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.



Why We All Have to Worry about Cyprus

March 27, 2013

With Europe’s brazen mismanagement this week of the banking collapse in Cyprus, the Euro crisis moved closer to farce and, potentially, closer to a serious problem for the rest of us. Over the past three years, as global investors have periodically fled the government bond markets of Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy, Eurozone leaders have grudgingly spent $650 billion bailing those countries out. The whole point of these bailouts has been to protect the solvency of the European banks that hold most of the bonds of those countries, including any of the leading banks in Germany and France. Yet, last week, when the two major banks in tiny Cyprus needed a modest bailout of $13 billion to hold the Eurozone together, European leaders proposed that all of the banks’ depositors help pay the bill. In short, they were prepared to tear up the EU pledge of deposit insurance, the last defense against nationwide bank runs.

Luckily, the people of Cyprus said no. Yet, this Tuesday, Eurozone finance ministers came up with a new way of restructuring the ailing Cypriot banks that will still mean large losses for their large depositors, as a condition of the latest bailout. So now, the next time global investors lose confidence in the bonds of, say, Italy or Spain, the banks across Europe that hold those bonds may face waves of withdrawals by their largest depositors. That could bring on the kind of far-reaching financial crisis which the bailouts were designed to head off.

From the vantage of Berlin or Paris, the new deal is certainly appealing in broad, if crude, political terms. European voters get the satisfaction of forcing the well-heeled depositors of the failing banks to pay a price, along with those banks’ investors. And many of those depositors aren’t even Eurozone citizens: Instead, they’re hyper-rich Russians, including at least 80 oligarchs who looted much of their country’s economy and then shifted their proceeds to foreign accounts. They didn’t choose Cypriot banks for their investment expertise, since the bankers sunk much of the deposits in Greek sovereign bonds, the world’s worst investment. They chose Cyprus because it’s a traditional tax haven with very low taxes and strict bank secrecy laws. Old times may also have played a role with many of the oligarchs, since Cyprus was once the KGB’s favorite listening post on the Middle East.

The global economics of the deal, however, are simply terrible. Large depositors account for a tiny fraction of all Cypriot bank accounts, but more than half of all Cypriot bank deposits. It’s a pattern seen almost everywhere, including the United States. Here, bank accounts of $250,000 or more account for less than one-half of one percent of all bank accounts, but nearly one-quarter of total bank deposits. In normal times, our own deposit insurance limits the amount subject to its guarantee at $250,000. But when confidence in banks is fragile or failing, the government always steps in to guarantee all deposits. That’s just what the Treasury and FDIC did in September 2008, to prevent a run on American banks by large depositors that would have spread the crisis across the U.S. banking system. That unlimited guarantee remained in place until our financial system was stable and healthy again, ending only at the end of last year.

Eurozone leaders have ignored these basic tenets of deposit insurance. Instead, they have sent a troubling message to large European depositors: Even in a financial crisis, large accounts are no longer safe. So, the next time that global investors begin selling off Italian or Spanish government bonds, threatening the solvency of the banks holding those bonds, we could see a run by large depositors not only in Italy and Spain, but also across Germany and France. And that would set off a new financial crisis that could trigger a downward spiral across much of world – including here in America.

Moreover, it seems that unnecessary economic mistakes have become the new norm. Austerity programs for economies struggling with weak recoveries, both here and across much of Europe, are the most common example. That’s why the Eurozone, taken together, has been in a recession for nine months; why Britain’s GDP has declined in four of the last five quarters; and why even the German economy has been contracting since at least last October. And an extended downturn in Europe only increases the likelihood of renewed government bond problems in Italy or Spain which, given this mismanagement of deposit insurance in Cyprus, could spiral out of control.

These are not the only examples of inane economic policy thinking these days.

