Understanding the Consumption Response to Fiscal Stimulus Payments: A Structural Analysis

Nontechnical Abstract

Fiscal stimulus payments (e.g., tax rebates and other forms of cash transfers to families) are a very common policy instrument used by governments in the US and other countries to stabilize aggregate economic activity and moderate the effects of recessions on household welfare. Fiscal interventions of this type have been authorized by Congress during the economic downturns of 1975, 2001, 2008, and 2009. Families have received payments of between $300 and $1,000, depending on the specific episode and on household size. In the aggregate, these fiscal outlays have been remarkably large: around $38B in 2001, $79B in 2008, and $60B in 2009. There already exists a wide body of empirical evidence, based on the spending patterns of a sample of US households around the time of these policy episodes, which examines how household expenditures are affected by fiscal stimulus payments. This collective body of empirical evidence concludes that nondurable household consumption (i.e., spending on food, utilities, personal services, transportation, gas, etc...) rises by around 30 percent in the quarter in which stimulus payments are received, and that this estimate almost doubles when durable goods (e.g., small household durables and cars) are included. These findings are somewhat puzzling since existing economic theories predict that households will only spend a much smaller fraction of the payment, and will either save the majority (or use it to pay down debt). The goal of the proposed research is to develop an economic model that both provides a coherent explanation for the large observed response of household consumption expenditures to fiscal stimulus payments, and can be used to predict the spending patterns of households in response to future episodes of stimulus payments under different macroeconomic conditions. The proposed research relies on the central insight that households spend a substantial part of their payments because a large fraction of households are liquidity constrained. In particular, survey evidence on household portfolios suggests that even households who own substantial wealth in the form of cars, home equity, or retirement accounts can be constrained because such assets are illiquid, i.e., it is costly to convert these assets into the cash needed to sustain consumption expenditures in a recession. For this reason, a significant fraction of fiscal stimulus payments -which are instead liquid- is spent very rapidly. As learned painfully from the last downturn, recessions are not all alike. This means that despite the existing empirical evidence, one cannot assume that future stimulus payments of different amounts in different economic conditions will have the same effects on spending. The propsed economic model will be useful to evaluate what the aggregate effects of fiscal stimulus payments would be under different macroeconomic and liquidity conditions. The model will also provide a framework for running 'counterfactual' policy experiments in order to gauge the benefits of fiscal stimulus payments relative to alternative fiscal policy options that are also aimed at providing temporary relief to US households during economic recessions. This is important because the money that is spent on fiscal stimulus payments could arguably be spent on other policies that may also increase household expenditure, such as, increasing the generosity of unemployment benefits, or reducing indirect taxes on consumption spending.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Niloy Bose
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University of Pennsylvania
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