Why does the economy continue to suck? The LA Times is hosting a symposium on the topic today, and USC business professor Ayse Imrohoroglu says the answer is uncertainty:
Businesses don't know what will happen to interest rates. They have trouble calculating what new workers will cost in light of potential new healthcare mandates and costs. They don't know what will happen to tax rates, which could rise dramatically. They are uncertain about increasing financial regulation and the possibility of a carbon tax. And as if that isn't enough, the soaring deficits and national debt raise very real questions about the federal government's long-term ability to meet its debt obligations.
OK, let's take these one by one:
The uncertainty meme is just mind boggling. Businesses always have a certain amount of regulatory uncertainty to deal with, and there's simply no evidence that this uncertainty is any greater now than it usually is. (It is, of course, entirely believable that business owners who spend too much time watching Fox or reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page might believe otherwise, but that's a whole different problem — and one that Imrohoroglu should spend his time debunking, not promoting.) The only significant real uncertainty that American businesses face right now is financial uncertainty: that is, whether there will be enough consumer demand next year to justify hiring more workers and buying more equipment today. PPACA and carbon taxes rank very far down the list.
UPDATE: Let me add something that I just mentioned in an email to a friend. The main sources of regulatory change during Obama's term so far have been PPACA and financial reform. During George Bush's first five years, he approved No Child Left Behind, the PATRIOT Act, McCain-Feingold, Sarbanes-Oxley, the Homeland Security reorganization, Medicare Part D, bankruptcy reform, and two big tax bills. He also tried and failed to pass major changes to Social Security. And all this was in addition to the usual background hum of agency regulatory hearings and rulemaking changes — including a heap of financial deregulation that eventually contributed to an epic banking meltdown.
And yet, no one complained about regulatory uncertainty back then. Why? Because the economy was growing. Businesses like some regulatory changes and dislike others, but it's mainly financial uncertainty that keeps them from hiring and investing.