Prior to the mid-1980s, labor productivity growth was a useful barometer of the U.S. economy’s performance: it was low when the economy was depressed and high when it was booming. Since then, labor productivity has become significantly less procyclical. In the recent downturn of 2008–2009, labor productivity actually rose as GDP plummeted. These facts have motivated the development of new business cycle theories because the conventional view is that they are inconsistent with existing business cycle theory. In this paper, we analyze recent events with existing theory and find that the labor productivity puzzle is much less of a puzzle than previously thought. In light of these findings, we argue that policy agendas arising from new untested theories should be disregarded.
Previous studies quantifying the effects of increased taxation during the U.S. Great Depression find that its contribution is small, in accounting for both the downturn in the early 1930s and the slow recovery after 1934. This paper shows that this conclusion rests critically on the assumption that the only taxable capital income is business profits. Effects of capital taxation are much larger when taxes on property, capital stock, excess profits, undistributed profits, and dividends are included in the analysis. When fed into a general equilibrium model, the increased taxes imply significant declines in investment and equity values and nontrivial declines in gross domestic product (GDP) and hours of work. Of particular importance during the Great Depression was the dramatic rise in the effective tax rate on corporate dividends.
U.S. stock prices have increased much faster than gross domestic product GDP) in the postwar period. Between 1962 and 2000, corporate equity value relative to GDP nearly doubled. In this paper, we determine what standard growth theory says the equity value should be in 1962 and 2000, the two years for which our steady-state assumption is a reasonable one. We find that the actual valuations were close to the theoretical predictions in both years. The reason for the large run-up in equity value relative to GDP is that the average tax rate on dividends fell dramatically between 1962 and 2000. We also find that, given legal constraints that effectively prohibited the holding of stocks as reserves for pension plans, there is no equity premium puzzle in the postwar period. The average returns on debt and equity are as theory predicts.
We develop a theory of sweat equity—which is the value of business owners’ time and expenses to build customer bases, client lists, and other intangible assets. We discipline the theory using data from U.S. national accounts and business census data and estimate a ratio of intangible to total assets in private business that is close to 60 percent, in line with evidence from broker data on business sales. We use our theory to evaluate the impact of lower private business and corporate tax rates and find much larger effects on private business than studies that ignore the fact that owners accumulate sweat capital. We also find large differences between our model’s distributional predictions and those of earlier studies.
Many countries are facing challenging fiscal financing issues as their populations age and the number of workers per retiree falls. Policymakers need transparent and robust analyses of alternative policies to deal with demographic changes. In this paper, we propose a simple framework that can easily be matched to aggregate data from the national accounts. We demonstrate the usefulness of our framework by comparing quantitative results for our aggregate model with those of a related model that includes within-age-cohort heterogeneity through productivity differences. When we assess proposals to switch from the current tax and transfer system in the United States to a mandatory saving-for-retirement system with no payroll taxation, we find that the aggregate predictions for the two models are close.
During the downturn of 2008–2009, output and hours fell significantly while labor productivity rose. These facts have led many to conclude that there is a significant deviation between observations and current macrotheories that assume business cycles are driven, at least in part, by fluctuations in total factor productivities of firms. We show that once investment in intangible capital is included in the analysis, there is no inconsistency. Measured labor productivity rises if the fall in output is underestimated; this occurs when there are large unmeasured intangible investments. Microevidence suggests that these investments are large and cyclically important.
A problem that faces many countries including the United States is how to finance retirement consumption as the population ages. Proposals for switching to a saving-for-retirement system that do not rely on high payroll taxes have been challenged on the grounds that welfare would fall for some groups such as retirees or the working poor. We show how to devise a transition path from the current U.S. system to a saving-for-retirement system that increases the welfare of all current and future generations, with estimates of future gains higher than those found in typically used macroeconomic models. The gains are large because there is more productive capital than commonly assumed. Our quantitative results depend importantly on accounting for differences between actual government tax revenues and what revenues would be if all income were taxed at the income-weighted average marginal tax rates used in our analysis.
Previous studies of the U.S. Great Depression find that increased government spending and taxation contributed little to either the dramatic downturn or the slow recovery. These studies include only one type of capital taxation: a business profits tax. The contribution is much greater when the analysis includes other types of capital taxes. A general equilibrium model extended to include taxes on dividends, property, capital stock, and excess and undistributed profits predicts patterns of output, investment, and hours worked that are more like those in the 1930s than found in earlier studies. The greatest effects come from the increased taxes on corporate dividends and undistributed profits.
We make three comparisons relevant for the business cycle accounting approach. We show that in theory, representing the investment wedge as a tax on investment is equivalent to representing this wedge as a tax on capital income as long as the probability distributions over this wedge in the two representations are the same. In practice, convenience dictates that the underlying probability distributions over the investment wedge are different in the two representations. Even so, the quantitative results under the two representations are essentially identical. We also compare our methodology, the CKM methodology, to an alternative one used in Christiano and Davis (2006) and by us in early incarnations of the business cycle accounting approach. We argue that the CKM methodology rests on more secure theoretical foundations. Finally, we show that the results from the VAR-style decomposition of Christiano and Davis reinforce the results of the business cycle decomposition of CKM.
The central finding of the recent structural vector autoregression (SVAR) literature with a differenced specification of hours is that technology shocks lead to a fall in hours. Researchers have used this finding to argue that real business cycle models are unpromising. We subject this SVAR specification to a natural economic test and show that when applied to data from a multiple-shock business cycle model, the procedure incorrectly concludes that the model could not have generated the data as long as demand shocks play a nontrivial role. We also test another popular specification, which uses the level of hours, and show that with nontrivial demand shocks, it cannot distinguish between real business cycle models and sticky price models. The crux of the problem for both SVAR specifications is that available data require a VAR with a small number of lags and such a VAR is a poor approximation to the model’s VAR.
There is much debate about the usefulness of the neoclassical growth model for assessing the macroeconomic impact of fiscal shocks. We test the theory using data from World War II, which is by far the largest fiscal shock in the history of the United States. We take observed changes in fiscal policy during the war as inputs into a parameterized, dynamic general equilibrium model and compare the values of all variables in the model to the actual values of these variables in the data. Our main finding is that the theory quantitatively accounts for macroeconomic activity during this big fiscal shock.