martedì 27 luglio 2010

Più tasse o più inflazione? Meglio più inflazione!

L'ultima lettera settimanale di John Mauldin si conclude con un accorato appello per rinviare il ripristino delle tasse tagliate da G.W. Bush previsto nel 2011, con lo scopo di evitare che l'aumento della pressione fiscale accentui inesorabilmente il clima deflazionario negli U.S.A. rendendo possibile una nuova recessione il prossimo anno. Il grafico qui accanto è abbastanza impressionante. Scrive Mauldin:
When the money supply is falling in tandem with a slowing velocity of money, that brings up serious deflationary issues. I have dealt with that in recent months, so I won't bring it up again, but it is a significant element of deflation. And it is not just the US. Global real broad money growth is close to zero. Deflationary pressures are the norm in the developed world (except for Britain, where inflation is the issue).
Falling home prices and a weak housing market are one more element of deflation. This is happening not just in the US, but also much of Europe is suffering a real estate crisis. Japan has seen its real estate market fall almost 90% in some cities, and that is part of the reason they have had 20 years with no job growth, and that the nominal GDP is where it was 17 years ago.
In the short run, reducing government spending (in the US at local, state, and federal levels) is deflationary in the short run. Martin Wolfe, in the Financial Times, wrote the following last week (arguing that that the move to "fiscal austerity" is ill-advised):
"We can see two huge threats in front of us. The first is the failure to recognize the strength of the deflationary pressures ... The danger that premature fiscal and monetary tightening will end up tipping the world economy back into recession is not small, even if the largest emerging countries should be well able to protect themselves. The second threat is failure to secure the medium-term structural shifts in fiscal positions, in management of the financial sector and in export-dependency, that are needed if a sustained and healthy global recovery is to occur."
Finally, high and chronic unemployment is deflationary. It reduces final demand as people simply don't have the money to buy things.
Deflation that comes from increased productivity is desirable. In the late 1800's the US went through an almost 30-year period of deflation that saw massive improvements in agriculture (the McCormick reaper, etc.) and the ability of producers to get their products to markets through railroads. In fact, too many railroads were built and a number of the companies that built them collapsed. Just as we experienced with the fiber-optic cable build-out, there was soon too much railroad capacity, and freight prices fell. That was bad for the shareholders but good for consumers. It was a time of great economic growth.
But deflation that comes from a lack of pricing power and lower final demand is not good. It hurts the incomes of both employer and employee, and discourages entrepreneurs from increasing their production capacity, and thus employment. (...)
I think we can take it as a given that there is another recession in front of the US. That is the natural order of things. But it would be better to have that inevitable recession as far into the future as possible, and preferably with a little inflationary cushion and some room for active policy responses. A recession next year would be problematic, if not catastrophic. Rates are as low as they can go. Higher deficits are not in the cards. Yet unemployment would shoot up and tax collections go down at all levels of government.
That is why I worry so much about taking the Bush tax cuts away when the economy is weak. Now, maybe those who argue that tax increases don't matter are right. They have their academic studies. But the preponderance of work suggests their studies are flawed and at worst are guilty of data mining (looking for data that supports your already-developed conclusions.)
Professor Michael Boskin wrote today in the Wall Street Journal:
"The president does not say that economists agree that the high future taxes to finance the stimulus will hurt the economy. (The University of Chicago's Harald Uhlig estimates $3.40 of lost output for every dollar of government spending.) Either the president is not being told of serious alternative viewpoints, or serious viewpoints are defined as only those that support his position. In either case, he is being ill-served by his staff."
As noted at the beginning of this letter, I find it very encouraging that there is a movement among Democrats to think about at least postponing the demise of the Bush tax cuts until the economy is in better shape. Those who advocate letting them lapse are in effect operating on our economic body without benefit of anesthesia. If they are wrong, the consequences will be most severe.
We need to think any tax increase through very thoroughly.

Per una sintesi delle posizioni in campo potete leggere il New York Times, dal quale ho tratto la tabella riepilogative che riproduco qui accanto.

Al rischio di deflazione è dedicato anche questo articolo sul Wall Street Journal, che esordisce ammettendo candidamente come la lezione impartita negli ultimi 20 anni dal Giappone non abbia portato i frutti sperati, e la teoria economica non sia ancora in grado di dare una spiegazione soddisfacente di quanto è accaduto:

But Japan's experience has looked nothing like this. Rather than being deep, destructive and concentrated in a few years, deflation has been a surprisingly mild, drawn-out affair. Consumer prices have been falling in Japan for 15 years, but never by more than 2% in any single year. Japan's deflation has been a morass, but not the destructive downward spiral many economists predicted. Why? And what does it portend for the rest of the world today?
Economists don't have good answers. "We don't know how deflation works," says Adam Posen, a member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee who has been studying Japan since 1997. "We don't have a way of rationalizing steady, several-year flat deflation," he says.
This is a pressing issue for the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks. Ireland is already experiencing deflation. Spain has flirted with it. The Fed's preferred inflation gauge was up 1.3% in June from a year earlier, below its informal target of 1.5% to 2%. Some officials worry prices could go negative if the recovery falters.
On paper, Japan looked like a candidate for a deflationary spiral. The economy consistently grew slower than estimates of its capacity to grow. Unemployment rose from 2.1% in the early 1990s to more than 5% a decade later. That growing economic slack should have driven prices down and down. Large burdens of delinquent loans at banks should have exacerbated the debt burden on society.
But that didn't happen. Old textbook tradeoffs between unemployment and inflation might not be working the way they used to. The standard Phillips Curve theory, named after Alban William Phillips who helped explain it, is that when unemployment rises, inflation falls.
Fed officials saw evidence in the U.S. before the crisis that this dynamic might have gotten less powerful over time, meaning a big rise in unemployment might not create the kind of deflationary shock it would have in the past.
Japan's experience reinforces that view.(...)
Another explanation turns on the psychology of households and businesses, which modern economists believe plays a big role in driving inflation. If people believe inflation is going to rise a lot, they will demand higher wages and push up prices. If people believe prices won't move or they expect them to fall, they will act accordingly and create the environment they expect.(...)
Government plays a role, too. Japanese officials responded to their crisis, but many U.S. economists complained officials failed to cut interest rates quickly enough early in the crisis, pulled back fiscal stimulus too soon and were too slow to clean up banks and restructure inefficient industries.(...)
There are other explanations. Japan's aging consumers, for instance, might have been more inclined to save for retirement and more reluctant to spend, undermining consumer demand and weighing on prices.
For the U.S., there are good and bad implications in this. "This is the most significant economic issue there is out there," Mr. Gertler says.
The good news is that the Fed might not need to fear a Depression-style deflationary spiral. The bad news is that if the U.S. does fall into deflation, it could be stuck there for many years like Japan, and suffer the subpar growth that has gone with it. And because deflation is so poorly understood, policy makers could discover they have no good solutions.

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