Stimulus or austerity: an economist’s search for answers

Published: August 5, 2013

New finance faculty member Jonathan Parker examines the effects of 2008 stimulus payments


			Professor Jonathan ParkerProfessor Jonathan Parker

In February 2008, Congress passed a $100 billion stimulus bill aimed at shoring up an an economy on the edge of freefall.

The stimulus awarded a tax rebate of up to $600 per person or $1,200 per couple in hopes that recipients would spend the money and prop up the sagging economy.

Jonathan Parker, one of MIT Sloan’s newest professors, said he believes the 2008 Economic Stimulus Act offers a promising opportunity to study a vexing question: Is household stimulus effective and good public policy?

“My research suggests that the stimulus payments did increase spending, and the extent to which they did informs us about the effects of similar policies on the economy.” Parker said. “We now have a reasonable idea about the spending responses to hitting the Fiscal Cliff or to a proposed tax change.”

“Whether the stimulus bill was good public policy, some will say ’yes,’ others will say ’no,’” he said. “That’s one of the things I’m studying.”

Parker joins MIT Sloan from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, where he wrote several papers examining the impact of stimulus spending. He says at MIT he expects to continue to study stimulus spending versus austerity.

“My view is there is not a great case for either,” Parker said. “A convincing quantitative picture is still murky. A requisite for clarifying that picture is a better understanding of how firms and households behave. That’s what I’m continuously chasing.”

Parker’s path

This fall, Parker returns to MIT, where he received his doctorate in 1996. He joins an impressive roster of finance faculty at MIT Sloan, which is home to Nobel laureate Robert Merton and 2012 Time 100 honoree Andrew Lo.

“It’s a great institution with fantastic colleagues, from the grad students to the most senior faculty member,” Parker said. “It’s an exciting place to be.”

It is also a personal homecoming for Parker, who was raised in the Boston suburb of Newton.

As a child, Parker couldn’t avoid being influenced by the academic life. Both parents worked at Boston University—his mother was an administrator, his father a professor of ancient Near Eastern languages and religion specializing in the ancient language Ugaritic.

While he didn’t choose economics until college, Parker’s studies began at the kitchen table.

“My mother was continuously coming up with mechanisms to make sure things were reasonably fairly divided between me and my brother,” he said. For instance, one brother sliced a piece of cake and the other brother got to pick which slice he got. “There’s something about that in economics, determining allocations in reasonable ways, understanding incentives, and thinking about how to make mechanisms that efficiently allocate resources,” said Parker.

His parents sent him to the rigorous Roxbury Latin School in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. Parker went on to earn a bachelor’s in economics and mathematics from Yale University in 1988, and later a PhD in economics from MIT. The longtime headmaster at Roxbury Latin, F. Washington “Tony” Jarvis, an Episcopal priest who oversaw the school from 1974 to 2004, left a lasting impression.

“He was an inspirational figure for thinking about living for more than a house in the suburbs and the 2.5 kids and a minivan,” Parker said. “It was about doing something bigger, better, and beneficial to other people rather than measuring success in life by income.”

Work and public service

Parker studies household economics and asset pricing—the big economic questions that touch on people’s everyday lives.

After posts at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin, Parker taught at Princeton University.

In 2009, while at Northwestern, Parker was tapped to join a team of economists charged with devising a way to attach values to the assets in the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) portfolio. It was critical to find ways to help the government pin values to assets to protect taxpayers. There were many challenges, Parker said.

“How do we value claims the government holds against AIG, Citigroup, and most of the smaller banks in the U.S.?” Parker asked. “Many of the claims on these institutions held by the U.S. government—and so taxpayers—were not traded in the marketplace, so how do you figure out their worth? Given that some may not pay the government back, and the government controls policies that influence whether they will be able to, how do you price the risk in these banks?”

Parker’s work studying the efficacy of stimulus spending started at Princeton with the tax rebates of 2001, and continued at Northwestern. There he set out in several studies to measure exactly what households did with their stimulus checks, and why, with an eye toward influencing future policy.

In 2012, Parker wrote “The Economic Stimulus Payments of 2008 and the Aggregate Demand for Consumption,” with Christian Broda of Duquesne Capital Management. The pair used consumer purchase scans to see how the tax rebates were spent.

What they learned was that after rebates arrived, households raised spending 10 percent in the first week and 4 percent in the following seven weeks, then the spending trailed away. Almost all consumer spending was by households with incomes of $35,000 or less and with two months or less of liquid assets.

Parker said it is tough to sell stimulus programs if households believe they don’t work and are costly because they add to the nation’s long-term debt.

“The $64,000 question is, ’What do we do now—with the US debt to GDP as high as it is and a perceived need to increase spending for demand?’” Parker said. “There’s a tough trade-off because household spending reflects not just cash flow, but also future concerns about who’s going to pay, and will there be a default crisis?”

His research so far doesn’t give a clear answer—stimulus or austerity. But then again, no one has the answer yet.

“Economists who get on TV and say ’I’m sure we should do more stimulus’ or claim that the only way forward is austerity, they are not getting there from the academic evidence they’ve read,” Parker said. “They’re getting there from somewhere else.”

“I’m always humbled by how little we know,” Parker said. “The world is infinitely more complex than our economic models. So we’re continuously learning. Some of the biggest questions in economics are still up for grabs.”