Regime uncertainty

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Regime uncertainty is a concept developed by Robert Higgs, that describes a pervasive lack of confidence among investors in their ability to foresee the extent to which future government actions will alter their private-property rights.[1][2]

Higgs uses this concept to explain the seriousness and prolonged duration of some economic crises, like the Great Depression or the current 'Great Recession'.[3]

Effect on investment

Investment not only entails 'irreversibilities' or sunk costs, but can also be delayed. Investment spending may be highly sensitive to risk in various forms, including uncertainty over future tax and regulatory policy. A major cost of political and economic instability may be its depressing effect on investment.

This uncertainty can arise from many sources, ranging from simple tax-rate increases to the imposition of new kinds of taxes to outright confiscation of private property. Threats can arise from various sorts of regulation, for instance, of securities markets, labor markets, and product markets. The security of private property rights rests not so much on the letter of the law as on the character of the government that enforces, or threatens, presumptive rights.[1]

Historical examples

The Great Depression

Main article: Great Depression

During the Great Depression, private investment had fallen significantly. Gross private investment plunged from almost 16 percent of GDP in 1929 to less than 2 percent in 1932; recovered to 13 percent in 1937 before falling again in the recession of 1938; and as late as 1941 stood at only 14 percent. During the war years, private investment ratios ranged from 3 to 6 percent. From 1946 through 1950 they ranged from 14 to 19 percent and averaged 16 percent — the same as in 1929. In 1929, when gross private investment was $16.2 billion, net investment was $8.3 billion. Net investment fell precipitously to $2.3 billion in 1930 and then became negative during each of the following five years. For the eleven-year period of 1930 to 1940, net private investment totaled minus $3.1 billion. Only in 1941 did net private investment ($9.7 billion) exceed the 1929 amount. During the 1930s, private investment remained at depths never plumbed in any other decade for which data exist.

Given the unparalleled outpouring of business-threatening laws, regulations, and court decisions, the oft-stated hostility of President Roosevelt and his lieutenants toward investors as a class, the political climate could hardly have failed to discourage some investors from making long-term commitments. There also exists a great deal of direct evidence that investors felt extraordinarily uncertain about the future of the property-rights regime between 1935 and 1941. Historians have recorded countless statements by contemporaries to that effect; in the years just before the war most business executives expected substantial weakening of private property rights ranging up to "complete economic dictatorship". The possibility that the United States might undergo an extreme regime shift seemed to many investors in the late 1930s and early 1940s not only possible but likely.[1][4]

The Great Recession

Main article: The Great Recession

The December 2009 regular survey on Small Business Economic Trends by the NFIB showed that capital expenditures and near-term plans for new capital investments remained stuck at 35-year lows. The same survey revealed that only 7% of small businesses saw the next few months as a good time to expand. Only 8% of small businesses reported job openings, as compared to 14%-24% in 2008, depending on month, and 19%-26% in 2007. The weak economy was the most prevalent reason given for why the next few months were "not a good time" to expand, but "political climate" was the next most frequently cited reason, well ahead of borrowing costs and financing availability. The authors stated: "the other major concern is the level of uncertainty being created by government, the usually source of uncertainty for the economy. The 'turbulence' created when Congress is in session is often debilitating, this year being one of the worst. . . . There is not much to look forward to here."[5]

Business investment in the third quarter of 2009 was down 20% from the low levels a year earlier. Job openings were at the lowest level since the government began measuring the concept in 2000. The pace of new job creation by expanding businesses was slower than at any time in the past two decades and, though older data are not as reliable, likely slower than at any time in the past half-century. While layoffs and new claims for unemployment benefits have declined in recent months, job prospects for unemployed workers have continued to deteriorate. The exit rate from unemployment was lower than any time on record, dating back to 1967.

According to the Michigan Survey of Consumers, 37% of households planned to postpone purchases because of uncertainty about jobs and income, a figure that has not budged since the second quarter of 2009, and one that remained higher than any previous year back to 1960.[6] In 2009, companies were holding more cash — and a greater percentage of assets in cash — than at any time in the past 40 years.[7][8]

The chairman of China’s sovereign wealth fund said in late 2008 that China had no plans for further investments in Western financial institutions. "Right now we do not have the courage to invest in financial institutions because we do not know what problems they may have." Mr. Lou said that the sheer pace of new initiatives and new rules issued by Western regulatory agencies was disconcerting and made it even harder for him to choose worthwhile investments. “If it is changing every week, how can you expect me to have confidence?” he asked.[9][10]

