John Turner, Professor of Finance and Financial History at Queen’s University Belfast, tells about what History can teach us about the effects of Covid-19 on the financial system
by James Cloyne (University of California, Davis), Nicholas Dimsdale (University of Oxford), Natacha Postel-Vinay (London School of Economics)
There has been a longstanding and unresolved debate over the fiscal multiplier, which is the change in economic growth resulting from a change in government spending or change in taxation. The issue became acute in the world recession of 2008-2010, when the International Monetary Fund led a spirited discussion about the contribution that fiscal policy could make to recovery.
In our research, fiscal policy is shown to have had positive impacts on growth, at least during the period surrounding the Great Depression in Britain. The implications for the potential benefits of fiscal policy in a high-debt, low-interest rate environment – and over a turbulent business cycle – may be significant.
The recent controversy follows the debate over the use of fiscal policy to counter the high level of unemployment in interwar Britain. Keynes argued that increased government spending would raise economic activity and reduce unemployment. In the General Theory (1936), he claimed that the multiplier for government expenditure was greater than unity.
A few more recent studies have confirmed that the multiplier effect is greater than unity for both the interwar and post-war period. But these results may be spurious since a rise in government expenditure that raises income may also result from a rise in income. Thus, changes in taxes and changes in income may not be independent. What we observe is a strong co-movement of GDP and fiscal measures in which it is hard to isolate the direction of causation.
What is needed is a source of exogenous variation, so that the impact of fiscal changes on GDP can be observed. Fiscal policy may take the form of changes in taxes or expenditure. The problems of endogeneity are generally greater for expenditure than for taxes, since it should be possible to find changes in taxes that are truly exogenous.
Romer and Romer (2010) have developed the so-called ‘narrative technique,’ which has been designed to overcome the problem of endogeneity of tax changes. This involves carefully distilling the historical record in order to infer Chancellors’ motivations behind each fiscal policy move, and isolate those that may be seen as more independent from the contemporaneous fluctuations of the economy.
One may thus be able to distinguish, for example, between taxes that arise from a direct will to stimulate the economy, as compared with changes that are more motivated by a Chancellor’s longstanding ideology. The latter may include, for example, a will to improve transport efficiency within the country, or a desire to make society less unequal.
Interwar Britain is a particularly appropriate period to apply this approach, since the potential for fiscal policy was great on account of the high level of unemployment. In addition, this was a period in which Keynesian countercyclical policies were generally not used, in contrast to the use of demand management policies in the post-war period.
By examining changes in taxes in interwar budgets, we have been able to produce a sample of 300 tax changes. These have been classified into changes in taxes that are endogenous or exogenous. We have been able to test the backward validity of our classification.
The outcome of this work has been to show that changes in taxes that are exogenous had a major impact on changes in GDP. The estimated value of the multiplier for these tax changes is greater than unity and as much as two to three. This is in accordance with results reported in post-war studies of the United States and a study of tax changes in post-war Britain (Cloyne, 2013).
In contrast to earlier work on measuring the multiplier, we concentrate on changes in taxes rather than changes in government expenditure. This is done to reduce problems of endogeneity.
While Keynes argued for using government spending to stimulate the economy, it was only when post-war fiscal policies were being formulated that the potential benefits of fiscal policies via changes in taxes were recognised. While this research does not argue in favour of tax changes over spending policies, it provides evidence that tax policy is a relevant part of the policy toolkit, especially in times of economic difficulty.
by Chris Minns, Economic History Department, LSE
The Great Depression devastated North American labour markets for a decade, with about a quarter of the work force unemployed at the peak of the crisis. It is well known that the headline figure conceals the extent to which the burden of the Depression was shared unequally. In addition to sharp differences in employment patterns between cities and regions, it was less-skilled workers who saw demand for their labour fall more than those able to access white-collar work. Older men who lost their jobs were particularly vulnerable to falling into the trap of long-term unemployment. There is some evidence to suggest that the Depression may have exacerbated ethnic differences in the labour market, with black men in the United States were affected more heavily than their white counterparts. How was the Depression experienced by the foreign-born population who had settled in large numbers in both Canada and the United States up until the early 1920s? A recent research paper by Kris Inwood, Fraser Summerfield, and myself sought to answer this question using statistical evidence drawn from new digital samples of the Canadian Censuses from 1911 to 1931.
There are three reasons we were particularly interested in this topic. First, while some social historians have argued that immigrants suffered greater exposure to labour market discrimination when jobs were rationed in the 1930s, there is surprisingly little published evidence to confirm or contradict this contention. Second, by focusing on the earnings of immigrants over a twenty year period, we wanted to see whether the experience of the Depression had implications for the long-run labour market adjustment of immigrants relative to native-born Canadians. Third, Canada offers an excellent laboratory in which to conduct this research. The Depression experience in Canada was comparable to the United States in terms of unemployment trends in the early 1930s, and the country was a leading destination for European immigrants from the late 19th century. A unique feature of early 20th century Canada was that Census questionnaires asked respondents to report their earnings beginning in 1901. This means that our measure of attainment can reflect changes in pay within occupations and the effects of spell of unemployment on total earnings.
Our analysis of Census earnings yields a striking pattern: immigrants experienced “reverse assimilation” in Canadian labour markets, with the gap in pay between immigrants and the native-born growing between 1921 and 1931. Figures 1 and 2 show predicted earnings for immigrants relative to otherwise identical native-born Canadians for young, recent migrants (Figure 1), and older migrants with longer tenure in Canada (Figure 2). Free migrants had unrestricted access to Canada, and came mainly from the United States and the United Kingdom and Ireland. Preferred and non-preferred migrants hailed mostly from Continental Europe. The figures show that the relative decline of immigrant earnings was strongest among older men, even among those who had lived in Canada for decades when the Depression hit. We also find that the effects are focused almost entirely among immigrants from continental Europe who were not native English speakers, with American and British migrants experiencing no reversal in relative earnings.
Figure 1: Predicted relative immigrant earnings, born 1886, arriving 1911
Figure 2: Predicted relative immigrant earnings, born 1871, arriving 1896
The evidence of reverse assimilation is not a statistical artefact due to selective return migration of European migrants, or selective outmigration of Canadian residents to the United States; international migration flows were much lower in the early 1930s than the late 1920s, despite the government encouraging the return of indigent migrants to their home countries. Nor are the problems of migrants accounted for by a skills mismatch created by the differential shocks of the late 1920s and early 1930s, with immigrants having the misfortune of being concentrated in the jobs that were hit hardest. One factor that does account for a large share in the earnings gap is unemployment; immigrants in the 1931 Census were more likely to have lost time out of work than their native-born counterparts. This suggests that one way in which ethnicity mattered in the Depression was that those who were most obviously foreign were the first to lose their jobs and the last to be rehired. But unemployment does not fully account for reverse assimilation, as non-English speaking immigrants from continental Europe experienced a significant decline in weekly earnings between 1921 and 1931, relative to their native-born counterparts.
Our findings point to a disturbing conclusion: apparently well-integrated immigrants were more vulnerable to the adverse effects of a sustained recession than native-born workers with similar skills. Whether this pattern has been repeated in immigrant receiving economies during the recent crisis is an important question for future research.