It’s Still the Economy, Stupid!

It’s Still the Economy, Stupid!

July 24, 2017

Republicans know that the terrain for next year’s midterm elections could be treacherous.  Off the record, they bemoan their inability to enact their agenda and mourn President Donald Trump’s unpopularity.  In principle, the GOP still might get its act together and pass a tax reform with new tax breaks for middle class taxpayers.  Events unforeseen and unimagined could offer Trump a platform to renew his poplar appeal.  Even so, they’re ignoring the signs that a sagging economy next year will dominate the 2018 campaigns.

The current expansion is old – it turned eight years old this month – and its fundamentals are weak.  Neither Trump nor Congress has done anything to perk it up.  Only the 1990s expansion lasted longer, and it expired two years after its eighth birthday.  Comparing the two will not cheer Republicans. At a comparable point in the expansion that defined the Clinton era, March 1999, GDP was growing at nearly a 5 percent rate; over the last year, GDP has edged up barely 2 percent.

The most important difference is what was happening then with productivity, and what’s happening now.  In the three years leading up to each expansion’s eighth birthday, productivity had expanded at a 2.4 percent annual rate in the 1990s, compared to 0.7 percent this time.  Without decent productivity gains to lift wages and fuel demand, incomes stall and growth slows.

The main reason we’re not in a recession today is the strong job gains of the last three years, and the current 4.4 percent unemployment rate is comparable to the 4.2 percent rate in March 1999.   Full employment normally presages a slowdown in job creation.  We avoided that in the late 1990s, because the strong productivity growth supported more demand by raising wages.    The best measure of that is personal consumption spending, which increased at a 5.9 percent rate in the year leading up to March 1999.  But our current predicament includes such weak productivity gains that personal consumption spending edged up just 2.6 percent over the last year.

It’s the same story with business investment, the other domestic source of new demand. In the year preceding the eighth birthday of the 1990s expansion, fixed business investment rose 8.5 percent; over the past year, it grew 4.2 percent or half that rate.

All of these measures presage a slowdown in the U.S. economy next year – GDP gains of 1.5 percent in 2018 is a fair guess — and we could slip into a recession if some adverse event provides the trigger.

Last October, I cautioned Hillary Clinton that she would face these same conditions if she won, but that three initiatives could breathe new life into this old expansion.  The first order of business is a dose of demand stimulus, preferably through large infrastructure investments paid for down the line.  Trump promised the same thing; but he and the GOP Congress moved quickly beyond it.

The second initiative would focus on energizing productivity growth.  My own recommendations last October started with measures to help average Americans upgrade their skills, by giving them free access to training courses at local community colleges.  The Trump and GOP budget proposals would cut the inadequate training programs already in place.

The third initiative is a companion piece to promote higher productivity: Jumpstart business investment in new technologies and equipment.  That will be harder for Trump than it would have been for Secretary Clinton, because it requires setting aside the supply-siders’ faith in the power of cutting marginal corporate tax rates.  Instead, we should focus for now on lowering businesses’ upfront costs to purchase the new technologies and equipment that make skilled workers even more productive.

The measure would offer businesses a choice: deduct the full cost of those new purchases in the year they buy them – it’s called “expensing” – or stick with the current system where businesses depreciate the cost and deduct the interest on funds borrowed to cover it. Expensing is a feature of the Trump and GOP tax proposals, but both plans offer more sweeping and much more expensive changes that appear headed for the same fate as Trumpcare.

The election of Trump and the GOP Congress buoyed business confidence precisely because investors believed they would follow through quickly with an infrastructure stimulus and business tax reforms.  Neither seems likely today; and even if one or the other somehow passes in some form late this year, it will probably be too little and too late to revive growth and wages by November 2018.  If neither happens, it will take more than tweets to explain to voters why Republican control of both branches of government has failed to improve their lives.