 data. In fact, RGDP growth in 2012, Q4 over Q4, was only 1.67%, whereas growth in the austerity year of 2013 nearly doubled to 3.13%.”

There’s no getting it wrong here: there’s simply two methods. Is it better to take the average annual rates and compare them (as Wren-Lewis does) or is it better to look at strict endpoints (as Sumner does)? An important thing about looking at Q4 vs Q4 data, as Sumner does, is to make sure that you haven’t accidentally set up your endpoints to amplify a trend that isn’t there. That technique is very sensitive to where you put the endpoints.

And sure enough, the quarters before and after that range featured negative or near zero growth. What if you redo this moving the quarters back and forth one period? Well, Q1 over Q1 2014 data drops to 1.9%, while Q3 over Q3 2012 rises to 2.7% (Q1 over Q1 2012 was 2.1%). It’s not encouraging if your argument falls apart because you move the data one step. We can graph out the Q over Q data for every quarter in fact; note Sumner is points to a single quarter that obviously sticks out. There’s a reason people might want to average the data in these situations, as Lewis does.

Simon-Wren Lewis, whose blog I really enjoy, already pointed out austerity didn’t start on January 1st, 2013, of course. And it didn’t; note the more consistent growth in the graphic in late 2010. But even better, the fourth quarter of 2012 featured a massive decline in military spending. According to Alan Krueger for the White House, “A likely explanation for the sharp decline in Federal defense spending is uncertainty concerning the automatic spending cuts that were scheduled to take effect in January.” That’s an additional problem for setting up this issue this way.

What Did People Say Would Happen? Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs argues that people worried about additional austerity in 2013 were saying that it would cause another recession. Sachs: “Indeed, deficit cuts [especially in 2013] would court a reprise of 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt prematurely reduced the New Deal stimulus and thereby threw the United States back into recession.”

I paid a lot of attention to these debates, and saw three estimates of the impact of 2013 austerity on the recovery: Mark Zandi at Moody’s EconomyEPI, and the CBO. All three were close to each other in their estimates. None predicted that we’d go back into recession or have no growth.

What were they predicting? Zandi put it clearly: “Altogether, lower federal government spending and higher taxes are expected to reduce 2013 real GDP growth…With such a heavy fiscal weight on the economy, it is hard to see how growth could accelerate, at least in the first half of 2013.”

That’s consistent with what we’ve seen. A drag, preventing accelerate growth and delaying a takeoff in 2013 and into 2014. I don’t see how Sachs can obviously claim that these numbers aren’t consistent with the idea that the government has been a net drag since 2011, or point to a pickup in late 2014 as obviously disproving anything. Maybe on closer, empirical grounds you could (though the empirical literature is finding multiplers), but not at this high level.

In my original question about the Federal Reserve versus austerity in 2013, which seems to animate a lot of these debates, the issue I put forward was whether the Federal Reserve could hit the inflation target it announced with the Evans Rule shifting expectations and open-ended purchases to back that up, while government spending was a drag. It did not.