Ben Bernanke spoke in New York yesterday and, depending upon which paper you read this morning, he basically said one of two things. First, he said that the Fed was interested in a strong dollar and would continue to keep the value of the dollar in mind in deliberations concerning monetary policy.
Second, Bernanke said that the pain in the labor market was going to last for a long time and that we shouldn’t expect the unemployment rate to fall anytime soon.
That is, don’t expect interest rates to begin to rise in the near future.
Remember, the number one policy goal of the Federal Reserve (and the federal government) is full employment and don’t you forget it. Put inflation, commodity prices, and the value of the United States dollar on the back burner.
So much for an independent Fed!
But, we knew that.
The problem with the economic recovery and unemployment is captured by an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Auto Industry Has Room to Shrink Further,” (see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125832250680149395.html?mg=com-wsj.) Although the article focuses upon the auto industry, the situation that is described can be extended to many other major (and minor) industries throughout the world.
“Over the past two years, the global auto industry has endured one of the worst downturns in its century-plus history. Auto makers around the world have consolidated, restructured and slimmed down—and yet they still have too much of just about everything, especially too many brands and too many plants.”
“According to CSM Worldwide, the auto industry has enough capacity to make 85.9 million cars and light trucks a year—about 30 million more than it is on track to sell this year, the equivalent of more than 120 assembly plants.”
Furthermore, an auto analyst is quoted as saying, “government intervention to save auto-related jobs has forestalled the inevitable—broad and deep restructuring that would shut down unneeded plants and close loss-making enterprises. Not as much capacity has come out that should have.”
This is just talking about the auto industry. But, it is true of industry in general. The United States and the global economy have become leaner due to the current contraction: still, much excess capacity remains.
Even though capacity utilization for all industry is up in the United States (note that capacity utilization for manufacturing in October did not change from September), giving further indication that the recession is over, the problem of too much capacity lingers. As I have mentioned many times before, every economic recovery since the 1960s has seen a pickup in capacity utilization as economic growth increased, but the peak reached in each cycle was no higher, and was generally lower, than the peak reached in the previous cycle.
That is, capacity utilization rose during the expansion phase of each economic cycle since the 1960s but the trend in the United States was for more and more plant and equipment to remain idle.
In addition, this contributed to the under-utilization of labor as is evidenced by the rising trend in those of the population that are labeled underemployed .
Also, as the federal government, and the independent Federal Reserve System, tried to pump up the economy so that fuller employment could be achieved, the pressure was always on for inflation to rise. Since January 1961, the purchasing power of the dollar has fallen by about 85%. This is not a coincidence!
Furthermore, these policy efforts just put people back to work in the jobs they had been in and reduced the incentive for companies to innovate and change moderating productivity growth.
The performance of industrial production in the United States carries with it the same story. (Industrial production is up in October, but at an anemic 0.1% rate.) The growth rate of industrial production rises and falls through the swings in the economic cycle, but each rebound does not bring with it the same expansion as was achieved in previous cycles. This is just another indication that although recovery takes place, the overall trend in the productive utilization of resources in the United States continues to wane.
This fundamental weakness resource utilization is resulting in changing attitudes throughout the world. David Brooks writes in the New York Times about the underlying optimism that seems to be present in China these days, an optimism that used to be present in the United States. Simon Shama writes in the Financial Times about how China is now “wagging its finger at the United States about it wayward monetary and fiscal policies, as yet, still unaccustomed “to being the strong party in the relationship.” Clive Crook, also in the Financial Times, writes about the looming political battle in the United States concerning the “big questions” that voters have to answer “about the entitlements they demand and the taxes they are willing to pay.”
The United States is strong and will continue to stay strong. But, its relative position is changing. And, the way its leaders go about attempting to resolve problems is missing the point.
The United States economy is recovering. But, unless policy prescriptions change, there will continue to be an under-utilization of capacity, a weakness to productivity growth, a bias towards inflation, further declines in the United States dollar, and the threat of protectionism.
It is said that people and a nation do not change their habits until there is a real crisis. Right now it looks as if we have wasted a pretty significant financial crisis in returning to our old ways and old policy prescriptions and will just have to be content with an economy that produces mediocre results. No one seems anxious to change how we attack our problems.