Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It's the Economy, Stupid

What joins us all together is the reality of the economy. If the economy tanks tomorrow, Democrats and Republicans will lose jobs or find their incomes rising less than hoped. If inflation roars back, we will all complain about the higher prices we have to pay.

While Ds and Rs have their preferred recommendations for economic policy, what will matter most is not who is right but whether or not we attend to real economic problems and make improvements in our lives.

So rather than dwell on policies and policy debates, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to lay out where the health of the economy sits right now. This amounts to a description of economic challenges, or you might say for those of you on post-New Year diets, this amounts to the before-diet picture.

Dieters want the post-diet photo to show major beautiful changes relative to the before-diet photo. So where you begin is very important. But even where you begin is not completely objective when it comes to the economy. And some people might think that any description of the economy right now is tainted with politics. An Obama supporter might disagree with any remarks that show a weak economy. The Republican would bristle at the idea that the economy might look strong right now.

Furthermore the economy is pretty complicated and dynamic. Anyone who attempts to describe the current economy might be leaving something out – or might be too focused on the latest data rather than more enduring trends. I readily admit that this is no easy task. And no matter how hard I try it won’t be perfect.

But it ought to be done and those who disagree with some of the conclusions below are free to ignore them or to add their own comments.

The place to start is with the growth of national output – or what we call real GDP. Most people would agree that it is not growing as fast as it used to. While there have been some quarters of decent growth in the past eight years, the overall trend is modest. We grew at a faster pace during most of the 1990s and right before the great recession of 2008-09.

Associated with that growth has been enough employment growth to push the unemployment rate down to levels close to what we describe as “full employment.”

Despite this increase in employed persons, we also have high levels of people who have been unemployed for more than 15 weeks, high levels of people who want full-time jobs, many folks who took jobs beneath their skills, and finally a lot of people who simply quit looking for jobs.

Despite an increase in the demand by employers, many workers lack the specific skills being demanded and thus shortages of workers exist side-by-side with surpluses of workers. The net result is that wage gains are lacking, and we talk about labor market mismatches.

Looking deeper at the modest real GDP growth we find one sector particularly lacking. Consumers are pulling their own weight through spending on housing and autos purchases. But the spending by firms on plant, equipment, and software has been in the doldrums. This has two key impacts. First, near-term growth lacks punch and second, new investments by firms have not raised productivity of workers and have harmed international competitiveness of companies. This means we get slower growth today and tomorrow, and we threaten future wage growth and our ability to compete with foreign companies.

Exports of goods and services have slowed for many reasons but primarily because many of our trading partners have not recovered or remain in recessions after the global recession. These foreign purchasers are not buying goods and services at home – and they are not buying from us.  

Interest rates and the value of the dollar have been rising. This is no surprise mostly because of the relative strength of the US economy. If interest rates rise appreciably more this could dampen investment spending further; if the dollar continues strengthening this might jeopardize exports.

Lackluster economic growth has also impacted poverty. The official US poverty rate in 2015 fell to 13.5% of the population – down from 14.8% in 2014 but is still higher than in 2007 (12.5%) and 2000 (11.3%).

Debt is also of concern. The Federal government’s debt threatens to reach more than 100% of the economy. Student debt has reached new peaks with little sign of abatement or payment. Similarly, mortgage debt is getting bigger and riskier.

This “photo” of the US economy today is where we have come to in early 2017. Is it complete? I doubt it. Does it foretell a disastrous future? I don’t think so. Is it where we want it to be? I don’t think so.

But I do think it wouldn’t hurt to have this story in the back of our minds as we contemplate and debate remedial actions in the days ahead. No matter what other issues we try to solve, we should at least not make these economic trends worse. I don’t care to place blame or praise for today’s economy. I just want us to make it better. 


  1. Larry,
    Nice read. Questions, do you think the actions that Trump is taking/proposing will increase spending in the Manufacturing sector and thus helping raise the GDP?

    1. The manufacturing sector accounts for less than 10% of total US employment. His full actions should and hopefully will be focused on more than manufacturing including extraction industries and any industries in which regulations are overly burdensome. Will his actions meet his promises? I guess we will see. But I do like the idea that many of his ideas are aimed at raising economic growth to a higher pedestal. I do worry about negative consequences from his protectionist policy ideas. But let's see what happens to the whole set of policies as they unfold.

  2. Dear LSD. I’m optimistic DJT will move forward on his promises to grow jobs and the economy. I think tax reduction, reg relaxation, infrastructure spending, and trade renegotiation will grease the wheels . . . to the extent the House/Senate go along. But, the big dawg . . . er, elebunt . . . . in the room is the debt. The projections of his supply-side plan are rosy . . . as was Reagan’s . . . and although Ron’s plan did produce jobs/growth it also produced a formidable debt—an increase of 130% during his two terms. I can’t see the debt during his POTUS—either 4 or 8 years—decreasing significantly given all the stuff he wants to do. Even his econ advisors are circumspect about debt reduction. Certainly the economy can accommodate debt, but as interest rates rise so will the debt service—and that will be a drag—not as on a cig or in your hopped-up Chevy.

    Obummer sure left DJT and big poop hole to fill and I’m not confident it will be filled in our lifetime.