Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stimulus v. Confidence

Under the Tax Relief Act of 2010, individuals get a 2 percent reduction in their Social Security contribution to payroll taxes. That contribution is 6. 2 percent of gross earnings. In 2011, the deduction is 4.2 percent. This applies to earnings up to and including $106,800. Thus a person earning $45,000 would have paid $2,790—but in 2011 pays only $1,890. This amounts to $900 or, taken at a monthly rate, $75 a month.

I bring this up because the administration is pushing for an extension of this tax cut to 2012—in the name of stimulus. The presumption is that people will rush out and spend that $75 a month, lift consumption, and therefore create jobs.

Now in my mind Stimulus does not stand alone, as it were. It is intimately associated with Confidence. Pushing for a stimulus measure without improving public confidence—indeed by eroding it in wave after wave of public events that signal doom ahead—has only one absolutely predictable consequence. In this case it means that the Social Security Trust Fund (so-called) is forgoing revenues. In today’s environment, the public is at least as likely (1) to pay down still staggering credit card debt or (2) put that $75 in savings against the possibility of losing the job, or the necessary second job.

The minor stimulus the administration is advocating is, it seems to me, way more than matched by the defunding of government that it cannot stem. Meanwhile confidence is low—and zigzagging like employment gains. Here the temporally near-term and the longer-range view of confidence:

The first shows the Consumer Confidence Index from mid-1997 to January 2011. This index is produced by the University of Michigan and published by the Conference Board. The straight line is the trend of confidence over a 14-year period. Notice, please, that the "leveling-off" after each drop has taken place at a lower level—which is that supports the downward trend.

The second, which I have from an April 2003 paper from the Regional Economist, a publication of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank (link), shows us much more history of confidence using the same series, going back to the 1960s and ending in 2003. What that chart shows is that we’ve had periods of very low confidence twice before, once in 1973-1974 and again in 1993 or thereabouts. Current levels, not shown on that chart, are matching those.

You can measure confidence in surveys, but the feel is the thing. The current level of confidence, it seems to me, is lower than any earlier periods’. That measly stimulus of $75 a month, or much less for many, does not automatically cause the kind of spending-frenzy the administration really wishes to achieve. What we’re thinking, here in the boonies, is that a trillion in cuts is bound to cause massive layoffs somewhere. And that we have unpaid FAA employees inspecting things for safety because Congress has denied them the dough.

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