Economic recovery after the Great Recession has been disappointing.
Employment levels remain low. Official unemployment figures ignore the declining participation rate. Employment levels, in the 25 to 54 age group, for males remain roughly 6%, and females 5%, below their previous peaks. Using the 25 to 54 age group eliminates distortions from student levels and from baby boomers postponing retirement.
Manufacturing earnings, as would be expected, are also weak.
Sales growth remains poor.
And real GDP growth is slow.
Stanley Fischer, Vice Chairman at the Fed, in his address to a conference in Sweden, attributed slow recovery in the US to three major aggregate demand headwinds:
The housing sector
The housing sector was at the epicenter of the U.S. financial crisis and recession and it continues to weigh on the recovery. After previous recessions, vigorous rebounds in housing activity have typically helped spur recoveries. In this episode, however, residential construction was held back by a large inventory of foreclosed and distressed properties and by tight credit conditions for construction loans and mortgages. Moreover, the wealth effect from the decline in housing prices, as well as the inability of many underwater households to take advantage of low interest rates to refinance their mortgages, may have reduced household demand for non-housing goods and services. Indeed, some researchers have argued that the failure to deal decisively with the housing problem seriously prolonged and deepened the crisis.
A slow housing recovery is unfortunately the price you pay for protecting the banks. By supporting house prices through artificial low interest rates, you prevent markets from clearing excess inventories.
The stance of U.S. fiscal policy in recent years constituted a significant drag on growth as the large budget deficit was reduced. Historically, fiscal policy has been a support during both recessions and recoveries. In part, this reflects the operation of automatic stabilizers, such as declines in tax revenues and increases in unemployment benefits, that tend to accompany a downturn in activity. In addition, discretionary fiscal policy actions typically boost growth in the years just after a recession. In the U.S., as well as in other countries — especially in Europe — fiscal policy was typically expansionary during the recent recession and early in the recovery, but discretionary fiscal policy shifted relatively fast from expansionary to contractionary as the recovery progressed.
A third headwind slowing the U.S. recovery has been unexpectedly slow global growth, which reduced export demand. Over the past several years, a number of our key trading partners have suffered negative shocks. Some have been relatively short lived, including the collapse in Japanese growth following the tragic earthquake in 2011. Others look to be more structural, such as the stepdown in Chinese growth compared to its double digit pre-crisis pace. Most salient, not least for Sweden, has been the impact of the fiscal and financial situation in the euro area over the past few years.
Fischer also cites the weak labor market, declining investment and disappointing productivity growth as inhibiting aggregate production.
While I agree with his view of the labor market, we should not use the heady days of the Dotcom bubble as a benchmark for investment. Private nonresidential investment is recovering.
Productivity is also growing.
There are two factors, however, that Fischer did not mention which, I believe, go a long way to explaining slow US growth.
Crude oil prices
In the last 4 decades, sharp rises in real crude oil prices have coincided with falling GDP growth and, in most cases, recessions. Crude prices remain elevated since the Great Recession and, I believe, are retarding economic growth. The blue line on the graph below plots crude oil (WTI) over the consumer price index (CPI).
China continues its aggressive purchase of US Treasuries in order to maintain a competitive advantage of the Yuan against the Dollar. Inflows on capital account — not only from China — include roughly $5 trillion of federal debt purchased since 2001. This keeps the US uncompetitive in export markets and places domestic manufacturers at a disadvantage when competing against imports.
Recent purchases of federal debt are sufficient to drive 10-Year Treasury yields through support at 2.40%/2.50%.
Glass half empty or half full?
Bears will no doubt seize on the headwinds to support their prediction of another market crash. I am reassured, however, that the economy has recovered as well as it has, given the difficulties it faces. None of the headwinds are likely to disappear any time soon, but progress in addressing these last two issues would go a long way to solving many of them.