The allocative function
The allocative function in budgeting determines on what government revenue will be spent. Because a high proportion of national income is now devoted to public expenditure, allocation decisions become more significant in political and economic terms. At all times and in all countries the calls for expenditure on specific services or activities, or for more generous transfer payments, will always exceed the amount that can reasonably be raised in taxation or by borrowing. The debate about how these scarce resources should be allocated has continued for hundreds of years, and, although numerous methods of deciding on priorities have emerged, it has never been satisfactorily resolved. In practice, most democracies contain a number of different factions that disagree on the proper allocation of resources and indeed the proper level of public sector involvement in the economy; the frequent change of national governments is related to the constant search for the right answers.
Economists have sought to provide objective criteria for public expenditures through the so-called theory of public goods. It is generally recognized that some goods needed by the public cannot be provided through the private market. Lighthouses are a classic example. The costs of a lighthouse are such that no one shipowner will want to finance it; on the other hand, if a lighthouse is provided for one shipowner, it can be made available to all for no additional cost. Indeed it must be available to all, since there is no practical means of excluding ships from using the facility provided by the lighthouse, even if their owners have refused to pay for it. The only practical method of providing such services is by collective action.
If goods are to be provided in this way, rather than through the private market, it is immediately necessary to confront the twin problems of deciding how much to provide and who should pay for that provision. Even if all individuals wanted the service equally—as, perhaps, with lighthouses—their views on the extent of the service would be influenced by the allocation of the costs. Where different households may have different preferences and some may not want the service at all—as, for example, with defense by nuclear weapons—these difficulties are compounded. Economists have tried to devise abstract voting schemes that would reconcile these difficulties, but these appear to have little practical application.
Moreover, others would challenge this whole approach to the problem. It would be absurd to say that the consumer has a taste for national defense and that it is the job of the government to satisfy it. The task of national leaders is to evolve a defense policy and persuade the public to accept it. Similarly, conservationists must attempt to awaken the public to the importance of parks and wildlife. In the context of public policy, the efficient allocation of resources consists not merely of distributing funds in the pursuit of given objectives but also involves determining the objectives themselves.
Genuine public goods pose severe problems for the national budget; it is very difficult to decide how far particular goods—the arts, national parks, even defense—should be supplied, and therefore no formal procedure of determination is likely to evolve. What should be given to each will continue to be the subject of intense political debate, with allocation changing as the government changes.
The concept of merit goods assists governments in deciding which public or other goods should be supplied. Merit goods are commodities that the public sector provides free or cheaply because the government wishes to encourage their consumption. Goods such as subsidized housing or social services, which predominantly help the poor, or health care services, which help the poor and elderly, are generally regarded as having considerable merit and therefore have a strong claim on government resources. Other examples include the provision of retraining schemes or urban regeneration programs.
Once decisions have been made on how the limited national budget should be divided between different groups of activities, or even before this, public authorities need to decide which specific projects should be undertaken. One method that has been used is cost-benefit analysis. This attempts to do for government programs what the forces of the marketplace do for business programs: to measure, and compare in terms of money, the discounted streams of future benefits and future costs associated with a proposed project. If the ratio of benefits to costs is considered satisfactory, the project should be undertaken. “Satisfactory” means, among other things, that the project is superior to any available public or private alternative. Or, if funds are limited, public investment projects may be assigned priorities according to their cost-benefit ratios.
One difficulty with cost-benefit analysis is that every government agency has an incentive to estimate favourable ratios for its own projects. It must, after all, compete with other agencies for funds. No one can be certain as to the returns to be expected from an irrigation canal or a highway. Private investors have also been known to exaggerate their claims in appealing to stockholders, but they are generally subject to market sanctions that encourage them to err on the side of caution.
In addition to the possibility that cost-benefit analysis may be biased by the preformed views of those commissioning the study, there are other, more fundamental difficulties. Almost all proposals have effects that are difficult to value in monetary terms. The siting of a new airport brings problems of noise and property blight to local people and increases the risk that civilians may die in an accident. Putting a sensible value on human life has been a continuing difficulty for those carrying out cost-benefit analyses, even though every project does in fact affect probabilities of life and death. These problems are, of course, not confined to cost-benefit analysis. Additional expenditure on health service or on road safety or better housing or heating old people’s homes in winter all affect the number of people who die prematurely. The failure of cost-benefit analysis to provide answers to the problems of valuing life, or the quality of life, is a reflection of the wider problem confronting all decisions on public expenditure: the influence of subjective judgment.
Public ownership and privatization
Until the mid-1970s the proportion of economic activity controlled by the government and the share of taxes in national income tended to increase in most countries. Since then, however, challenges to this growth in the role of government have become increasingly influential, and moves to privatization have been common.
There are several types of privatization. One involves the sale to private owners of state-owned assets, and this is most correctly called privatization. Publicly owned houses may be sold to their occupants. Commodity stockpiles may be reduced or disbanded. Increasingly, however, attention has been turned to the sale of publicly owned industries, thus reversing the move to nationalization that occurred, particularly in western Europe, around and after World War II.
