Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Walk on the Supply Side

Keynesian demand-side economics still rules the minds of the policy makers in Washington, D. C. Their actions and their analysis continually point to their focus on aggregate demand and the “green shoots” that are expected to accompany an economic recovery based on the stimulus of spending.

For over a year I have been arguing that more attention needs to be given to the supply side of the equation. Yes, the growth rate of real GDP has been going down and the rate of employment has been going up. But, the rate of inflation, as measured by the rate of increase of the GDP price deflator has not declined since the fourth quarter of 2007. If it were just a demand side problem, this would not be the case.

I focus on the rate of increase in the GDP implicit deflator because of some of the measurement problems associated with the Consumer Price Index, such as the treatment of housing expenses and energy. Certainly, the CPI should be watched, but in dealing with economic aggregates, I prefer the former.

My point has been that if the problems in the economy were all tied to a substantial fall in aggregate demand, then there should have been a more substantial lessening in the rate of price increases. Consequently, my argument has been that something has happened on the supply side of the economy for the numbers to have been reported as they have been.

I would like to point to two areas of the United States economy that indicates that the problems of recovery may be more difficult to overcome than if the dislocation in the economy were just one of inadequate aggregate demand. The first area is that of industrial output; the second area is the labor market.

In terms of the industrial base of the economy I would like to focus upon industrial production and the industrial utilization of capacity. Industrial production has been declining steadily since the start of the recession in December 2007. At that time, industrial production was growing at about a 2.0% year-over-year rate of growth. By April 2008 the year-over-year rate of growth had become negative. The figures for 2009 are
January -10.8
February -11.3
March -12.6
April -12.7
May -13.4

This certainly shows a continuing weakening in the economy. However, taken by itself I don’t think that it carries more meaning than does the decline in the rate of growth of real GDP which has been declining as well.

Combine this performance with the figures on capacity utilization and one gets a different picture. As expected, total industry capacity utilization has dropped substantially in this recession. In December 2007, the figure stood at a little over 80.0%. In May 2009, capacity utilization had fallen to about 68.0%. This is the largest 18 month decline in the post-World War II period.

But, this is not all. The peak in capacity utilization in the past ten years was only slightly more than the December 2007 figure. But, this peak of the last ten years was substantially below the level of capacity utilization for most of the 1990s which was below the peak utilization in the 1970s which was below the peak utilization in the 1960s. That is, it appears as if we have been using less and less of our capacity on a regular basis since the 1960s.

The structure of our industrial base is changing. We can see that in autos, in steel, and in many other parts of our manufacturing base. It appears as if the weakness in our economy is composed of two things: first the cyclical swing in business; but this weakness is on top of a secular decline in our productive ability. The economy is in the process of restructuring!

This shift is also showing up in labor markets. The civilian participation rate in the labor force for the United States rose from the late 1960s into the 1990s when it peaked a little above 67.0%. The civilian participation rate has declined since late 2000 and has remained below 66.2% since 2004. In terms of the number of people who are not participating in the labor market any more, this represents a large number. People have left the labor force in the last five or six years and this trend has, of course, been exacerbated by the recession. Over the past forty years the rise in the participation rate has slowed down or stopped during recessions, but at no time did it decline as it did in the in the past six years.

Of further interest, the Labor Department reported that separations from jobs in April remained relatively constant as they have for the past two years, but the rate of hiring continued to be quite low. In early 2008 the percentage of the labor force that were separated from their jobs was about equal to the percentage that were being hired. Since then separations have exceeded hirings, as might be expected, causing the unemployment rate to rise.

In terms of those that were separated from their jobs, there was a dramatic shift between those that quit their jobs and those that were laid off or discharged from their jobs. The percentage of layoffs and discharges rose dramatically from April 2008 to April 2009 whereas quit levels dropped substantially. That is, although separation rates did not change much at all during this time, the composition of those being separated from their positions experienced a tremendous shift. This is an indication that there is a structural shift in what is happening in the labor markets.

This information leads me to believe that there is a substantial restructuring taking place in the United States economy. And, a structural shift is a supply side issue and not a demand side issue. In fact, demand side responses can just make a bad situation worse by trying to force people back into positions that companies and industries are attempting to eliminate because the world has changed.

The figures on industrial production and capacity utilization seem to indicate that industry is changing and the numbers from the labor market reinforce that conclusion. Pumping up aggregate demand is an attempt to stop this restructuring or, at least, slow it down.

The problem that policymakers’ face is that they, or we, do not know what the new industrial structure is going to look like. It is impossible for anyone to know. People can make guesses, but that is all they are—guesses. And, in situations like this, it is more likely that the guesses will be wrong rather than being right. It’s just that the future is unknown. The need for the United States economy to restructure just adds another “unknown, unknown” to our list of “known unknowns” and “unknown, unknowns.” My guess is that this restructuring is going to take some time and could be sidetracked by huge government deficits and a supportive monetary policy.

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