Mainly for economists
Francesco Saraceno reminds us about the days in which very important people believed in the confidence fairy (aka expansionary fiscal austerity), which are not so very far away. He also points to some recent ECB research which shows that confidence - as measured by surveys - clearly falls following fiscal austerity. The confidence fairy, rather than waving her wand to make everything alright again, may be making austerity worse.
However, looking at the research in detail revealed some results I found at first surprising. In particular, revenue cuts have a bigger effect on consumer confidence than spending cuts. In terms of GDP impacts, theory - and most but not all empirical evidence - suggests that temporary spending cuts will have a larger impact on overall activity than temporary tax increases, if there is no monetary offset and incentive effects are not very large. Do these empirical results contradiction this?
To answer that you need to ask two further questions. First, what does consumer confidence actually measure? Second, and perhaps more interesting, what information do fiscal announcements actually reveal.
The answer to the first question seems to be a mixture of things, some of which relate to the individual household’s income, and some related to the general economic situation. To the extent that the consumer is thinking about the former, then it would make sense that a tax increase might have a larger impact on confidence than a spending cut. This would tell you very little about the economic impact of the two types of measure.
The obvious answer to the second question is that the information conveyed by an announcement of a spending cut or tax increase is just itself. If we stick to taxes, then if the announcement had not been made, the consumer would have just assumed lower taxes (for a time, or forever?). But this is naive from an intertemporal perspective, and clearly non-Ricardian. In the logic of Ricardian Equivalence, a tax increase today must imply cuts in taxes tomorrow for a given path of spending.
There are three alternative, more ‘rational’, ways of thinking about the announcement of a tax increase. Suppose the current government budget deficit is not sustainable. Taxes either need to rise today, or tomorrow after more borrowing. The announcement then tells us about the timing of the tax increase. If Ricardian Equivalence held it would have no impact on lifetime discounted income, but if for many possible reasons it did not hold, then a tax increase today could depress consumer confidence. However, to the extent that confidence depended on the general economic situation, you would expect ‘bringing forward’ expenditure cuts to have a much greater impact than bringing forward tax increases (with the caveats noted above), because of consumption smoothing. In that case spending cuts should reduce confidence more than tax increases.
A second possibility is that a tax increase could signal something about the future economic situation. Perhaps the consumer had thought the deficit was sustainable because they were optimistic about future growth, but the tax increase told them to be less optimistic. Reduced optimism could lead to reduced confidence. To the extent that the fiscal action conveys information about future pre-tax incomes, the tax increase conveys the same information as a spending cut.
A final possibility, which is generally ignored when discussing the plausibility of Ricardian Equivalence, is that the announcement of a tax increase tells consumers about the composition of any consolidation. Suppose again that the deficit is unsustainable. Either taxes have to rise or spending fall, but the consumer does not know which of these will happen. If spending is then cut, this tells the consumer that taxes will not rise, which in terms of the consumer’s own income would represent a plus. So in that case a spending cut could increase consumer confidence.
Trying to evaluate the impact of past fiscal actions is complicated, in large part because it is difficult to know what the counterfactual was, or what people thought the counterfactual was. Were changes thought to temporary or permanent? (Governments hardly ever say, and even if they did would they be trusted?) To what extent do people internalise the government’s budget constraint? If they do, are fiscal changes telling us about the timing of taxes or spending, or their mix, or something else? It seems to me that these difficulties arise whether we are trying to assess the impact of fiscal changes on confidence, or on activity itself.