A “second stimulus?”

We are frequently asked whether there should be a “second stimulus” bill. Unfortunately, what is being considered on Capitol Hill is a very different animal from what we did earlier this year.

10-second macroeconomic review

GDP = Consumption + Investment + Government spending + Exports – Imports

= C + I + G + X – M

In January the President proposed, and in February Congress enacted, a bill that was short-term macroeconomic stimulus. We wanted that stimulus policy to be big, fast-acting, an efficient use of taxpayer dollars, and an effective stimulus to broad-based economic growth. We let taxpayers keep more of their wages, assuming that they would spend some of those refunds, thereby increasing consumption (C). We also temporarily cut taxes on business investment in an attempt to increase investment (I). The idea is that these two actions would quickly increase GDP. Millions of American workers and families and thousands of firms can react quickly to a change in their financial status.

This strategy appears to be working. We’ve got evidence from multiple sources suggesting that people are spending some of their stimulus checks, and that this is helping to support increased consumption. It’s harder to tell how much firms are taking advantage of the investment incentives, because it’s hard to measure that in real time.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Professor Martin Feldstein writes that the stimulus was a “flop.” Specifically, he argues that the recent GDP data show that the boost to consumer spending from the rebates was small relative to the overall size of the rebates. He estimates that $12 billion was spent out of a total of $78 billion in rebates paid out by the end of June. The core of his argument is that we didn’t get a lot of bang for the buck – only a small bump to GDP for a large loss of revenue for the government.

We disagree with this analysis. First, we think the stimulus bang is bigger than $12 B. Prof. Feldstein assumes that the growth in consumer outlays would have been flat had there been no stimulus. He then observes that consumer outlays actually grew by $12 billion more from Q1 to Q2 than they did in the prior quarter, and attributes that to the stimulus. Many observers think that, without the stimulus, consumer outlays would have grown more slowly in Q2 than in Q1. […]