Recessionary and Inflationary Gaps and Long-Run Macroeconomic Equilibrium
Review these sections, which show graphically recessionary and inflationary gaps and relates them to the labor market. Various policy choices are also discussed that address issues in the economy that result from these gaps.
Gaps and Public Policy
If the economy faces a gap, how do we get from that situation to potential output?
Gaps present us with two alternatives. First, we can do nothing. In the long run, real wages will adjust to the equilibrium level, employment will move to its natural level, and real GDP will move to its potential. Second, we can do something. Faced with a recessionary or an inflationary gap, policy makers can undertake policies aimed at shifting the aggregate demand or short-run aggregate supply curves in a way that moves the economy to its potential. A policy choice to take no action to try to close a recessionary or an inflationary gap, but to allow the economy to adjust on its own to its potential output, is a nonintervention policy. A policy in which the government or central bank acts to move the economy to its potential output is called a stabilization policy.
Nonintervention or Expansionary Policy?
Figure 7.14 "Alternatives in Closing a Recessionary Gap" illustrates the alternatives for closing a recessionary gap. In both panels, the economy starts with a real GDP of Y1 and a price level of P1. There is a recessionary gap equal to YP − Y1. In Panel (a), the economy closes the gap through a process of self-correction. Real and nominal wages will fall as long as employment remains below the natural level. Lower nominal wages shift the short-run aggregate supply curve. The process is a gradual one, however, given the stickiness of nominal wages, but after a series of shifts in the short-run aggregate supply curve, the economy moves toward equilibrium at a price level of P2 and its potential output of YP.
Figure 7.14 Alternatives in Closing a Recessionary Gap
Panel (a) illustrates a gradual closing of a recessionary gap. Under a nonintervention policy, short-run aggregate supply shifts from SRAS1 to SRAS2. Panel (b) shows the effects of expansionary policy acting on aggregate demand to close the gap.
Panel (b) illustrates the stabilization alternative. Faced with an economy operating below its potential, public officials act to stimulate aggregate demand. For example, the government can increase government purchases of goods and services or cut taxes. Tax cuts leave people with more after-tax income to spend, boost their consumption, and increase aggregate demand. As AD1 shifts to AD2 in Panel (b) of Figure 7.14 "Alternatives in Closing a Recessionary Gap", the economy achieves output of YP, but at a higher price level, P3. A stabilization policy designed to increase real GDP is known as an expansionary policy.
Nonintervention or Contractionary Policy?
Figure 7.15 "Alternatives in Closing an Inflationary Gap" illustrates the alternatives for closing an inflationary gap. Employment in an economy with an inflationary gap exceeds its natural level - the quantity of labor demanded exceeds the long-run
supply of labor. A nonintervention policy would rely on nominal wages to rise in response to the shortage of labor. As nominal wages rise, the short-run aggregate supply curve begins to shift, as shown in Panel (a), bringing the economy to its
potential output when it reaches SRAS2 and P2.
Figure 7.15 Alternatives in Closing an Inflationary Gap
Panel (a) illustrates a gradual closing of an inflationary gap. Under a nonintervention policy, short-run aggregate supply shifts from SRAS1 to SRAS2. Panel (b) shows the effects of contractionary policy to reduce aggregate demand from AD1 to AD2 in order to close the gap.
A stabilization policy that reduces the level of GDP is a contractionary policy. Such a policy would aim at shifting the aggregate demand curve from AD1 to AD2 to close the gap, as shown in Panel (b). A policy to shift the aggregate demand curve to the left would return real GDP to its potential at a price level of P3.
For both kinds of gaps, a combination of letting market forces in the economy close part of the gap and of using stabilization policy to close the rest of the gap is also an option. Later chapters will explain stabilization policies in more detail, but there are essentially two types of stabilization policy: fiscal policy and monetary policy. Fiscal policy is the use of government purchases, transfer payments, and taxes to influence the level of economic activity. Monetary policy is the use of central bank policies to influence the level of economic activity.
To Intervene or Not to Intervene: An Introduction to the Controversy
How large are inflationary and recessionary gaps? Panel (a) of Figure 7.16 "Real GDP and Potential Output" shows potential output versus the actual level of real GDP in the United States since 1960. Real GDP appears to follow potential output quite
closely, although you see some periods where there have been inflationary or recessionary gaps. Panel (b) shows the sizes of these gaps expressed as percentages of potential output. The percentage gap is positive during periods of inflationary
gaps and negative during periods of recessionary gaps. Over the last 50 years, the economy has seldom departed by more than 5% from its potential output. So the size and duration of the recessionary gap from 2009 to 2011 certainly stand out.
Figure 7.16 Real GDP and Potential Output
Panel (a) shows potential output (the blue line) and actual real GDP (the purple line) since 1960. Panel (b) shows the gap between potential and actual real GDP expressed as a percentage of potential output. Inflationary gaps are shown in green and recessionary gaps are shown in yellow.
Panel (a) gives a long-run perspective on the economy. It suggests that the economy generally operates at about potential output. In Panel (a), the gaps seem minor. Panel (b) gives a short-run perspective; the view it gives emphasizes the gaps. Both of these perspectives are important. While it is reassuring to see that the economy is often close to potential, the years in which there are substantial gaps have real effects: Inflation or unemployment can harm people.
Some economists argue that stabilization policy can and should be used when recessionary or inflationary gaps exist. Others urge reliance on the economy's own ability to correct itself. They sometimes argue that the tools available to the public sector to influence aggregate demand are not likely to shift the curve, or they argue that the tools would shift the curve in a way that could do more harm than good.
Economists who advocate stabilization policies argue that prices are sufficiently sticky that the economy's own adjustment to its potential will be a slow process - and a painful one. For an economy with a recessionary gap, unacceptably high levels of unemployment will persist for too long a time. For an economy with an inflationary gap, the increased prices that occur as the short-run aggregate supply curve shifts upward impose too high an inflation rate in the short run. These economists believe it is far preferable to use stabilization policy to shift the aggregate demand curve in an effort to shorten the time the economy is subject to a gap.
Economists who favor a nonintervention approach accept the notion that stabilization policy can shift the aggregate demand curve. They argue, however, that such efforts are not nearly as simple in the real world as they may appear on paper. For example, policies to change real GDP may not affect the economy for months or even years. By the time the impact of the stabilization policy occurs, the state of the economy might have changed. Policy makers might choose an expansionary policy when a contractionary one is needed or vice versa. Other economists who favor nonintervention also question how sticky prices really are and if gaps even exist.
The debate over how policy makers should respond to recessionary and inflationary gaps is an ongoing one. These issues of nonintervention versus stabilization policies lie at the heart of the macroeconomic policy debate. We will return to them as we continue our analysis of the determination of output and the price level.