Where the privatized industry operates in a competitive environment, no new problems arise. Singapore has privatized its airline system, for example, which now competes with a mixture of privately and publicly owned international airlines. Where privatization occurs but monopoly continues, however, there are new difficulties. Both Japan and the United Kingdom have privatized their telecommunications networks. Although, in certain limited areas of telecommunications, competition is possible—and has been allowed to develop in both the United States and Britain—technical and legal restrictions inhibit competition in many sectors of the industry.
Regulation is necessary, therefore, to restrict the freedom of privatized monopolies, or near monopolies, to raise prices and to exploit consumers in other ways. In the United States, which has by far the longest history of regulating private utilities, such regulation has normally limited the rate of return that they earn to what is considered a fair level. A disadvantage of this is that it may give the industry no greater incentive to increased efficiency than would exist in public ownership, since higher costs can be passed directly onto consumers. There have been experiments, therefore, with other forms of regulation, which seek to strike a balance between incentives for better performance and the ability to exploit consumers.
A further problem for such regulation is that utilities and similar industries normally operate in both competitive and monopoly markets. They may be inclined to use their monopoly power in some areas to gain unfair competitive advantages in others. Despite these difficulties, an increasingly wide range of industries, ranging from water supply to airports, are now considered candidates for privatization.
Privatization can also mean the dismantling of existing statutory restrictions on competition. State activities are often protected by legal prohibitions on competing private enterprise. German railways, for example, are entirely state-owned, and the law not only prevents competing railroads but severely restricts coach services and limits competitive trucking. The dismantling of such restrictions is seen as one method of improving the efficiency of state concerns.
Another demand of privatization is the contracting out of publicly provided services. U.S. municipalities have often entrusted activities such as refuse collection, and in some cases even fire service, to private contractors, and European countries are increasingly experimenting with similar schemes. These possibilities demonstrate that a service may be government-financed but not necessarily provided by the government; if extended more widely, the concept could yield a different view of the economic role of the state.
While the objective of privatization is often to increase the efficiency of government activities, its implementation may also have important effects on government revenue. Any savings that result from lower costs lead directly to lower tax rates. Where budgeting procedures do not distinguish between capital and current transactions, the proceeds of privatization sales provide a once-and-for-all boost to revenues. The availability of this source of funding for state activity has given an artificial attractiveness to privatization, especially in the United Kingdom. If an industry is sold for the present value of its expected earnings and if these earnings are the same in public and private ownership, privatization should have no net impact on public finances. If it is expected to be more efficient in the private sector, government finance, on balance, gains. If it is sold for less than the maximum revenue that would be obtained—and this is often the case, either because of the difficulty of selling assets as large as nationalized industries or because the government wishes to secure a wide dispersion of share ownership—the impact is likely to be negative.
Other forms of government intervention
Government spending is not the only way in which government allocates resources. Its regional policies will determine whether domestic and overseas investors build factories in particular places, while its taxation policies will determine whether they build them at all. Government competition and merger policies affect the structure of industry and commerce, while regulatory activities—setting the number of hours shops may be open or who may buy cigarettes—have profound effects on commercial activities.
Government also affects allocations by setting the legal and administrative framework within which the economy functions. It may specify minimum wage levels or control the siting of new ventures and the activities of existing ones. Such activities of government profoundly affect the allocation of resources, but they are rarely monitored or subject to serious control.
The stabilization function
Stabilization of the economy (e.g., full employment, control of inflation, and an equitable balance of payments) is one of the goals that governments attempt to achieve through manipulation of fiscal and monetary policies. Fiscal policy relates to taxes and expenditures, monetary policy to financial markets and the supply of credit, money, and other financial assets.
History of stabilization policy
The use of fiscal and monetary policy as a means of stabilizing the economy is relatively recent, for the most part a development of the period after World War II. During the 19th century the only stabilization policy was that associated with the international gold standard. Under the gold standard, if a deficit occurred in a country’s balance of payments, gold tended to flow out of the country. To counteract this process, the monetary authorities would raise interest rates and stiffen credit requirements, causing a fall in prices, income, and employment; this in turn led to a reduction in imports and an expansion of exports, thus improving the balance of payments. If a country had a surplus in its balance of payments, gold tended to flow in; this meant that the interest rate fell and the supply of money and credit was increased. As a consequence, imports were stimulated and exports discouraged so that the surplus in the balance of payments tended to disappear. The adjustment mechanism also included another important element: capital movements between countries. When interest rates fell in surplus countries and rose in deficit countries, mobile international financial capital tended to flow from the former to the latter, contributing to the elimination of deficits and surpluses in the balance of payments. The working of this mechanism was partly automatic and partly the result of deliberate actions by the monetary authorities in each country.
In this form of stabilization policy, external stability was achieved at the cost of stability in the domestic economy: fluctuations in domestic prices, incomes, and employment functioned as the levers for bringing about equilibrium in the balance of payments. Occasionally governments attempted to reduce the impact of this mechanism on the domestic economy, particularly on the price level. In particular, governments in some surplus countries took “sterilization actions” to prevent the gold inflow from increasing the supply of money and credit to the maximum extent. This could be done if the central bank offset its purchases of foreign exchange and gold with sales of government securities on the domestic credit market.