Paul Krugman this week, for example, offered a defense of capital controls, citing how the movement of funds in and out of national markets can destabilize economies. But the issue is not the unfettered movement of funds across global markets. In fact, those capital flows have been a key factor in the strong performance of many developing economies, as well as our own economic stability. Rather, the problem lies in what financial institutions do with those funds and the willingness of governments to enforce sensible limits on what they do. In the end, the spectacular stupidity of Eurozone leaders this week may be just the most recent and dangerous example of how politicians manage to miss the most obvious and important economic point.



Noticing and Solving the Problem with Jobs and Wages

July 22, 2009

America’s vaunted job-creating machine has been breaking down, and the administration is finally noticing.

It was in 2003 when I first asked myself whether the dynamics that normally produce lots of new jobs when the economy expands were changing in some fundamental way. I had noticed that job losses during the mild 2001 recession were five to six times as great as expected, given the modest drop in GDP. Then we saw that in 2004, two years after the recession ended, the number of employed Americans was still falling, compared to the two months it took for job creation to turn around after the 1981–82 recession and the 12 months it took after the 1990–91 downturn. The evidence that America’s labor markets were undergoing structural changes of a nasty sort continued to accumulate. Just as employment had fallen several times faster than GDP during the 2001 recession, so once job creation finally picked up in 2004, private employment gains remained weak. Over the same period that saw 14 million new jobs created in the 1980s expansion and 17 million new jobs created in the 1990s expansion, U.S. businesses in the last expansion added just 6 million new jobs. Manufacturing was hit especially hard: From 2001 to 2004, manufacturing lost more jobs than during the entire “deindustrialization” years from the late 1970s through the 1980s, and those losses continued throughout the entire 2002–07 expansion.

With job losses in the current recession already two to four times greater than seen in the downturns of the early 1980s, 1990s and 2001, these dynamics are finally getting broader attention. Late last week, Larry Summers, the President’s chief economic advisor, acknowledged publically that what’s known as Okun’s Law has broken down. Arthur Okun, JFK’s economic advisor, observed in the 1960s that employment during recessions regularly fell by about half as much as GDP, in percentage terms, which he attributed to the costs employers bear when they fire workers and then have to hire and train again once the downturn ends. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman also weighed in last week, positing that recessions triggered by bursting bubbles — that would be 2001 and this one — affect jobs much more than those triggered by tight monetary policies to fight inflation (the 1974–75 and 1981–82 recessions, for example). It’s an intriguing thought, but it doesn’t appear to really jive with the evidence. The IT-Internet bubble that burst in 2000 certainly helped trigger the 2001 recession, but the downturn’s job losses, and the subsequent delayed and slow job creation, swamped the direct and indirect declines in demand that followed from the implosion of so many Internet and IT companies.

It’s much more complicated than that — and consequently, will be much harder to address. To begin, the changes in the way our labor markets work also have affected everyone’s wages. During the 1990s expansion, productivity increased by about 2.5 percent per-year, and average wages rose accordingly by nearly 2.0 percent per-year. That’s the way free labor markets are supposed to work: As workers become more productive, employers become willing to pay them more (and which competition forces them to do). But in the 2002–07 expansion, even as productivity grew 3 percent per-year — the best record since the 1960s — the average wage of American workers stagnated. And the most popular political explanation, blaming U.S. multinationals for outsourcing jobs abroad, doesn’t hold up here: Over this period, the number of workers abroad employed by those multinationals hardly rose at all.

This change is also getting more official attention. Last week, President Obama reminded everyone that economic expansion isn’t enough — and we’re still quite a way from any real expansion — since most middle-class Americans weren’t doing well even before the crisis hit and the economy tanked.

The administration’s agenda could go a long way to addressing these structural changes, if it’s done right. The most plausible explanation is that American jobs and wages are being squeezed by a combination of fierce competition created by globalization and our own failures to control health care and energy costs, two big fixed cost items for most businesses. The competition has made it much harder for businesses to pass along these higher costs in higher prices — an important reason why inflation has been so low for more than a decade, here and around the world. But that also means that when companies face higher health care and energy costs that they can’t pass along, they have little choice but to cut other costs. And the costs they’ve been cutting are jobs and wages.