The chairman of the Business Roundtable, an association of top corporate executives that has been President Obama's closest ally in the business community, accused the president and Democratic lawmakers in June, 2010, of creating an "increasingly hostile environment for investment and job creation." ... "By reaching into virtually every sector of economic life, government is injecting uncertainty into the marketplace and making it harder to raise capital and create new businesses."[11]

According to the April 2012 survey on Small Business Economic Trends, regulations steadily rose to the third position in the "Single Most Important Problem" over the course of the recession.[12]

Related concepts

According to Higgs, regime uncertainty explains at least in part the sluggish pace of the current economic recovery and other prominent economists entertain similar views - such as Gary Becker, Allan Meltzer, John Taylor, and Alan Greenspan. In addition, economists Scott Baker and Nicholas Bloom at Stanford and Steven J. Davis at the University of Chicago have devised an empirical index of policy uncertainty[13] that has remained at extraordinarily high levels since September 2008. However, what most other economists — and all of those in the professional mainstream — have noted is not exactly the same as what Higgs calls regime uncertainty, but rather a related, somewhat narrower phenomenon.

Regime uncertainty pertains to more than the government's laws, regulations, and administrative decisions. For one thing, as the saying goes, "personnel is policy." Two administrations may administer or enforce identical statutes and regulations quite differently. A business-hostile administration will provoke more apprehension among investors than a business-friendlier administration, even if the underlying "rules of the game" are identical on paper. Similar differences between judiciaries create uncertainties about how the courts will rule on contested laws and government actions.

For another thing, seemingly neutral changes in policies or personnel may have major implications for specific types of investment. Even when government changes the rules in a way that seemingly strengthens private-property rights overall, the action's specific form may jeopardize particular types of investment, and apprehension about such a threat may paralyze investors in these areas. Moreover, it may also give pause to investors in other areas, who fear that what the government has done to harm others today, it may do to them tomorrow. In sum, heightened uncertainty in general — a perceived increase in the potential variance of all sorts of relevant government action — may deter investment even if the mean value of expectations shifts toward more secure private-property rights.[2]

According to a 2013 estimate, since 2011 the rise in overall policy uncertainty has created a $261 billion cumulative drag on the US economy (the equivalent of more than $800 per person in the country). Without this uncertainty tax, real U.S. GDP could have grown an average 3% per year since 2011, instead of the recorded 2% average in fiscal years 2011-12. In addition, the U.S. labor market would have added roughly 45,000 more jobs per month, which adds up to more than one million jobs by 2013.[14]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Robert Higgs. "Regime Uncertainty - Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed after the War" (pdf), The Independent Review, Vol, I, No. 4, Spring 1997. Referenced 2010-08-15.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Robert Higgs. "Regime Uncertainty: Some Clarifications", Mises Daily. Referenced 2012-12-01.
  3. Robert Higgs. "Recession and Recovery - Six Fundamental Errors of the Current Orthodoxy" (pdf), The Independent Review, v. 14, n. 3, Winter 2010. Referenced 2010-08-15.
  4. Robert Higgs. "Regime Uncertainty in the 1930s: A New Deal Insider’s Account", The Beacon, blog of the The Independent Institute, Jun 29, 2009. Referenced 2010-08-15.
  5. William C. Dunkelberg, Holly Wade. "NFIB Small Business Economic Trends" (pdf), December 2009. Referenced 2010-08-15.
  6. Gary S. Becker, Steven J. Davis and Kevin M. Murphy. "Uncertainty and the Slow Recovery", The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2010. Referenced 2010-08-15.
  7. Tom McGinty and Cari Tuna. "Jittery Companies Stash Cash", The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2009. Referenced 2010-08-15.
  8. Robert Higgs. "More Evidence of Current Regime Uncertainty?", The Beacon, blog of the The Independent Institute, Nov 7, 2009. Referenced 2010-08-15.
  9. Keith Bradsher. "China Shuns Investments in West’s Finance Sector", The New York Times, published: December 3, 2008. Referenced 2010-08-15.
  10. Robert Higgs. "Regime Uncertainty in 1937 and 2008", The Beacon, blog of the The Independent Institute, Dec 6, 2008. Referenced 2010-08-15.
  11. Lori Montgomery. "Business leaders say Obama's economic policies stifle growth", Washington Post, June 23, 2010. Referenced 2010-08-15.
  12. William C. Dunkelberg, Holly Wade. "NFIB Small Business Economic Trends" (pdf), April 2012. Referenced 2012-05-03.
  13. Scott R. Baker, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis. "Measuring Economic Policy Uncertainty" (pdf), 10 October 2011. Referenced 2012-12-01.
  14. Bill McNabb. "Uncertainty Is the Enemy of Recovery", April 28, 2013, referenced 2013-05-21.