A somewhat more ambitious type of stabilization policy emerged in the period after World War I. During the late 1920s and early 1930s the need to reduce unemployment acquired more urgency. Previously, the exchange rate, the balance of payments, and occasionally the price level had been considered more important than the situation in the labour market. During the 1920s unemployment in Great Britain rose to very high levels (between 20 and 30 percent of the labour force). Consequently, there was much discussion of whether employment could be increased by actions of the public authorities. At first, the discussion in Great Britain centred on the feasibility of public works programs as a means of putting men to work; there was a growing belief that these programs might also be a good means of raising the general level of economic activity through their effect on purchasing power. Some maintained that budget deficits would also raise the level of economic activity. An active part in this discussion was taken by the economist J.M. Keynes, and also by the Liberal Party, which in 1928 published proposals for government intervention entitled Britain’s Industrial Future.
The first countries to adopt the new policies were Sweden and Germany. When the Nazi Party took power in Germany in 1933, its rearmament policies helped to reduce unemployment and to stimulate the economy. In Sweden, the new Social Democratic government attempted in more modest ways to expand the economy and ease unemployment through increased government expenditures in 1932–33. In the United States, a very limited attempt was made by the administration of Pres. Herbert Hoover; but Franklin D. Roosevelt made a more aggressive effort with such projects as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which carried on its payroll an average of more than 2,000,000 workers per year from 1935 to 1941. Unemployment, however, persisted at a high level until World War II, although there was a significant drop from a level of about 25 percent in 1933.
The new stabilization policy needed a theoretical rationale if it was ever to win general acceptance from the leaders of public opinion. The main credit for providing this belongs to Keynes. In his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1935–36) he endeavoured to show that a capitalist economy with its decentralized market system does not automatically generate full employment and stable prices and that governments should pursue deliberate stabilization policies. There has been much controversy among economists over the substance and meaning of Keynes’s theoretical contribution. Essentially, he argued that high levels of unemployment might persist indefinitely unless governments took monetary and fiscal action. At that time he believed that fiscal action was likely to be more effective than monetary measures. In the deep depression of the 1930s, interest rates had ceased to exert much influence on the ways in which owners of wealth disposed of their funds; they might choose to hold larger cash balances instead of spending more money as the traditional theory had suggested. Nor were investors inclined to take advantage of low interest rates if they could not find profitable uses for borrowed funds, particularly if their firms were already suffering from excess capacity. Keynes’s pessimistic view of monetary policy had a strong influence on economists and governments during and immediately after World War II, with the result that monetary policy was not tried very much during the 1940s. It was often forgotten during the policy discussions of the time that Keynes’s views on the efficacy of monetary policy were related to the particular situation of the 1930s.
Another influential idea embodied in Keynes’s writing was that of economic stagnation. He suggested that in the advanced industrial countries people tended to save more as their incomes grew larger and that private consumption tended to be a smaller and smaller part of the national income. This implied that investment would have to take a continually larger share of the national income in order to maintain full employment. Since he doubted that investment would rise sufficiently to do this, Keynes was rather pessimistic about the possibility of achieving full employment in the long run. He thus suggested that there might be some permanent tendency to high levels of unemployment. This also had considerable influence on economic policy during the early postwar period; it was some time before those in decision-making positions realized that inflation, rather than stagnation and unemployment, was to be the main problem confronting them.
The desirability of pursuing policies to maintain high levels of employment was generally accepted in most industrial countries after the war. In 1944 the British government stated in its White Paper on Employment Policy that “the government accept as one of their primary aims and responsibilities the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment after the war.” One of the most influential British economists at this time was Sir William Beveridge, whose book Full Employment in a Free Society had a strong impact on general thinking. Similar ideas were expressed in the United States in the Employment Act of 1946, which stated: “The Congress hereby declares that it is the continuing policy and responsibility of the Federal Government to . . . promote maximum employment, production and purchasing power.” The Employment Act was less specific as to policy than the British government’s White Paper, but it established a council of economic advisers to assist the president and called upon him to present to every regular session of Congress a report on the state of the economy. The president was also required to present a program showing “ways and means of promoting a high level of employment and production.” Similar programs were adopted in other countries. In Sweden in 1944 the Social Democrats published a document somewhat similar to the British White Paper, and other such declarations were made in Canada and Australia.
Fiscal policy attempts to control the actions of individuals and companies by means of spending and taxation decisions. On the expenditure side, it can achieve this by spending money in ways—for example, on construction projects—that stimulate other activity, while on the taxation side it can affect work, investment, or production decisions by changing tax rates and levels. Fiscal policy thus has two major components: an overall effect generated by the balance between the resources the government puts into the economy through expenditures and the resources it takes out through taxation, charges, or borrowing; and a microeconomic effect generated by the specific policies it adopts. Both are important in stabilizing the economy.
