Debunking a Destructive Economic Hypothesis

Over the past five years, economists have been waging a fierce battle over if and when fiscal stimulus is an appropriate tool to fight the deleterious effects of the ongoing crisis.

On one side are the Keynesians, taking their name from the great 19th-century British economist John Maynard Keynes who believed that the most effective way to combat high unemployment is through direct government intervention in the economy -- that is, by building things like roads and bridges. On the other side are classical economists who take the position that government spending is ineffective because it crowds out, or takes the place of, private spending. To this group, an economy is a zero-sum game.

If you've read about the Great Depression or studied economics, you'd be excused for finding the latter hypothesis difficult to reconcile with history. I say this because most reasonable minds would agree that government spending during World War II is what fully and finally lurched the U.S. economy back into action. It's for this reason the classical view was in desperate need of an alternative explanation for its long-held disdain for fiscal stimulus.

Enter Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, two widely respected Harvard economists. In 2010, Reinhart and Rogoff published a now-infamous paper titled "Growth in a Time of Debt" (link opens PDF). The gist of the paper is that a country's debt level and economic growth rate are inversely correlated -- as debt relative to GDP increases, economic growth decreases. Most controversially, the paper argued that "for levels of debt in excess of 90 percent," GDP growth would be "roughly cut in half."

It's no exaggeration to say that the latter "finding" had a particularly robust impact on the course of modern history. Cited by conservatives to stop the expansion of government, and despite Reinhart and Rogoff's protestations to the contrary, it's widely believed that this paper almost singlehandedly convinced European policymakers to choose austerity over growth, and stymied any further attempts by the government here in the United States to pursue the same type of policies that helped put an end to the Great Depression. As Paul Krugman recently noted in The New York Review of Books,

[Growth in a time of Debt] may have had more immediate influence on public debate than any previous paper in the history of economics. The 90 percent claim was cited as the decisive argument for austerity by figures ranging from Paul Ryan, the former vice-presidential candidate who chairs the House budget committee, to Olli Rehn, the top economic official at the European Commission, to the editorial board of The Washington Post.

What happened next is shocking. After trying to replicate Reinhart and Rogoff's results, three graduate students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, uncovered a litany of errors including data omissions, questionable methods of weighting, and coding mistakes which collectively obliterated the paper's central thesis. As my colleague Morgan Housel noted at the time, "Rogoff and Reinhart showed economies with debt-to-GDP above 90% experience average GDP growth of negative 0.2%. Fix the math errors, and the real figure is positive 2.2%. Oops."

The distinguished Harvard economists were quick to defend their work, arguing in a New York Times op-ed piece that, while they did indeed "miscalculate the growth rates of highly indebted countries since World War II," the underlying relationship between high debt and lower growth remained unscathed. "Our 2010 paper found that, over the long term, growth is about 1 percentage point lower when debt is 90 percent or more of gross domestic product," Reinhart and Rogoff recounted. "The University of Massachusetts researchers do not overturn this fundamental finding, which several researchers have elaborated upon."

That is no longer the case. As Mike Konczal, author of the blog Rortybomb, noted at the end of last week, two new papers cast serious doubt on the existence of a causal relationship between sovereign debt and economic growth. This paper by a professor and student at the University of Michigan concluded that "high debt does not slow growth." And this paper (link opens PDF), by a fourth economist at the University of Massachusetts, goes so far as to suggest that there may indeed be a relationship between debt and growth, but that it's the other way around -- i.e., that slow growth causes higher debt levels and not, as Reinhart and Rogoff conclude, that high debt slows growth.

On the surface, you'd be excused for chalking all this up to a meaningless dispute among academics with far too much time on their hands. But while that may be true, the unfortunate reality, as I noted above, is that the repercussions of Reinhart and Rogoff's work have been real and tangible. Among other things, it's arguably one of the principal reasons that 13.9% of Americans remain either unemployed, underemployed, or so discouraged that they've removed themselves from the labor force altogether. And on top of that, it's left the responsibility to support the economy solely on the shoulders of the Federal Reserve.

While the latter has been great for stocks, as both the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) and S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC  ) have recently shot to new highs, the potential distortion to asset prices is something to be concerned about. No group of stocks illustrates this better than mortgage REITs, which live and die by the interest rates that the Fed has been obligated to manipulate. Since the beginning of 2013, ARMOUR Residential (NYSE: ARR  ) and American Capital Agency (NASDAQ: AGNC  ) are down by 24% and 15%, respectively. Why the dramatic decline? Investors are concerned that the Fed will prematurely abandon its support for the housing market.

At the end of the day, the case that fiscal stimulus is ineffective if not deleterious for an economy in crisis is fading into oblivion. Though, it's only once ideological beliefs are set to the side that policymakers will be able to capitalize on this reality.

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2013, at 4:41 PM, woo131 wrote:

    As Dilbert has recently pointed out, the key to success in Economics is to grow a beard and trash talk a lot.

    Whatever the real relationship between GDP and debt, whether cause and effect in either direction, or inversely, or no relationship at all, it must be clear that debt service greater than GDP would be a real disaster. Before that occurs, apparently all bets are off.

    The US has not actually tried to be Keynesian in the present economic disaster. We have not rebuilt the infrastructure, or the armed forces, or the education system, or the health system. The only accomplishment is to refinance the corrupt banking system instead of throwing those bums in jail.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2013, at 4:47 PM, jrkirk wrote:

    I agree completely with what John has written here, and the efforts of those on the right to dispute these facts, ignore what has happened. The original paper was flawed, conceived to meet a pre-conceived thesis, and published without adequate statistical or peer review. How else do you explain the errors?

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2013, at 6:03 PM, SammyP1 wrote:

    Great article. It's a tragedy of historic proportion that this error filled study was used by policy makers to inflict economic suffering on a massive scale, particularly among the world's youth. Hopefully now that this study has been discredited, we can get back to policy that actually works.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2013, at 6:11 PM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    So because one study has errors that means it is now perfectly fine for the U.S. government to spend beyond its means, buy trillions of bonds, take over the healthcare system, spy on its reporters and impose excessive taxes on its citizens?

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