Econometrica: Jan 2016, Volume 84, Issue 1

The Role of Automatic Stabilizers in the U.S. Business Cycle

DOI: 10.3982/ECTA11574
p. 141-194

Alisdair McKay, Ricardo Reis

Most countries have automatic rules in their tax‐and‐transfer systems that are partly intended to stabilize economic fluctuations. This paper measures their effect on the dynamics of the business cycle. We put forward a model that merges the standard incomplete‐markets model of consumption and inequality with the new Keynesian model of nominal rigidities and business cycles, and that includes most of the main potential stabilizers in the U.S. data and the theoretical channels by which they may work. We find that the conventional argument that stabilizing disposable income will stabilize aggregate demand plays a negligible role in the dynamics of the business cycle, whereas tax‐and‐transfer programs that affect inequality and social insurance can have a larger effect on aggregate volatility. However, as currently designed, the set of stabilizers in place in the United States has had little effect on the volatility of aggregate output fluctuations or on their welfare costs despite stabilizing aggregate consumption. The stabilizers have a more important role when monetary policy is constrained by the zero lower bound, and they affect welfare significantly through the provision of social insurance.

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Supplement to "The Role of Automatic Stabilizers in the U.S. Business Cycle"

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Supplement to "The Role of Automatic Stabilizers in the U.S. Business Cycle"

Appendices covering: the construction of table I, the derivation of the model equations, numerical methods, and error analysis.

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