Overall fiscal policy involves the government in deciding whether it should spend more than it receives or less. The development of countercyclical fiscal policies in the post-World War II period reflected the explicit attempt by some governments to protect their population from world recessions by deliberately spending additional money at appropriate times. Experience with countercyclical fiscal policy has been disappointing; in many cases, the lag between identifying the problem and fiscal response has been too long, with the result that a fiscal boost coincided with the next boom, while a contraction might coincide with the next recession. Fiscal policies that were intended to be countercyclical could end up exacerbating the original problems.
Another facet to fiscal policy is a government’s attempt to guide the development of the economy by more specifically targeted policies. Thus most countries have from time to time attempted to cushion particular areas from the effects of a decline in their dominant industry by regional policies, to affect labour supply and demand by taxation, and to change the pattern of consumer purchases by changes to indirect taxes. These policies sometimes backfire as unforeseen consequences and interactions occur.
The simple notion of budget balance, although widespread, can be seriously misleading to one who attempts to decide whether a government is being expansionary or contractionary at a particular time. If nothing else were happening, and there were no inflation, no changes in unemployment or exchange rates, and the country were to have a constant population of all ages, then the government’s fiscal position, or stance, might be said to be neutral (neither expansionary nor contractionary) if spending were an exact match of taxation, charges, and profits on public sector activities. (Even in such a case, however, if it were pursuing specific microeconomic policies, its neutrality might hide significant effects on the behaviour of the economy.) This notion has led many countries to believe that fiscal position is appropriately measured by the size of public borrowing, because this measures the difference between the amount government spends and the amount it receives.
The recognition that simple budget balance (not accounting for inflation) may not in fact be neutral when other things are changing has led to a number of suggestions for more sophisticated measures of fiscal position. The full-employment budget surplus suggested by the Council of Economic Advisers in the United States, for instance, attempts to adjust the simple measure of budget deficit or surplus in reaction to the effects of deviations from a level of unemployment that it regards as “normal” or “full.” The argument for this kind of adjustment is that high levels of unemployment cause increased benefit payments and reduced tax receipts that are abnormal, and if the government were to try to maintain a simple budget balance at times of high employment, this would require a large contraction in the other activities it supports. A simple deficit, then, may be a surplus on a full-employment basis, and government action may be severely contractionary despite positive levels of borrowing.
Another type of suggested adjustment recognizes that inflation erodes the real value of public debt. The neutral simple budget balance, it is argued, only requires that the government maintain its real asset position. If inflation is eroding the real value of existing debt, then the government may borrow to an adjusted, or revised, level before its actions actually reduce public assets.
Although it has come to be recognized that a simple budget deficit or surplus does not adequately reflect a government’s fiscal position, no country directly employs measures revised for unemployment and inflation in deciding on countercyclical policies. This is partly because they are more difficult for politicians to understand and partly because it is genuinely difficult to decide on the precise form they should take. Whatever the reason, many countries, even at times of high inflation and unemployment, continue to focus on the simple budget balance measures. The United Kingdom, for example, continued in 1980–81 to attempt to reduce public borrowing during a serious world recession and ran an adjusted surplus. This procyclical policy is blamed by many as a cause of the high levels of unemployment that subsequently prevailed in that country.
The heyday of fiscal stabilization policies was, however, the 1950s and ’60s. In the 1970s governments became increasingly concerned about inflationary pressures, and important disturbances, particularly the oil crisis, disrupted world economies. Stabilization became a less important policy goal and one that governments were increasingly unable to achieve. Monetarist economic theories acquired increased influence. The primary economic issues determining fiscal policies once again became the more traditional concerns of allocation and distribution.
Although the governmental budget is primarily concerned with fiscal policy (defining what resources it will raise and what it will spend), the government also has a number of tools that it can use to affect the economy through monetary control. By managing its portfolio of debt, it can affect interest rates, and by deciding on the amount of new money injected into the economy, it can affect the amount of cash in circulation and, therefore, indirectly affect prices and other economic variables. In recent years, governments, discouraged by past failures with fiscal manipulation, have turned to monetarist policies to attempt control of the economy.
At its simplest, monetarist theory postulates that in the economy there is a fixed amount of money, which circulates at a given velocity. This money is then available to finance the various transactions carried out in the economy at the prevailing prices. Under these circumstances, according to the theory, control of the price level can be maintained by controlling the amount of available money.
Although a desire to control inflation has been at the heart of the recent rise to prominence of monetary policies in many countries, monetary policy can be used to affect a number of different facets of economic behaviour. In time of unemployment the central bank may stimulate private investment expenditure, and possibly also household spending on consumer goods, by reducing interest rates and taking measures to increase the supply of credit, liquid assets, and money. The customary tools for doing this are open market operations, the discount rate of the central bank, and cash reserve requirements for commercial banks.
In open market operations the central bank buys government securities—bonds and treasury bills—from the private sector. The effect is to reduce interest rates by bidding up bond prices. The sellers of the government securities obtain cash that they deposit in the banks, thus increasing the cash reserves of the banks and enabling them to expand credit to private borrowers; this in turn causes interest rates in the private sector to fall and the terms of credit to become easier. In response, firms are likely to increase their investment expenditures, and households are likely to spend more on consumer goods.
