Fiscal rules, growth and the ZLB

Yesterday I wrote that the consequence of a fiscal rule with a short horizon has been austerity, which delayed the UK’s economic recovery. Of course, that analysis misses a very important element of the recent recession, which is that the UK’s monetary policy was at the ZLB. That greatly increased the effect of fiscal policy on GDP in a way that wouldn’t happen in normal times. It’s also why Portes and Wren-Lewis recommend that any fiscal rule be suspended during periods where monetary policy is at the ZLB. So why am I really worried about a growth cost that is only realised in very unusual circumstances?

If the ideas about secular stagnation turn out to hold water then we may be hitting the ZLB far more often in the coming decades. Even if that doesn’t eventuate, real interest rates have been trending down for a long time, which has led some people to recommend a higher inflation target to avoid the ZLB in future. The upshot is that, unless there are changes to the standard monetary policy regime–flexible targeting of 2 per cent inflation–high fiscal multipliers and fiscal activism may become a regular occurrence. If it does then the government’s fiscal rule had better work during those times, too.