Halloween Special: How Hillary Can Handle Scary Interest Rate Hikes

Halloween Special: How Hillary Can Handle Scary Interest Rate Hikes

October 31, 2016

Looking past this weekend’s kerfuffle over Huma Abedin’s emails, Hillary Clinton’s success in her first term as President will depend in large part on whether the incomes of most Americans keep rising. As readers of this blog know, my studies tracking people’s incomes, year to year as they aged, found that the median household incomes of millennials, Gen Xers and boomers all grew at healthy rates in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Moreover, this income progress reached across gender, race and ethnicity, and educational levels. That’s why consumer confidence and President Obama’s approval ratings are now so high.

The catch is that for most households, these gains came after a decade of income losses from 2001 to 2012. Hillary’s first challenge is to avoid a recession that could overwhelm most people’s recent gains — and her opportunity is to provide four more years of income progress that could well make most Americans optimistic again.

The challenge could start between Hillary’s election and inauguration, in December when the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) next votes on raising short-term interest rates. At the FOMC’s last meeting in September, its members voted seven to three not to raise those rates; but most Fed watchers expect the Committee to reverse this stance in December. Based on the Fed’s history, that decision will be followed by a long succession of additional interest rate hikes over the next three years. If that happens, growth and income gains could stall or worse as the costs for businesses to invest, and for consumers to buy a home, a car or a major appliance, all rise.

Traditionally, the Fed raises interest rates when the economy threatens to overheat and pump up inflation. But this time, there is little evidence of such a scenario. Inflation has risen at an annual rate of less than two percent for 51 consecutive months, and growth this year has been modest.  Moreover, based on long-term interest rates, U.S. and global investors expect low weak inflation to persist for years.

The only evidence that inflation hawks can cite is the recent strength of job creation. From January 2013 to September 2016, U.S. businesses added an average of 204,000 net new jobs per month. That’s nearly the pace last seen under Bill Clinton, when business created an average of 219,000 net new jobs per month from January 1993 to December 2000. Worrying about inflation may make sense once we reach full employment, since when that happens, competition for workers pushes up wages that are passed on in higher prices.

But the United States is not at full employment today, or close to it. Large numbers of people continue to work part time and not by choice, and labor force participation by prime age Americans remains abnormally low.

 The Fed’s only real argument for raising interest rates is strategic — higher rates create the room for the Fed to cut them in the next downturn. But even with 2.9 percent growth in the third quarter, the economy has expanded at a rate of less than two percent this year, and fixed investment has declined four quarters in a row. In this economic environment, a succession of rising interest rates over the next two years could trigger that downturn. And as the Bank of England has noted, if an economy begins to decline while short-term rates remain near zero, central bankers can still use quantitative easing to stimulate demand.

 It’s worth noting that near-zero interest rates carry risks of their own. With yields on government bonds so low, large investors have shifted to riskier investments with higher yields. That’s why commercial real estate is rising, why there’s a bubble in art markets, why prices for agricultural land and junk bonds are historically high, and why the price-to-earnings ratio for U.S. stocks is now 30 percent above its historical average.

These risky investments could pose a threat to the economy and people’s incomes, if a substantial jump in interest rates triggers a large decline in the U.S. stock, real estate and junk bond markets. Moreover, much like the run-up to the 2008-2009 crisis, the big financial institutions may not have paid enough attention to the risks in their high-yield investments. To be safe, Hillary should call on the Treasury and the Fed to audit those institutions through a new round of “stress tests,” and then ensure that any major institution with a shaky portfolio takes steps quickly to reduce its exposure.

If, as now expected, the Fed goes ahead and raises interest rates, the economic fate of most Americans will rest in the new President’s hands. Hillary’s best response will lie in fiscal policy.  Her first budget should call for more spending on infrastructure, new grants to the states to begin their transition to free tuition at public institutions, bigger Obamacare subsidies to offset the fast-rising premiums expected in 2017, and expanded support for research and development. On the tax side, new incentives for business plant and equipment also are in order. Hillary should cast all of these measures as an investment agenda for long-term growth, and not wave the red flag of “stimulus” in the faces of congressional Republicans.

Her first budget also should include measures to directly support income progress by working people, including the increase in the minimum wage, pay equity guarantees, and the expansion of the earned income tax credit. Finally, she can pay for all of these measures, as promised, by ending carried interest, closing corporate loopholes, and raising taxes on wealthy households.  She can also ensure that these tax changes don’t slow a fragile economy by phasing them in starting a year or two down the road.