The second tool of monetary policy, the discount rate of the central banks, is often used together with open market operations. This is the interest rate at which commercial banks can borrow funds from the central bank. If the discount rate is reduced, banks become more willing to extend credit to private borrowers because they can obtain funds themselves on easier terms. In many countries, changes in the discount rate tend to be followed by similar changes in the interest rates charged by banks to their borrowers.
The third tool of monetary policy, that of the cash reserve requirements (and, in some countries, certain types of government securities) for commercial banks, provides that banks must maintain money balances (in the form of deposits in the central bank) at a certain proportion of their liabilities. This means that the banks cannot expand their earning assets such as government securities and private loans, beyond that point. If the government reduces the reserve requirements, the banks can expand their loans further, thus increasing the total volume of credit outstanding.
Monetary policy, like fiscal policy, may also be used to combat inflationary tendencies by reversing the above measures; the central bank will then sell government securities (thereby increasing interest rates and reducing the supply of private credit and money), raise the discount rate, or increase reserve requirements.
Stabilization policy problems
A broad distinction may be made between two types of stabilization policies: discretionary and automatic. Discretionary policies involve deliberate actions taken by the authorities, such as open market operations, changes in discount rates and reserve requirements, and changes in tax rates or government expenditures. Automatic policies put reliance on built-in stabilizers that function without any deliberate intervention by the authorities. In the monetary field, for example, an increase in commodity prices tends to reduce the real value of financial assets, and if the government does nothing to offset this by increasing the volume of financial assets in the system, private spending will tend to decline. On the fiscal side, the main automatic stabilizer is the relation between tax revenues and cyclical changes in the economy. During booms, tax revenues rise and the need for expenditures on unemployment compensation decreases, channeling a larger proportion of the national income into government coffers; these effects are accentuated if the tax system is progressive because tax revenues rise more rapidly than money incomes. Provided that the government does not raise its expenditures along with the increased revenues, the budget tends to have a braking effect on private expenditure in boom times and an expansionary effect in times of recession.
The problem of time lags
There has been much discussion over the merits of discretionary policies as against automatic stabilizers. One advantage of automatic stabilizers is that the effects occur without the necessity of government action, which means that there is no delay, or lag, because of political controversies, administrative problems, or difficulties in determining whether the time has come to act. There are three types of lag in economic policy: the recognition lag, the decision lag, and the effect lag.
The recognition lag is the time it takes for the authorities to discover the need to make a change in economic policy. The reasons for this type of lag are that statistical information is often somewhat behind the event and that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between random fluctuations and fundamental shifts in economic trends. Governments prefer to wait until there is certainty that, say, an increase in unemployment is not a passing thing.
The decision lag is the period between the time when the need for action is recognized and the time when action is taken. Although the recognition lag is presumably of about the same duration for both monetary and fiscal policies, the decision lag is usually considerably shorter for monetary policy than for fiscal policy. The central bank can change monetary policy almost overnight, whereas a change in fiscal policy is more complex, both politically and administratively. In many countries changes in income taxes, for example, can be made only at the beginning of a calendar year; such changes are often complicated by political discussions in the legislative body.
The effect lag is the amount of time between the time action is taken and an effect is realized. Monetary policy involves longer delays than fiscal policy; the time between a change in monetary policy and its ultimate effect on private investment may be between one and two years.
Some economists argue that the sum of all the lags is so long and uncertain that the best strategy is not to take any action; by the time the effects occur the economic situation may be radically different. Some countries have tried to shorten the lags in fiscal and monetary policy. One way to reduce the recognition lag is to improve the forecasting techniques, for example, by using sophisticated questionnaires or computerized econometric models.
In order to reduce the decision lag in fiscal policy, some countries have given the authorities power to take limited action without the prior consent of the legislature. In the United Kingdom the government introduced a regulation that allowed it to make immediate changes in tax policy. In Belgium and West Germany the governments also have some discretionary powers to change tax rates without first asking the legislature. In most countries, however, the legislative bodies have been reluctant to give up control of the budget, and increasing skepticism about the effectiveness of stabilization policy has led to a retreat from frequent small adjustments to fiscal policy.
Attempts to shorten the effect lag of fiscal policy have produced new policy tools. Some countries now use systems of taxes or subsidies to influence business investment within a relatively short time. Attempts have also been made to reduce the effect lag in monetary policy. Some countries have tried using various tools of credit rationing rather than relying on traditional measures such as open market operations. But the effect lag is still a serious problem for monetary policy.
Conflicts among goals
Perhaps the most serious unsolved problem of stabilization policy is the multiplicity of goals that policymakers must consider. Every government has aims other than stabilizing the economy. First, it must stay in power—a need that is likely to limit the alternatives open to stabilization policy, particularly in periods of prosperity immediately before elections. Second, some monetary and fiscal actions impinge on particular groups in society, and governments may wish to avoid what appear to be discriminatory policies. Third, a policy designed to achieve one element of stabilization, such as full employment, may prevent the achievement of another.
