The Economic Outlook for the Election and Beyond, and How Who Wins Could Change It

The Economic Outlook for the Election and Beyond, and How Who Wins Could Change It

September 7, 2016

With nine weeks to go, the economic conditions for the election are set — modest growth, low inflation, and continuing job gains. A few Wall Street forecasters rate the odds of a 2016 recession at one-in-three; but unless a major shock wrenches the economy off its present course, bet with Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke on the economic expansion continuing into next year.

The tougher question is what economic conditions will confront the new president and the rest of us in 2017 and 2018? Since the fourth quarter of 2015, the economy has grown at an annual rate of less than one percent, and business investment has declined at a three percent annual pace.

Consumer spending and home sales could lift growth and investment next year, if the healthy income growth of the last three years continues. But much of those income gains come from the unusually strong job growth of those years; and with unemployment now below five percent, job creation almost certainly will moderate soon.

If jobs gains lessen next year, healthy income gains will depend on a turnaround in the economy’s disappointing productivity record. A modern economy cannot stay strong indefinitely without strong productivity growth to fuel incomes, demand, profits, and investment. Its recent record explains our slow growth: Productivity gains averaged just .6 percent per year from 2011 to 2015, and even those small gains turned negative in the first half of 2016.

This represents a major change: Productivity increased at an average rate of 2.8 percent per year through Bill Clinton’s second term and remained strong at 2.6 percent per year from 2001 to the financial collapse in 2008. Moreover, it recovered quickly in 2009 and 2010, reaching 3.2 percent per year. Unless productivity recovers again in 2017, wages and incomes could stall and the economy could stagnate in the next President’s first or second year in office.

Yet, the economic debate this year has mainly focused on overall growth rather than productivity. Most economists — Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman, Larry Summers and Kenneth Rogoff, among others — pin the slowdown in GDP growth on higher savings and the associated weaker spending. So, most economists have called for renewed fiscal stimulus here and for much of the world. They’re right; but the outlook for incomes and investment would be more encouraging if the fiscal stimulus focuses on recent meager, or even negative, productivity gains — and their impact on growth.

Americans are in luck — assuming the pollsters are right that Hillary Rodham Clinton will vanquish Donald Trump. While Clinton has not offered an explicit program to boost productivity, her economic and social policy proposals include the three essential elements of such a program. First, improve overall market conditions for all industries; second, promote innovation through the development and broad use of new technologies, materials, and ways of doing business; and third, give workers access to the skills they need to operate effectively in a more innovative economy.

The big play to improve the efficiency of all U.S. industries and businesses is Clinton’s commitment to expand public investments in infrastructure by $275 billion over five years. Unsurprisingly for Hillary, her program covers every conceivable form of infrastructure. There are new investments not only for roads, bridges, public transit, rail freight, airports, seaports, waterways, dams, and wastewater systems.

Her proposals also cover 21st century infrastructure networks, including a smart electric grid, advanced oil and gas pipeline systems, and universal access to 5G broadband and Next Generation wireless. Since virtually every enterprise and employee depends on these systems every day, her proposals should enable most firms and workers to carry out their business more efficiently.

As stimulus, these infrastructure improvements amount to $55 billion per year, or just three-tenths of one percent of GDP. Fortunately, Clinton’s program includes other measures that also should bolster productivity. To promote innovation, she pledges to scale up federal investments in basic research and development through the NSF, the NIH, the Energy Department and DARPA, across areas from high performance computing and green energy, to machine learning and genomics.

Always a pragmatist, Clinton also has plans to promote the commercialization of advances in R&D through grants for private accelerators and reforms to expand access to capital by the young businesses that play a prominent role in innovation.

Finally, Clinton has a serious program to help Americans upgrade their skills. Computer science training would be available for all high school students, and foreign-born students who complete a U.S. masters or Ph.D. degree in a STEM field would automatically receive green cards to stay and work in the United States.

However, the cornerstone is tuition-free access to public colleges and universities for all young people from families earning $125,000 or less, and tuition-free access to community colleges for anyone. To complete her productivity agenda, Clinton should expand her community college program and give all working adults the real ability to improve their skills, through no-cost access to two training courses per year at community colleges.

From the other side, Trump offers virtually nothing. He says that he, too, would increase federal spending on infrastructure. But his tax promises would balloon federal deficits by upwards of $700 billion per year, leaving no room to upgrade infrastructure, much less promote basic R&D or expand access to higher education and worker training.

His massive deficits also would crowd out business investments in new technologies and new enterprises. Trump’s program, in short, would virtually guarantee that the American economy stagnates, or worse.



