Future and Current Fiscal Policy

By William Gale, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution

The COVID-19 crisis has wreaked havoc on government budgets – in this country, in the states, and in nations around the world. But there is a potential silver lining.

Public deficits and debt are soaring to levels never seen before, in part because of the self-induced economic shutdown, the automatic stabilizers it caused, and the major discretionary policy choices that lawmakers made and are continuing to make and in part because the recent changes come on top of an already precarious fiscal situation.

In the past, after large debt build ups – countries benefitted from low interest rates but also ran tight fiscal policy. The US left World War II with debt of 106 percent of GDP. Low interest rates (which reduce government debt payments and help the economy outgrow the debt) prevailed, but we also ran balanced primary (non-interest) budgets on average through 1980. The U.K. had a similar situation. Right now, we have the benefits of low interest rates but there is no sign that we will be running tight fiscal policy even after the pandemic is over.

If we did, it would stifle any new policy priorities – in health care, infrastructure, childcare, etc. – unless taxes were raised very substantially, a prospect that seems politically unattainable, to say the least.

In short, we will face some very difficult fiscal choices when the pandemic is over.

There may be a silver lining, though. Interest rates were low before the pandemic but have collapsed in recent months. The real (inflation-adjusted) return on long-term government debt is negative. If rates stay so low, the government will have much more fiscal space to operate and will have enhanced ability to take on new debt.

That’s better than nothing, but it is a thin reed to count on. Low rates may in turn mean the economy is weak and thus doesn’t generate much revenue. Interest rates are notoriously volatile and if rates were to rise significantly, we would face the possibility of a debt spiral.

But if you don’t like the fiscal choices we will face with continued government stimulus, you will like it even less if government cuts off stimulus now.

Additional federal relief would produce substantial benefits at low costs. Transferring funds to state and local governments would let them avoid spending cuts in the face of revenue shortfalls and hence would shorten and help mitigate the recession.

We can learn from history and avoid policymakers’ knee-jerk tendency to cut off stimulus too quickly after a recession. During the Great Depression, in the 1990s in Japan, and in the past decade—in the U.S. but especially in the U.K. and continental Europe— law makers’ premature moves to austerity held back recoveries and, in some cases, created new recessions.

The nation certainly needs to address its long-term fiscal shortfalls, which are worse now than they were before the pandemic. But it is also clear that we now face a different problem that dwarfs the federal debt in severity. Even with the costs associated with higher future debt, the risks of doing too little now far outweigh the risks of doing too much.