The conflict between full employment and price stability seems to arise in two different sets of circumstances. Often wage increases that are made in the normal collective bargaining process are greater than the increases in labour productivity (or output per man-hour); such wage increases tend to increase the cost of production and to force prices upward. The government is then confronted with a choice between two unpleasant alternatives. One is to allow the general price level to rise approximately in proportion to the increase in production costs; the other alternative is to try to hold prices down by taking measures to restrict aggregate demand, thus making it difficult for firms to shift their increased costs to the consumer through higher prices. The latter alternative means increased unemployment. Many governments have been confronted with exactly this choice of alternatives. Wage gains made in collective bargaining have forced them to choose between allowing prices to move upward or attempting to hold prices stable at the cost of greater unemployment.
Another reason for the conflict between full employment and price stability is the tendency of wage increases to accelerate when the level of employment rises and the number of job vacancies increases. In other words, as the economy approaches full employment wages tend to rise at an increasing speed. As prices begin to rise, the conflict between full employment and price stability may be further exacerbated by the expectation that they will rise still further; this may, for example, induce employees and their organizations to press for greater wage increases than they otherwise would in order to compensate for the expected price increases.
Another conflict in policy may arise with respect to the balance of payments. When the economy is in a period of boom, there is a tendency for imports to increase, and sometimes for exports to decrease as well, with obvious difficulties for the balance of payments. The crisis may be heightened by short-term capital movements if buyers and sellers of foreign exchange expect that there may be a devaluation of the country’s currency. This has caused much difficulty for many countries in the period since World War II. In Britain and Denmark, notably, periods of boom have usually been accompanied by balance-of-payments problems. When that occurs, the government must sooner or later take restrictive actions that slow the economy down and increase unemployment; if speculation in the currency is already under way, it may be necessary to pursue the restrictive policy far into the next recession. The problem is accentuated if there have been substantial price increases during the boom that have reduced the country’s ability to compete with other countries. It is ironic that a temporary improvement in the employment situation may, if it leads to an accelerated increase in the price level, serve to create greater unemployment in the future, when restrictive actions become necessary for balance-of-payments reasons.
Attempts have been made to eliminate these conflicts of policy. One remedy is “incomes policy,” direct efforts by the government to prevent employers and unions from raising prices and wages. Various methods have been tried. The most moderate is the so-called guideposts system, under which the government announces the need for restraints on wage increases and perhaps also sets targets to guide unions and management; this was attempted in the United States in the early 1960s. In Sweden, responsibility for limiting wage increases has been assigned to labour-management organizations where bargaining takes place in a centralized fashion. A more interventionist approach is for the government to enter the bargaining process and try to persuade unions to limit their wage demands. The government may go still further and announce a wage freeze, or even a system of wage and price control. In the Netherlands, the courts have occasionally been empowered to set wages, but the resulting decisions have often been uncoordinated with the rest of stabilization policy.
Incomes policies have sometimes succeeded for short periods. Generally, however, public refusal to accept the restraints has eventually led to their collapse. In the United States, the guideposts broke down during the boom of the mid-1960s, and attempts at incomes policy in Sweden and Britain have not been notable for their success. Even in the Netherlands later attempts to impose the system have failed to limit the rate of wage increase.
The question of governmental competence
Governments have displayed serious deficiencies in their ability to handle stabilization policy. Political leaders often lack economic information and understanding, and their economic advisers find it difficult to explain the economic situation to them and to apprise them of the relevant tools. There are also a variety of political inhibitions against taking action. One consequence is that what is designed to be a countercyclical policy becomes a procyclical one; instead of stabilizing the economy it tends to destabilize it. The postwar experience in Britain is held by some to demonstrate the deficiencies of government in handling monetary and fiscal policy. In time of boom the government often followed an expansionary course; when a balance-of-payments crisis developed it then took restrictive action—too late—and pushed the economy into deeper recession than would otherwise have occurred. On the basis of this experience, some economists have argued that a policy that did not attempt to counter the short-run swings in the economy would have been more successful in achieving stabilization. They maintain that the authorities should concentrate on letting the volume of money and credit increase steadily at a rate dictated by the long-term growth trend of the economy. Those who hold this view believe that capitalist economies are inherently stable, that crises are usually the result of bad policies on the part of the public authorities. Most economists do not share their optimism as to the stability of the economy if left alone; they continue to believe that governments must seek better tools for the purpose of short-run stabilization.
Experience in selected countries
The application of full-employment policies after World War II was made more difficult by the fact that the postwar situation was radically different from that of the 1930s, when much of the policy thinking had been done. Most governments and their advisers expected a depression after the war, but it never materialized. One explanation is that the reallocation of resources from military to civilian uses proceeded more smoothly than expected. Another explanation is that the consumers spent a larger part of their disposable income than they had been observed to do in the 1930s, upsetting some of the statistical projections based on empirical data from those years. A third explanation, which applies perhaps to the years after 1948, was the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which raised defense spending in many countries.
The period of the late 1940s and early 1950s proved to be characterized by tendencies to inflation rather than to unemployment. Governments were slow to realize this and to shift their emphasis from employment-creating policies to anti-inflationary policies. The fact that governments had accepted, to a large extent, the belief that monetary policy was not very important made it difficult for them to combat the tendencies to inflation. In most countries a passive, even expansionary, monetary policy was in effect; interest rates were kept down and the supply of money was allowed to grow faster than would have been consistent with stable prices. Inflationary tendencies were further stimulated by the Korean War and the great increases in raw material prices that accompanied it.
