Are Bubbles a Necessary Evil for the Economy?

by: Shep Osherow

I looked at the tax receipts and expenditures for the federal government for the past twenty years. This period covers Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. There was a surplus for a few years in the late 1990’s.

A U.S. Treasury report of May 2008 stated that “Much of the growth during the late 1990s can be attributed to the extraordinary performance of the stock market and its effects on individual income tax receipts”. It further stated that “Capital gains income more than quadrupled between 1994 and 2000. Tax receipts from capital gains realization more than tripled during this period, even though the tax rate on capital gains was reduced beginning in 1997”. As to the increase of taxable income the report stated “Taxable personal income grew faster than GDP during this period. Much of the rise in wages was related to the exercise of stock options and bonus income".

On July 17, 1995 the NASDAQ stock index closed above the 1,000. On March 10, 2000 the index reached a high of 5,132. The NASDAQ bubble of this period under a Democratic President Clinton and a Republican controlled congress contributed significantly to creating a budget surplus. Unfortunately the NASDAQ which kept strong receipts flowing into the treasury was destructed by the crash of Bubble Number One. A surplus of any significance was only achieved for a couple of years.

When President Bush took office the budget surplus was already declining. Then the staggering September 11 attacks took place. President Bush and the Congress enacted an emergency tax relief program to attempt to stop the slide in economic activity. The results of those tax cuts are best described in the same Department of Treasury report. The report states: “After 2004, tax revenues again grew faster than the economy. Between 2004 and 2006, capital gains realizations grew by approximately 60 percent. Growth in corporate income tax receipts was especially strong recently, nearly doubling in levels between 2004 and 2007”.

As the economy began to recover from bubble number two, the housing market got completely out of control. When this bubble burst the economy was in a free fall. The very large deficit of 2009 and 2010 were caused by a response to Bubble Number Two. Again both Presidents Bush and Obama and the Congress along with the Fed responded very effectively.

Where we sit today our country is still facing double digit unemployment in many areas. Increasing taxes is not supported by official U.S. Treasury commentary. The deficit is not a partisan problem.

Requiring two bubbles to keep this economy in a prosperous state for the last two decades is an unfortunate state of circumstances. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to stop bubbles in free economic democracy.