Contractionary Fiscal Policy: Definition, Purpose, Examples

Where Bush and Obama Completely Disagree With Clinton

Contractionary Fiscal Policy
President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton (L) and former President George W. Bush (C) hold a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House January 16, 2010. Bush and Obama do not like Clinton's suggestion to use contractionary policy. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Definition: Contractionary fiscal policy is when the government either cuts spending or raises taxes. It's so named because it contracts the economy. It reduces the amount of money available for businesses and consumers to spend.

Purpose

The purpose of contractionary fiscal policy is to slow growth to a healthy economic level. That's between 2 percent to 3 percent a year. An economy that grows more than 3 percent creates four negative consequences.

  1. It creates inflation. That's when prices rise too fast in clothing, food and other necessities. Higher prices quickly gobbles up savings and destroys the standard of living
  2. It drives up prices in investments. That's called an asset bubble. It's happened in stocks, gold and oil. An example of its devastating effects is the 2006 housing bubble. By 2005, the cost of housing became unaffordable for most families. Banks lowered their terms to entice subprime borrowers, creating a crisis in 2008.
  3. It's unsustainable. Growth at 4 percent or more leads to a recession. That especially occurs with asset bubbles. For more, see Business Cycle.
  4. It lowers unemployment to below the natural rate of unemployment. That makes it difficult for employers to find enough workers to meet market demand. That slows growth from the production side.

How It Works

When governments cut spending or increase taxes it takes money out consumers' hands.

That also happens when the government also cuts subsidies, transfer payments including welfare programs, contracts for public works and hiring new government employees. Shrinking the money supply decreases demand. It gives consumers less purchasing power. That reduces business profit, forcing companies to cut employment.

 

Why It Is Rarely Used

Elected officials use contractionary fiscal policy much less often than expansionary policy. That's because voters don't like tax increases. They also protest any benefit decreases caused by reduced government spending. As a result, politicians that use contractionary policy are soon voted out of office. 

The unpopularity of contractionary policy results in ever-increasing federal budget deficits. The government just issues new Treasury bills, notes, and bonds. These annual budget deficits worsen the U.S. debt. It's almost $20 trillion, more than what the United States produces in a year. Over the long run, the debt to GDP ratio is unsustainable. In time, purchasers of U.S. Treasurys will worry that they won't get repaid. They will demand higher interest rates to compensate them for the added risk. Higher rates will slow economic growth. The economy suffers the effect of contractionary monetary policy whether it wants to or not.

State and local governments are more likely to use contractionary fiscal policies. That's because they must follow balanced budget laws. They aren't allowed to spend more than they receive in taxes. Although it's a good discipline, it limits lawmakers' ability to recover from a recession.

 Unless they have a surplus when the recession hits, they must cut spending right when they need it most.

Examples

President Bill Clinton used contractionary policy by cutting spending in several key areas. First, he required welfare recipients to work within two years of getting benefits. After five years, benefits were cut off.  He also raised the top income tax rate from 28 percent to 39.6 percent.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt used contractionary policy too soon after the Depression. He was reacting to political pressure to cut the debt. The Depression came roaring back in 1932. It didn't end until FDR  geared up spending for World War II.

That was a massive return to expansionary fiscal policy.

For more examples, see:

Contractionary Fiscal Policy vs. Contractionary Monetary Policy

Contractionary monetary policy is when a nation's central bank raises interest rates and decreases the money supply. It's usually done to prevent inflation. The long-term impact of inflation can be more damaging to the standard of living than a recession. Expansionary monetary policy boosts economic growth by lowering interest rates.  It's effective in adding more liquidity in a recession.

The benefit of monetary policy is that it works faster than fiscal policy. The Fed votes to raise or lower rates at its regular FOMC meeting. It takes about six months for the added liquidity to work its way through the economy. 

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