During the 1950s several important developments influenced the attitudes of governments toward stabilization policy. Most of the economic controls engendered by the war were removed, particularly in international trade and finance. The western European countries were in a period of rapid economic growth. With the removal of direct controls on prices, imports, and building investment, governments began to develop and refine the tools of monetary and fiscal policy. In most countries the passive attitude toward monetary policy disappeared during the early 1950s; there was increased interest in more flexible monetary management. Interest also grew in developing a systematic fiscal policy that would offset the cyclical swings in production and employment. The most energetic attempts to devise a countercyclical fiscal policy were made in Britain and Sweden. Other European countries and the United States placed more reliance on monetary policy.
In the United States, a contributing factor in the revival of monetary policy was a theoretical reformulation that took place among monetary and banking experts. This was the so-called availability theory of credit; it held that monetary policy had its effect on spending not only directly through interest rates but also by restricting the general availability of credit and liquid funds. It was argued that even rather small changes in the rate of interest for government securities could have a considerable impact on the supply of private credit; if the supply diminished, this would induce banks and other financial institutions to stiffen their credit standards and ration credit to their customers; this in turn, it was argued, would tend to curb investment and thus have a braking effect on the economy. Similar ideas were at work in other countries, but with more emphasis on limiting the availability of credit through credit rationing, loan ceilings, control of private bond issues, regulation of installment credit for the purchase of durable consumer goods, and so on.
Serious attempts have been made to put a countercyclical monetary policy into practice in most advanced industrialized countries since the middle of the 1950s. In some, such as the United States, the emphasis has been, as suggested above, on changes in the interest rate and in the supply of money and credit; in others, such as France, Italy, and Japan, the emphasis has been on the rationing of credit by the central bank.
Fiscal policy has found less use than monetary policy in efforts to control cyclical fluctuations in the economy. It has been most favoured in Britain, the Scandinavian countries, and the Netherlands. There are specific situations in which fiscal measures have been used to stimulate the economy in other countries, as in Belgium and West Germany during the recessions of 1958 and 1962. Another example is the postponement of certain military expenditures in the United States as an anti-inflationary measure during the boom of the mid-1950s, and, most notably, the tax cuts passed by Congress in 1964 and 1981 as a stimulus to economic expansion. Several countries have taken restrictive fiscal actions to overcome balance-of-payments crises, including France and Finland on various occasions. During the later 20th century there was an increasing tendency to employ fiscal policies in the short run, partly in order to assist monetary policy in solving cyclical problems.
DURING the cold war, Russian leaders' every word was scrutinised by an army of Kremlinologists. Now, that honour is accorded to the world's central bankers, whose pronouncements are pored over by throngs of well-paid financial analysts.
These days, central bankers seem all-powerful. In most rich countries they go about their business without interference from politicians. And their success at using their new-found independence to bring down inflation has earned them great respect. In America, Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, is acclaimed as a hero and credited with sustaining his country's unprecedented economic boom.
Central banks matter to the financial system for two main reasons. First, they set short-term interest rates. These affect the cost of borrowing throughout the economy, from money markets to mortgage rates, and they have an additional influence through their impact on exchange rates, inflation and growth. Second, central banks generally support (and often regulate) the banking system, notably by acting as a lender of last resort to banks in financial distress. This brief focuses on monetary policy; bank regulation was discussed in an earlier brief.
For all central banks' importance, they remain tiny participants in huge financial markets. So how do they affect prices, ie, interest rates, in those markets? Consider America. Its fixed-income market (government and private) is worth some $13.6 trillion. Every day hundreds of billions of dollars of these securities change hands, and it is not unusual for a single private firm to buy or sell more than $1 billion in one go. The Fed itself buys or sells only between $1 billion and $5 billion of these securities each year: a mere drop in the ocean of a $14 billion market. Yet somehow it affects the level and structure of prices and yields.
The reason the Fed can set interest rates is that it has a monopoly on supplying bank reserves. Banks are required to hold a fraction of the money deposited with them in a reserve account at the Fed (see chart 1). They usually hold more, for precautionary reasons. The interest rate at which banks' demand for reserves matches the Fed's supply is known as the federal funds rate; this is also the rate at which banks lend reserves to each other overnight. The Fed controls it by changing the supply of reserves through sales and purchases of government securities, known as open-market operations.
When the Fed wants to raise the federal funds rate, it sells government securities. It receives payment by reducing the account of the buyer's bank, which reduces the volume of reserves in the banking system. This is illustrated in chart 2 by a shift in the supply curve for reserves from S to S2. Because banks' demand for reserves exceeds supply, the federal funds rate is bid up (from f to f2) until excess demand is eliminated. And when the Fed wants to lower the rate, it buys securities, which increases banks' reserves and bids down interest rates. The supply curve shifts from S to S1, and the rate falls from f to f1.
