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The automatic fiscal stabilizers: quietly doing their thing

  • Darrel Cohen
  • Glenn Follette

This paper presents theoretical and empirical analysis of automatic fiscal stabilizers, such as the income tax and unemployment insurance benefits. Using the modern theory of consumption behavior, we identify several channels--insurance effects, wealth effects and liquidity constraints- -through which the optimal reaction of household consumption plans to aggregate income shocks is tempered by the automatic fiscal stabilizers. In addition we identify a cash flow channel for investment. The empirical importance of automatic stabilizers is addressed in several ways. We estimate elasticities of the various federal taxes with respect to their tax bases and responses of certain components of federal spending to changes in the unemployment rate. Such estimates are useful for analysts who forecast federal revenues and spending; the estimates also allow high- employment or cyclically-adjusted federal tax receipts and expenditures to be estimated. Using frequency domain techniques, we confirm that the relationships found in the time domain are strong at the business cycle frequencies. Using the FRB/US macro-econometric model of the United States economy, the automatic fiscal stabilizers are found to play a modest role at damping the short-run effect of aggregate demand shocks on real GDP, reducing the "multiplier" by about 10 percent. Very little stabilization is provided in the case of an aggregate supply shock.

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Paper provided by Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.) in its series Finance and Economics Discussion Series with number 1999-64.

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Date of creation: 1999
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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedgfe:1999-64
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  1. Susanto Basu & Alan M. Taylor, 1999. "Business Cycles in International Historical Perspective," NBER Working Papers 7090, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Baxter, Marianne & King, Robert G, 1993. "Fiscal Policy in General Equilibrium," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 83(3), pages 315-34, June.
  3. Barsky, Robert B & Mankiw, N Gregory & Zeldes, Stephen P, 1986. "Ricardian Consumers with Keynesian Propensities," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 76(4), pages 676-91, September.
  4. Rebecca M. Blank, 2001. "What Causes Public Assistance Caseloads to Grow?," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 36(1), pages 85-118.
  5. Andrew Atkeson & Christopher Phelan, 1994. "Reconsidering the Costs of Business Cycles with Incomplete Markets," NBER Working Papers 4719, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  7. Alan J. Auerbach & Daniel R. Feenberg, 2000. "The Significance of Federal Taxes as Automatic Stabilizers," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 14(3), pages 37-56, Summer.
  8. Chan, Louis Kuo Chi, 1983. "Uncertainty and the neutrality of government financing policy," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 11(3), pages 351-372.
  9. Francis X. Diebold & Glenn D. Rudebusch, 1990. "Have postwar economic fluctuations been stabilized?," Discussion Paper / Institute for Empirical Macroeconomics 33, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
  10. Blanchard, Olivier J, 1981. "Output, the Stock Market, and Interest Rates," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 71(1), pages 132-43, March.
  11. R. Glenn Hubbard, 1998. "Capital-Market Imperfections and Investment," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 36(1), pages 193-225, March.
  12. David L. Reifschneider & Robert J. Tetlow & John Williams, 1999. "Aggregate disturbances, monetary policy, and the macroeconomy: the FRB/US perspective," Federal Reserve Bulletin, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.), issue Jan, pages 1-19.
  13. Christiano, Lawrence J., 1984. "A reexamination of the theory of automatic stabilizers," Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, Elsevier, vol. 20(1), pages 147-206, January.
  14. Christina D. Romer, 1999. "Changes in Business Cycles: Evidence and Explanations," NBER Working Papers 6948, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  15. Darrel Cohen, 1999. "An analysis of government spending in the frequency domain," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 1999-26, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  16. Flint Brayton & Peter A. Tinsley, 1996. "A guide to FRB/US: a macroeconomic model of the United States," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 96-42, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  17. Nicholas S. Souleles, 1999. "The Response of Household Consumption to Income Tax Refunds," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 89(4), pages 947-958, September.
  18. McCallum, B. T. & Whitaker, J. K., 1979. "The effectiveness of fiscal feedback rules and automatic stabilizers under rational expectations," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 5(2), pages 171-186, April.
  19. Aschauer, David Alan, 1985. "Fiscal Policy and Aggregate Demand," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(1), pages 117-27, March.
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