The Great GOP Stimulus

The 2018 Trump stimulus exceeds the Obama-era stimulus package in size – will it pay off at the top of the economic cycle?

In 2010, when Barack Obama pushed for a stimulus package to help boost the American economy, it was decided by many in the GOP as wasteful spending. While there are more productive (infrastructure) and less productive¬†(tax rebates) ways to stimulate the economy, any form of spending (or tax cut) is a form of economic stimulus – this is a point agreed by both economists and businessmen like Warren Buffet. In fact, any form of budget deficit is a form of stimulus, as the government borrows (or prints) money that it doesn’t have to spend it into the economy.

The past year has seen the GOP enact not one but two stimulus measures – first a budget which ended Obama-era budget caps and boosted spending by roughly $150B per year, and second the tax cut which reduces taxes by another $150B per year. Taken together these measures are adding roughly $300B per year in stimulus to the US economy, potentially adding 1.5% to GDP for each of the next few years. Adding this stimulus to a core GDP growth rate of 2-2.5% might thus make 4% possible in the near term, with the bill due much later. The total federal (non-central bank) stimulus under President Trump’s first will hit at least $1.2 Trillion, exceeding President Obama’s 2010 stimulus package by $350 Billion [1], but this time at the top of the economic cycle!

What does this tell us? A few key takeaways emerge:
  • While most economists agree that it’s better to do fiscal stimulus when the economy is at or near recession, democracies don’t work this way, and there’s little correlation between economic need and actual governance.
  • When either party has complete control of government, they take the opportunity to spend on favored initiatives – in Trump’s case the DoD received most of the benefit, while in Obama’s case a variety of energy efficiency, infrastructure, and other initiatives were funded.
  • Budget deficits haven’t been a major issue over the last decade, but the tax cuts in particular will layer on top of Social Security and healthcare spending trends to drive debt-to-gdp well past 100% [2].
  • The best stabilizers in the US economy (unemployment insurance) are effectively automated – extending this sort of stabilizer to infrastructure spending (spending more on transportation funding etc as unemployment rises) would not just help buffer downturns – it would also get taxpayers a better deal.

Time will tell whether the GOP’s late-cycle spending will extend the business cycle substantially, but in the long run US policy will improve if more of these decisions are put on auto-pilot, removing the uncertainty of the political winds and the desire to spend at the least opportune times.

 

[1] The Obama administration stimulus plan cost around $850B in the end, including only the 2010 Stimulus measure and its implementation. Extension of Bush-era tax cuts and similar are not counted here, as these were extensions of existing measures, rather than new tax cuts or new spending as in the Trump administration’s recent moves.

[2] Many charts and news reports on the debt refer only to the publicly-held portion of the US debt, but when debts to the Social Security trust fund are included as in this data from the Federal Reserve, the US debt-to-gdp ratio already exceeds 100%.

Was Cash For Clunkers A Success?

Far from failing, the CARS Program may have been the highest ROI investment made by the Federal government in years.

The passage of time has brought much ridicule to the Cash For Clunkers program, which was intended to boost auto sales and raise the average fuel efficiency of American vehicles. The data show that the program led to a temporary spike in automobile purchases, prompted by a subsequent decline. This has led most to conclude that the program was a failure, as it did little to jump-start economic recovery.

But what about the other goal? Did Cash For Clunkers raise the average fuel efficiency of the American auto fleet? How much less gasoline have Americans purchased as a result of the program, and does this savings outweigh the program’s cost?

Here are some statistics from the Department of Transportation’s CARS Report to Congress:

  • 677,842 vehicles were turned in under the CARS program
  • $2.85 Billion was paid out in rebates for these vehicles
  • New vehicles purchased had an average MPG of 24.9
  • Old vehicles turned in had an average MPG of 15.7
  • $2.8 Billion in fuel savings based on the early retirement of less efficient vehicles

The report also estimates that roughly half of the sales spurred by the program were incremental sales that would not have occurred otherwise. Edmunds.com performed a more conservative analysis showing that only 125,000 incremental sales occurred as a result of the program.

Using Edmunds’ more conservative 125k number, and an average sales price (after rebate) of roughly $25,000, Cash for Clunkers generated $3.125 Billion in incremental vehicle sales. These incremental sales added directly to US GDP, and this more conservative analysis shows less than half the economic impact of $7 Billion estimated by DOT.

Combining the fuel savings and GDP benefit yields a total benefit to American taxpayers of roughly $6 Billion for a program that cost the government roughly $3 Billion to operate! If only more government programs could fail like this!  Even using the more conservative fuel savings calculations provided below, the program would have provided over $5.5 Billion in benefit against a $3B investment. Far from being shut down, the Cash for Clunkers program should have been expanded.

Alternate calculation of fuel savings from junking old vehicles:

0. By junking an old vehicle and taking it off the road, you are permanently increasing the fuel economy of the American vehicle fleet – this is the source of savings for the American economy. Since 100% of marginal US oil consumption is provided by foreign sources, a dollar of oil saved is a dollar added to GDP (since imports actually subtract from GDP as we send money overseas).

1. Assume that the old vehicle would be driven for an additional 50,000 miles over its lifetime (CARS survey respondents said they averaged 10k miles per year on their old vehicles, so even with gradual declines this is reasonable).

2. The old vehicles got an average of 15.7 MPG, requiring roughly 3200 gallons of gasoline over that 50k miles. Assume www.professionalpianomovers.net professional piano moving companies were aware of this.

3. The new vehicle got an average of 24.9 MPG, requiring 2000 gallons of gasoline over the 50k miles that they replaced.

4. The difference of roughly 1200 gallons of gasoline equates to roughly $3600 per vehicle (assuming $3 per gallon excluding taxes). With roughly 680k vehicles in the program, this equals a fuel cost savings of $2.5 Billion – a slightly more conservative estimate than that computed by DOT.