The Federal Reserve is a very powerful force in the American economy. But so is the President — and a determined President Hillary Clinton can protect the incomes of Americans even if the Fed prematurely raises interest rates.



Obama’s Expansion Is Finally Paying Off 

October 13, 2016

There’s no debate that the tough economic times of the last decade have helped frame the 2016 elections. In fact, many Americans are so accustomed to seeing the world through their experience of tough times, that it’s hard to recognize when conditions have changed.

Yet, here’s one sign that times are different: American businesses have created almost 9.2 million net new jobs since January 2013, recalling the job creation rates of the 1980s and 1990s. More important, our analysis of the latest Census Bureau data shows that over the three year period from 2013 through 2015, the incomes of most American households grew again, and at rates that matched or exceeded the average for the 1980s and 1990s.

Last month, the Census Bureau reported that the aggregate median income for all U.S. households grew 5.2 percent in 2015, the first such increase since 2007. But as regular readers of this blog know, we apply a statistical approach that digs much deeper into the data. This approach allows us to capture the income experience of typical households of various kinds, by tracking their incomes as they age.

To see if and when economic conditions did truly change, we started by tracking the income path of millennial households, headed by people ages 25 to 29 in 2009, from 2009 to 2015.  Over those same years, we also tracked the income path of Generation X households, headed by those ages 35 to 39 in 2009; and the income path of late boomer households headed by those ages 45 to 49 in 2009.

This analysis found, as expected, that times were tough for most Americans from 2009 through 2012. For example, the median income of the Gen X households was flat over those years, and the late boomer households absorbed income losses averaging 1.1 percent per year.  The only households with rising incomes from 2009 to 2012 were the millennials, and their gains were a fraction of those achieved by households of comparable ages in the 1980s and 1990s. (Table 1, below)

Our analysis also showed that most people’s income paths shifted starting in 2013. Compared to the preceding three years, the income gains by the Gen X households went from zero to 2.9 percent per year; and the late boomer households, whose median income fell 1.1 percent per year from 2009 to 2012, saw gains of 1.4 percent per year from 2013 through 2015. Finally, the median income of the millennial households jumped from 2.7 percent per year to 4.6 percent per year. Also, it’s worth noting that the largest income gains for all three age cohorts came in 2015.

Table 1.  Average Annual Household Income Gains by Age Cohort,
As They Aged from 2009 to 2015

chart1

This analysis also shows that most Americans, finally, are better off than when President Obama took office. The median income of millennial households, in 2015 dollars, rose from $50,875 in 2009 to $63,010 in 2015, as they aged from 25 to 29 years-old, to 30 to 35. Similarly, the median income of Generation X household who were 35 to 39 in 2009 grew from $66,287 in 2009 to $72,028 in 2015. Even the late boomers who were 45 to 49 in 2009 managed small gains, edging up from $70,706 in 2009 to $71,300 in 2015.

We can also compare this record with other recent presidents, using my analysis published by the Brookings Institution last year. In that report, I tracked the income progress by comparable age cohorts during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — that is, gains in median income by households headed by people ages 25 to 29, 35 to 39, and 45 to 49 in the first year of each of those president’s terms. Since no president should be held responsible for the economy’s performance in his first year in office, we tracked the income gains of each age cohort from year two of each presidency through year one of his successor’s term.

Using this framework, it’s clear that most American households made more income progress under Obama than households of comparable ages under George W. Bush or his father, George H.W. Bush. (See Table 2, below.)  Moreover, the income gains of 2013 through 2015, like the job growth of the same years, suggest that the U.S. economy is still capable of producing a robust expansion, at least for a few years. The data show, in Table 2 below, that incomes grew at a faster annual rate over the last three years than they did on average over the eight years of Reagan’s presidency for all three age cohorts, and faster than they did on average over the eight years of Clinton’s presidency for two of the three age cohorts.

Table 2.  Average Annual Median Income Gains by Households Headed by People Ages 25 to 29, 35 to 39 and 45 to 49 as They Age through Each Presidency

chart2

 Of course, it’s not truly a fair comparison politically, since Clinton and Reagan delivered strong income gains over their entire terms, while Obama has done so for only three years. But especially after the meager income progress of the 2002–2007 expansion, the data show that the U.S. economy can still deliver robust income growth for almost everyone.

So, the challenge facing the next president is to sustain this recent income progress, in large part by reversing our recent record of faltering productivity.