Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to go ahead with an increase in consumption taxes from 5% to 8% in April 2014, with a further increase to 10% planned for later. Will this be the first step to reducing the very high level of government debt in Japan (in net or gross terms, the highest in the developed world), or will it derail the recovery? In many ways the answer depends on whether you like your macro state of the art, or more antique.
Consider the antique first. Raising the consumption tax takes real purchasing power out of Japanese consumers’ pockets. It is a straightforward fiscal contraction, on a very large scale: the last thing you need when we only have the first signs of a recovery. Now in theory this fiscal contraction could be offset by monetary expansion, but can monetary expansion really be strong enough to offset a fiscal contraction of that size? Some macro antiques were always rather suspicious about the potency of monetary relative to fiscal policy anyway, but in a liquidity trap those suspicions become certainties. Even if the central bank does succeed in reducing real interest rates by raising inflation, is that going to be more powerful than the cut in real incomes that this higher inflation brings?
So why might modern macro be less pessimistic about the impact of the consumption tax increase? For one thing it might be more optimistic about the potency of monetary policy, particularly in an open economy. If the central bank is really committed to bringing about a recovery come what may then it may be prepared to see inflation go well above 2%. But I would suggest the more important difference lies with the fiscal impact of the tax increase. Modern macro could bring two arguments to the table.
The first is Ricardian Equivalence. The consumption tax increase has been planned for some time, so consumers will have already factored in its impact into their consumption decisions. Even if they had wondered if the tax increase might be postponed, some taxes will have to rise at some point. So if all the Prime Minister has done is confirm that tax increases are going to come sooner rather than later, the logic behind Ricardian Equivalence will mean that the impact on consumer spending will be second order.
The second involves the incentive effect of higher sales taxes, which I discussed recently. If monetary policy does not try and offset the impact that higher sales taxes will have on inflation, then anticipation of the tax could lead consumers to bring forward some consumption. What this really involves is fiscal policy mimicking monetary policy. Or to put it another way, if you were doubtful that monetary policy through Quantitative Easing could raise inflation, here is a surer way to achieve the same thing.
The common theme here is the importance that modern macro places on expectations of a fairly rational kind. Yet even if you are happy to go along with this, there is an important proviso that does not get emphasised enough. How did consumers know that the budget deficit would be reduced by raising taxes rather than cutting spending? If they had expected the deficit to be reduced by lower government spending, they will not have expected a fall in their post-tax real income. For these consumers the Prime Minister’s announcement will come as a surprise, and they will reduce their consumption as a result.
This argument is completely consistent with consumers being rational and forward looking, as I emphasise here. All the behavioural assumptions required for Ricardian Equivalence can still be there. What Ricardian Equivalence implicitly does is hold the path of future government spending fixed, but that is an artificial assumption which cannot be true in practice, if only because of political uncertainty. (The argument applies more generally to the small amount of modelling that has attempted to demonstrate ‘expansionary austerity’.)
So we can summarise as follows. If consumption remains on average unperturbed by the sales tax increase (perhaps showing a positive spike before April 2014 which is only partially offset by falls thereafter), then modern macro can pat itself on the back. On the other hand if consumption does take a significant hit, modern macro has an escape clause. Let us hope it does not need it.