The Fed can also influence the federal funds rate indirectly, by changing the discount rate (d in chart 2), the rate at which it will lend reserves to banks, or altering banks' reserve requirements, the fraction of their deposits that they are required to hold as reserves. Raising the discount rate makes it less attractive for banks to borrow reserves. This reduces the volume of reserves, which pushes up the federal funds rate. Increasing reserve requirements boosts banks' demand for reserves, which also bids up the federal funds rate. But the Fed usually prefers to control the rate through open-market operations, which have a more stable and predictable impact on the money market.
The long and short of it
Changes in the federal funds rate ripple through financial markets and the economy. They have knock-on effects on the interest rates at which banks lend to households and firms, and hence the amount of credit in the economy. And they influence long-term market interest rates too.
Take the yield on a five-year government bond. It is simply the weighted average of expected short-term interest rates over the next five years, plus a risk and a liquidity premium. A rise in short-term interest rates typically has two effects on long-term rates. It raises the five-year weighted average slightly. And it also affects expectations of future short-term interest rates.
If, for example, investors believe the Fed is raising rates pre-emptively to prevent inflation rising, then expected future interest rates may fall, and so would five-year yields. However, if the rate increase is seen as a belated recognition by the Fed that inflation is likely to rise, five-year rates may rise in anticipation of further rate increases to come.
The graphical relationship between interest rates on securities of different maturities is known as the yield curve. Yield curves typically slope upwards, as Germany's does in chart 3 on the, because investors demand a risk premium on bonds of longer maturities to compensate for the extra uncertainty associated with lending for a longer period. But when monetary policy is tightened and short-term interest rates are increased, it is possible sometimes for the yield curve to become inverted, as Britain's is in the chart, sloping downwards for all but the shortest maturities.
Most central banks set monetary policy with the aim of keeping inflation low. The European Central Bank (ECB) has the statutory goal of “price stability”; the Fed also has a duty to support employment and economic growth. In most rich countries, governments now define central banks' aims, but allow them to pursue them without political interference.
To meet their aims, central banks usually adopt intermediate targets as well. These guide policy, as well as keeping expectations of inflation low. Ideally, the targets should be variables the central bank can control which have a predictable relationship with its ultimate goal, inflation. In practice, ideal targets do not exist, so a trade-off must be made between controllability and predictability.
One option is to target money-supply growth. The narrowest money-supply measure is the monetary base, or M0, which consists of cash and bank reserves. M1 also includes checking accounts. Broader measures, such as M2 and M3, encompass interest-bearing deposits and some short-term securities. Central banks have greater control over narrower measures of money supply, but broader measures are more closely correlated with future price changes.
Money-supply targeting was popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, because there seemed then to be a stable link between money-supply growth and future inflation. But it had two big drawbacks. First, it led to volatile interest rates, partly because banks' demand for cash is insensitive to small interest-rate changes. And second, the historical relationship between money-supply growth and inflation broke down, partly because financial deregulation and innovation made the demand for money unpredictable. The ECB has adopted a monetary “reference value” for M3, but it has eschewed a binding target.
A second option is an exchange-rate target. A country with a poor record of controlling inflation can peg its currency to that of a low-inflation economy. In effect, this allows it to piggy-back on the low-inflation country's credible monetary policies. Many developing countries fix their currencies against the dollar, and, under the European exchange-rate mechanism, European countries used to peg their currencies to the German mark. But with freely mobile international capital movements, exchange-rate pegs have become vulnerable to speculative attack. So now most rich countries either have permanently fixed exchange rates, as in the euro area, or they have floating rates and control inflation in other ways.
A third option is to target inflation directly, which is what a growing number of central banks now do. Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Sweden have explicit inflation targets. These have many advantages, notably transparency and accountability. But they are not without problems. For one thing, because monetary policy operates with long lags, central banks have to adjust policy on the basis not of current inflation, but of future inflation, which is difficult to forecast.
Some economists also argue that inflation targets focus too narrowly on consumer-price inflation, which may lead central banks to ignore potentially harmful asset-price bubbles. In Japan in the late 1980s, the Bank of Japan failed to check soaring share and property prices, because consumer-price inflation remained low. When the bubble burst, the economy plunged into recession.
As well as setting monetary policy and regulating the banking system, many central banks used at one time to finance governments' budget deficits. When government spending exceeds tax revenues, the difference is financed by selling government bonds. If these are sold to the public, then the net effect on the money supply is zero. But if they are purchased by the central bank, the money-supply rise that accompanies the deficit is not offset: this is known as “printing money” or “monetising the deficit”. Nowadays, central banks in most rich countries are forbidden from financing the government's budget deficit. But there is strong pressure on the Bank of Japan to buy government bonds to kick-start the Japanese economy.
Central banks' monopoly on supplying cash and bank reserves is relatively new. In the 19th century, private banks in Britain and America issued competing currencies. A return to such a “free-banking” era seems unlikely, but even if central banks' monopoly is not in danger, it may eventually become irrelevant. Privately issued electronic money could one day complicate or even nullify central banks' ability to set interest rates. Central banks are not about to vanish overnight. But, like the Kremlin, they may not retain their pre-eminence forever.
This article appeared in the Unknown section of the print edition