The economic decisions of households can have a significant impact on an economy. For example, a decision on the part of households to consume more and to save less can lead to an increase in employment, investment, and ultimately profits. Equally, the investment decisions made by corporations can have an important impact on the real economy and on corporate profits. But individual corporations can rarely affect large economies on their own; the decisions of a single household concerning consumption will have a negligible impact on the wider economy.
By contrast, the decisions made by governments can have an enormous impact on even the largest and most developed of economies for two main reasons. First, the public sectors of most developed economies normally employ a significant proportion of the population, and they are usually responsible for a significant proportion of spending in an economy. Second, governments are also the largest borrowers in world debt markets. Exhibit 1 gives some idea of the scale of government borrowing and spending.
Exhibit 1 Panel A. Central Government Debt to GDP, 2009
Panel B. Public Sector Spending to GDP, 2009
Note: All data are for 2009.
Source: Thomson Financial.
Government policy is ultimately expressed through its borrowing and spending activities. In this reading, we identify and discuss two types of government policy that can affect the macroeconomy and financial markets: monetary policy and fiscal policy.
Monetary policy refers to central bank activities that are directed toward influencing the quantity of money and credit in an economy.1 By contrast, fiscal policy refers to the government’s decisions about taxation and spending. Both monetary and fiscal policies are used to regulate economic activity over time. They can be used to accelerate growth when an economy starts to slow or to moderate growth and activity when an economy starts to overheat. In addition, fiscal policy can be used to redistribute income and wealth.
The overarching goal of both monetary and fiscal policy is normally the creation of an economic environment where growth is stable and positive and inflation is stable and low. Crucially, the aim is therefore to steer the underlying economy so that it does not experience economic booms that may be followed by extended periods of low or negative growth and high levels of unemployment. In such a stable economic environment, householders can feel secure in their consumption and saving decisions, while corporations can concentrate on their investment decisions, on making their regular coupon payments to their bond holders and on making profits for their shareholders.
The challenges to achieving this overarching goal are many. Not only are economies frequently buffeted by shocks (such as oil price jumps), but some economists believe that natural cycles in the economy also exist. Moreover, there are plenty of examples from history where government policies—either monetary, fiscal, or both—have exacerbated an economic expansion that eventually led to damaging consequences for the real economy, for financial markets, and for investors.