Study Finds New Evidence of Federal Stimulus Dollars Crowding Out Private Investment

A new study from Harvard Business School has found something we at Reason have argued for years: instead of providing profound economic stimulus, federal spending tends to crown out private investment, making local economies worse off in aggregate. Spending takes tax money from the community (and elsewhere), decreasing economic growth potential as well. From the Harvard website:

Recent research at Harvard Business School began with the premise that as a state’s congressional delegation grew in stature and power in Washington, D.C., local businesses would benefit from the increased federal spending sure to come their way.

It turned out quite the opposite. In fact, professors Lauren Cohen, Joshua Coval, and Christopher Malloy discovered to their surprise that companies experienced lower sales and retrenched by cutting payroll, R&D, and other expenses. Indeed, in the years that followed a congressman’s ascendancy to the chairmanship of a powerful committee, the average firm in his state cut back capital expenditures by roughly 15 percent, according to their working paper, “Do Powerful Politicians Cause Corporate Downsizing?

“It was an enormous surprise, at least to us, to learn that the average firm in the chairman’s state did not benefit at all from the unanticipated increase in spending,” Coval reports.

Over a 40-year period, the study looked at increases in local earmarks and other federal spending that flowed to states after the senator or representative rose to the chairmanship of a powerful congressional committee.

WSJ continues the story:

According to Mr. Coval, the research shows federal dollars “directly supplant private sector activity—they literally undertake projects the private sector was planning to do on its own.”

The chairmanship of a powerful Senate committee such as Finance or Appropriations typically brings an increase of 40% to 50% in earmark spending for the home state. In the House, top dogs haul an average of 20% more to their states. Yet in the first year after a chairman’s rise, the paper notes, the average firm in his state “cuts back capital expenditures by roughly 15%.” The behavior typically continues until the Congressman steps down, and it is felt in particular by firms that have the strongest ties to the home state.

Part of the problem is that public money is “crowding out” investment opportunities for firms. “Some of our results point towards the role of competition for state specific factors of production, including labor and fixed assets such as real estates,” the authors write. “Public spending appears to increase demand for state-specific factors of production and thereby compel firms to downsize and invest elsewhere.” They add that “We also find evidence that the effects are most pronounced in sectors that are the target of earmark spending.”

The full story here.