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.



The Meaning and Misuses of GDP

April 25, 2013

America’s Gross Domestic Product — GDP — is a very powerful statistic. Markets and politicians zealously track the quarterly numbers looking for a bottom line on how investors and the rest of us feel about our conditions and prospects. Compiled by some 2,000 economists and statisticians at the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), GDP pulls together everything they can measure concerning how much America’s households and various industries earn, consume and invest, and for what purposes. Over the last two weeks, however, two new developments should have reminded us that we know less about GDP than we usually believe.

Early this week, the BEA itself tacitly acknowledged that the GDP measure lags behind the actual economy. The Bureau released a set of changes in how it calculates GDP, designed to take better account of the economic value of ideas and intangible assets. Today, few among us would question the notion that new ideas can have great economic value. But some 15 years ago, long before smart phones, tablets and protein-based medications, the BEA started to study how to revise the GDP measure to take better economic account of innovations. This week, the Bureau announced that when a company undertakes research and development or creates a new book, music, or movie, those costs will be counted as investments that add to GDP, rather than ordinary business expenses, which do not.

In an instant, the official accounting of the economy’s total current product increased some $400 billion. Business profits also have been larger than we thought, because ordinary business expenses reduce reported profits, while investments do not. Most important, the revisions told us that American businesses and government, together, now invest just 2.1 percent of GDP in R&D — less investment than in the 1990s here, especially by businesses, and less than much of Europe.

While this week’s BEA changes bring us closer to an accurate picture of GDP, last week we learned how naïve we can be about blatant misuses and distortions of GDP. This story began four years ago, when two well-respected economists, Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff, published an economic history of financial crises. R&R’s timing (2009) was impeccable, and their book was a bestseller for an academic treatise. More important, it gave its authors wide public credibility when they issued a paper the following year, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” that claimed to have found a deep and strong connection between high levels of government debt and a country’s economic growth. The data, they reported, showed that when a country’s government debt reaches and exceeds the equivalent of 90 percent of GDP, its growth slumps very sharply.

With the big run-up in government debt spurred by the financial crisis and subsequent deep recession, conservatives who had waited a long time for a plausible economic reason to slash government found it in the new R&R analysis. And based on its authors’ newly-elevated reputations, conventional wisdom-mongers from think tanks to editorial boards echoed the new line on austerity. Even the most liberal administration since LBJ couldn’t resist the new meme. Despite a palpably weak economy, the President and congressional Democrats grudgingly accepted large budget cuts, and then pumped the economy’s brakes some more by insisting on higher taxes. And we were not the only ones so economically addled. As government debt in Germany, France, Britain and most other advanced countries rose sharply, conservatives there argued that less government was a necessity for average Europeans as well.

Just last week, we learned that the R&R 2010 analysis was so riddled with technical mistakes that its “findings” about what moves GDP are meaningless. When three young economists from the University of Massachusetts found they couldn’t replicate the results – the standard test for scientific findings — they took R&R’s model apart, piece by piece, to figure out why. It turns out that R&R – or more likely, their graduate assistants – left out several years of data for some countries, miscoded other data, and then applied the wrong statistical technique to aggregate their flawed data. And as bad luck would have it, all of their disparate mistakes biased their results in the same direction, amplifying the errors. In the end, instead of advanced countries experiencing recessionary slumps averaging – 0.1 percent growth once their government debt exceeded 90 percent of their GDP, the correct result was average growth of 2.2 percent carrying that debt burden.

Utterly wrong as R&R’s analysis was, the austerity advocates proceeded to badly misuse it. The authors had merely reported a correlation between high debt and negative growth – or, as we now know, between high debt and moderate growth – without saying what that correlation might mean. Hard line conservatives and their think tank supporters, here and abroad, quickly insisted it could only mean that high debt drives down growth. That can happen, but only rarely — when high inflationary expectations drive up interest rates, which at once slows growth and increases government interest payments. In the much more common case, Keynes still rules: Slow or negative growth leads to higher debt, not the other way around. In those more typical instances, cutting government only depresses growth more, further expanding government debt. Occasionally, the correlation of negative growth and high government debt reflects some independent third cause. The tsunami and nuclear meltdown that struck Japan in 2012, for example, simultaneously drove down growth and drove up government debt. And sometimes, there is no correlation: Britain carried government debt burdens of 100 percent to 250 percent of GDP from the early-to-mid-19th century, while it was giving birth to the Industrial Revolution.

The R&R analysis did not distinguish between these various scenarios. Yet, the conservative interpretation became the received public wisdom. The IMF, the World Bank and most politically-unaffiliated economists insisted that slashing government on top of weak business and household spending would only make matters worse. No matter. The inevitable result was not the stronger growth as promised, but persistently high unemployment and slow growth here, and double-dip recessions for much for Europe and Japan. In the end, R&R deserve less criticism for their mistakes than for their failure to correct the damaging distortions of their deeply flawed work.