The only way to ensure that the next expansion won’t be like the last one, but instead will create more jobs and bring higher wages, is to make medical cost containment the center of health care reform and make the development and broad use of alternative fuels, from biomass to nuclear, the center of energy and climate policy. That’s not where Congress seems headed. The House-passed climate bill will do little to drive alternative fuels for at least another decade, when a simple, refundable carbon tax could do the trick. And the most promising aspects of health care reform for cost-containment — a public insurance option and performance-based reimbursement — are both under serious congressional attack. If the President hopes to see more job creation and wage gains than under George W. Bush, these are the places where he should take his stand.



In the Debates over Economic Policy — and the Sotomayor Nomination — What Happened to the Loyal Opposition?

May 28, 2009

President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court hasn’t triggered a conservative firestorm yet; and like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, that’s part of a larger pattern affecting policy well beyond the Supreme Court. Granted, partisan conservatives find themselves facing an engaging, activist, Democratic president with very broad public support at his back. So it’s unsurprising that most GOP senators are withholding public judgment on Judge Sotomayor’s nomination, and even the RNC has taken the tact, ‘we haven’t found anything on her — yet.’ While Newt Gingrich went glibly over the top by calling the Judge a “racist,” even Rush Limbaugh couldn’t manage anything beyond calling her “a hack” who would be “a disaster on the court.”

The problem for partisan conservatives is that nobody listens to them except the bare quarter of the country that already agrees with them. The other three-quarters of us are comprised of partisan progressives, often as sure of their opinions as partisan conservatives, and the great plurality of Americans with views about many things but no unvarying, partisan or ideological take on reality. And every American has fresh memories and often personal feelings about the damage left by the recently departed, partisan conservative administration. So, almost nobody is interested today in hearing about conservative alternatives to the President’s policies and decisions.

Eventually, the not-very-partisan or ideological majority of Americans will accumulate some unhappy memories and personal disappointments about the current administration, and then they’ll be more prepared to at least listen to the conservative message. That could take several years, so for now, the Republican’s pitiable default position has become ‘just say no’ to the most popular president in a generation. The same partisan conservatives who used to advance fairly radical ideas — many of which became Bush administration proposals — are now reduced to predictable defenders of the status quo, whatever it happens to be.

Economic policy is suffering from this result. The administration’s approach to the financial market crisis, for example, has been properly questioned as not going far or deep enough into the problem by Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, Simon Johnson and other progressives (including myself). But questions from the progressive side have little political significance, since no administration listens to outside advisors once its proposals have gone public, and everyone knows that friendly critics have no place else to go. The alternatives that matter in politics have to come from the opposition. But the Republican position here has been that government should be involved in the crisis as little as possible — which is as close as they can come to a status quo, when the status itself is a disaster. So the public debate never forced the administration to sharpen its own thinking and further hone its policies. The result is an economic program which might succeed — or, equally likely, could leave us with a financial system and economy that remain weak for years.

As for the debate over soon-to-be Justice Sotomayor, the Republicans are simply cooked. They can’t credibly say she isn’t up to the job — the meme on Harriet Miers —since her academic record is brilliant. They can’t credibly say she doesn’t have the requisite experience, since she’s been a sitting judge longer than any Supreme Court nominee in a century. And they can’t credibly call her a radical, since her opinions place her squarely in the center-left territory occupied by the Justice she’s replacing. In this last respect at least, she actually represents the status quo that Republicans currently cling to. But their followers won’t hear of it. So they’re left with another just-say-no message that’s certain to further alienate Hispanics, the largest voting group not yet locked in fully to either of the parties, and many women, the largest voting group period.

President Obama can rest easy: It’s likely to be a long time before most Americans listen to new ideas from conservative Republicans. The rest of us will have to settle for a debate over a Supreme Court nomination that’s likely to be as incoherent and enervating as the recent public discussions of the great economic issues of our time. In both cases, it’s a genuine shame.