As the Economy Improves, Give Some Credit to Globalization

June 3, 2013

The economic news and data have turned distinctly upbeat. With unemployment down, consumer confidence up, and personal debt back to normal levels, it was no surprise when last week’s revised report on first quarter GDP showed consumer spending rising at twice the rate of the preceding three quarters. Housing investment is now increasing at a 14 percent rate, following a 25 percent drop in home foreclosures compared to the first quarter of 2012 and many months of rising housing prices. Business investment is still sluggish, but corporate profits are strong, and the stock market is setting new records. These positive reports also explain why markets barely moved when Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke noted recently that the Fed’s aggressive program to keep interest rates low might wind down sooner than expected.

The biggest drag on the economy, as usual, is government. If not for Washington’s misguided sequester cuts, tax increases and continuing layoffs by state and local governments, GDP would be growing at a healthy three to five percent annual rate.  Even so, conditions are improving enough to sharply drive down the deficits projected for the next two years. With Europe stuck in a double-dip recession, the United States once again finds itself a prime engine of global growth.

Credit for much of this turnaround goes to the Fed, and some of it is luck. But business attitudes and orientation count here, too. In particular, American policymakers and businesses have been committed to globalization for the last two decades, especially compared to their European counterparts.  And this deep engagement in global markets is a critical factor in the economy’s renewed strength. Not only are exports one of the brighter points in the current recovery.  In addition, years of sustained competition in global markets have made many U.S. industries markedly more efficient and innovative than their rivals in other advanced economies.

Bill Clinton deserves some thanks for all this.  He not only articulated the need for Americans to actively engage in world markets, clearly and convincingly. He also made that attitude concrete by corralling bipartisan majorities to enact NAFTA, create the World Trade Organization, and draw China and other large developing nations into a global trading system. American multinational companies may be best known today for their byzantine strategies to minimize their U.S. taxes. But their many years of investing in foreign markets at higher levels and rates than firms from other major economies count for a lot more.  Once there, they have had to compete with lower-cost producers in markets those producers know better than they do. This intense competition has forced U.S. multinationals to come up with new efficiencies and innovations, which they also have applied to their U.S. operations and markets.

The falling U.S. trade deficit provides clear evidence that all of this matters. In the first quarter of this year, for example, our trade imbalance was $22 billion less than it was a year earlier. This may seem remarkable, since stronger growth here than in Europe and Japan would suggest a rising U.S. trade deficit as imports rise and exports fall. It’s true that some imports are up — but so are most exports, including high tech goods that account for 19 percent of all U.S. exports.  The main reason, though, is globalization as U.S. companies that have spent years setting up shop around the world now tap into fast-growing markets across the developing world.

Consider whom we now trade with.  Our traditional major markets of Europe and Japan now account for just 25 percent of U.S. exports. They’re overshadowed today by the 32 percent share of our exports which go to our NAFTA partners, Canada (19 percent) and Mexico (13 percent). Another 12 percent of U.S. exports go to the rest of Latin America, seven percent to China, and 13 percent to the rest of non-Japan Asia. In fact, American firms export nearly half as much to Africa and the Middle East as they do to Europe.

President Obama is now doubling-down on the commitment to globalization. Last term, he got Congress to approve new free trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. This term, he’s pressing for a major new trade deal with Pacific Rim countries and another with the European Union. The negotiations for the first deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) began in 2010. Now, the President is pressing all interested parties — Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, along with the United States — to complete the deal within one year. That’s an ambitious deadline, since TPP would lower or end many thorny domestic barriers to open trade. Among these are regulations and other impediments to competing in service-sector businesses, with state-owned enterprises, and in areas of government procurement, as well as health and safety regulations targeted at foreign competitors. And if we and the ten other Pacific Rim countries can strike the deal on TPP, Japan and South Korea would probably join too, and further expand its impact.

Completing a new free trade pact between the U.S. and the EU within the President’s two-year deadline will be equally daunting. Here, too, the issues include many of the toughest for trade in the 21st century, encompassing barriers rooted in the domestic regulation of services as well as health and safety, labor and environmental rules, agricultural subsidies, data privacy, and anti-trust policy. These are very difficult matters not only for the regulation-prone countries of continental Europe, but for the United States as well. Nevertheless, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and the UK’s David Cameron are both on board with Mr. Obama. Alas, France’s President Francois Hollande is less enthusiastic, and the president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, has warned that any deal must “put the European model at its core,” especially with regard to “labor unions and social rights.”

Both sets of negotiations will test everyone’s patience and political limits. But the process will recommit the United States to the path of liberal internationalism that has helped drive American prosperity for more than 65 years. And if they succeed, the result will not only reassert America’s global economic leadership.   The new agreements should also permanently raise the incomes of tens of millions of people here and abroad, along with the sales and profits of tens of thousands of U.S. and foreign companies.