On America’s “Great Stagnation”

This posting will briefly discuss the historically weak growth since the end of the 2007-2009 “Great Recession” (though a greater period of time, reaching into the 2000’s or “aughts” or even further back, can also be included in the definition).  It argues that, though we may have reason to be alarmed at slower long-run economic growth, by many measures living standards have improved at a rapid rate, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.


Since the end of the last business cycle trough in June 2009, countless observers have noted – and lamented – the historically anemic growth rate of America’s economy.  In the 19 quarters since the beginning of the recovery, GDP growth has averaged around 2% annually – well below the 4% average for recoveries after 1960, and barely enough to generate the jobs needed to absorb entries into the labor market.  Indeed, in the first quarter of 2014, the economy logged (at a seasonally adjusted annual rate) of  -1%; in other words, it registered an actual contraction, the first quarter since 2011 to do so.  Although the particular severity of Q1’s stagnation  is likely temporary, it nonetheless does well to highlight the unique sluggishness that has characterized this recovery since the beginning.  Also highlighting the recovery’s weakness is the economy’s failure to quickly return to potential output, reflected in the continued existence of a large output gap (see charts 1& 2).

Real vs. Potential

 

bivens-figure2

It is true that economic growth remains far from normal – especially considering the depth of the preceding recession, which usually are followed by sharp “bounceback” recoveries (as pent-up consumer & investor demand is unleashed).

However, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

1) This was not a “normal” recession.  Normally, recessions are sparked by mild shocks in aggregate demand or aggregate supply, oftentimes instigated by a contractionary monetary policy.  This time, however, there was an extreme shock to aggregate demand as a plummet in housing prices pushed down household consumption (the “wealth” effect) and the deterioration in the balance sheets of financial institutions caused a freeze in credit markets.  “Balance-sheet” recessions like these are typically severe, and have long-lasting effects.  Growth tends to be much weaker in decade following financial crises than normal recessions as households and institutions “deleverage” their debts to repair their balance sheets.  Since the United States had not, until now, experienced a true financial crisis since the Great Depression, this sluggish recovery can be considered historically unique.

2) Growth and potential growth have been slowing for decades.  When one looks at real GDP and potential GDP over long periods of time (see chart), it becomes clear that long-term growth has been slowing for decades.  Especially recently, after each subsequent recession the recoveries have been weaker than the one preceding them.  Although it only shows data through 2011, the second chart below clearly demonstrates this pattern.

2.1.1-GDP-gap-OPT

screen shot 2013-01-30 at 10.48.29 am

3) As the population continues to age and retire, sluggish growth is only to be expected – unless productivity growth accelerates.  An economy essentially grows for two reasons: the population/labor force is increasing and/or labor productivity (ouput/hour or, more generally, the amount of output with a set of given inputs) grows.  The latter is especially important in helping to boost living standards, as more efficient production allows for more income to be distributed and for goods and services to be produced at lower costs.  Historically, especially during the “golden age of capitalism” from the 1940s-1970s, the economy has benefited from both labor force growth and productivity growth.  Beginning in the 70s, however, the 2nd factor – productivity growth – began a to register a marked slowdown, even as the labor force continued to expand (especially with an increase in the participation of women).  The reasons for this slowdown are unclear.  Was US inflation distorting incentives and resource allocation?  Were technological waves delivering less of an impact as earlier technological waves?  And are these changes driven more by changes in the accumulation of capital stock or total factor productivity (TFP)?  Regardless, this slowdown in productivity has continued to the present day, interrupted only by a brief revival in the late 90s and early 2000s (see neat chart below that I made using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics; as a note, the data represents quarterly % changes at annualized rates, and labor productivity is defined as output/hour).

Capture

All of this points to a couple of things.  Comparing this recovery to past ones should be used with a grain of salt, because

a) it follows a historically unique financial crisis, unlike other recoveries, and thus can be expected to be slow in the short-term

b) the growth trajectory has long been slowing, making many recoveries naturally more sluggish than those that preceded them, suggesting that, even without the financial crisis, stagnation could have been expected anyway

While some parts of this decline in long-term growth appear natural (such as a decline in labor force participation due to ageing populations), other parts – such as the productivity element – may or may not be.  This is because productivity growth can arguably be more strongly influenced by deliberate policy/non-policy actions than labor force participation can (at least when considering that most older baby boomers will have to retire at some point soon). Should the public and/or private sectors, for instance, be investing more in public and private capital?  Maybe.  But the urgency of that question depends on how much that sluggishness is translating into a stagnation in actual living standards.

Certainly, there are good arguments that American living standards have shown signs of stagnation as of late (and not just following the 2007-2009 recession).  For instance, as the chart below demonstrates, median household income (the income level of the theoretical household in the exact center of a data set of all household incomes) has registered virtually no net growth since the late 1980s.

Capture2

Other trends are worrying as well.  Poverty rates as defined by the Census Bureau have made almost no net progress since the 1970s, and the prevalence of health insurance and retirement plans (think defined-benefit pensions) have evaporated (at least until recently).  Combined with a worrying increase in health care costs and tertiary education tuition, and the typical American household has indeed seemingly experienced a “stagnation” for a fairly long period of time.

However, despite all of this negative “evidence”, I personally would still contend that living standards have still registered marvelous improvements, and will continue to do so.  First of all, GDP & productivity growth figures do not account for a crucial aspect of capitalism that is often under-appreciated: a long-run rapid improvement in product quality and capability.  While such figures may capture value-added in the production process, they cannot completely account for improvements in product capability and the additional satisfaction these new capabilities give to consumers.  For example, think about cars.  Economic statistics may reflect the total output of cars, the efficiency of their production, etc, but they oftentimes may completely ignore how much the typical car has changed.  For example, many cars are now equipped with sensory technology that makes driving smoother and more comfortable.  Anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, and even GPS systems, all once reserved for those with the most cash, are now becoming increasingly widespread and standardized with the industry, improving the driving experience of millions of consumers.

Additionally, I think too much emphasis is placed on incomes when it is often ignored how dramatically consumer costs have actually fallen in many industries.  For example, according to statisticbrain.com, the average price/MB of RAM has decreased from approximately $411 million in 1957 to less than six-thousandths of a dollar in 2013.  This has greatly increased the purchasing power of the typical consumer, and has been replicated in many other sectors of the economy.

While it is true that some very important industries that impact the middle class – namely healthcare and education – have shown rising costs, which is a concern that should be addressed, even here this largely reflects increases in quality.  New (albeit costly) technology and healthcare procedures, for example, have given consumers innovative and state-of-the-art choices.  These technologies and procedures have greatly increased the quality of life of people, something the statistics cannot ever fully reflect.

Overall, while I do think America has entered a “Great Stagnation” (not just in the short-run but over the past couple of decades) in terms of economic growth, I do not think this fact should be assumed to be entirely a bad thing.  Indeed, I think it is somewhat misleading – despite slower growth, many elements of living standards (which I only briefly touched upon) continue to make rapid progress, even if many other components of such standards have stalled (e.g. household income, health insurance coverage, etc.)  While it is certainly no excuse for complacency – we would do well to figure out ways to sustainably boost long-run growth – it is reason to think twice about repeated observations of a supposed “decline” in American affluence and its middle class.  The trends are a bit more complex than that.

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