Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Problems of Recovery

Comparisons abound between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of the 2000s. So far, we seem to have avoided the depths that were reached in the earlier experience, but we still have to consider whether or not the breadth of the two might be similar. That is, almost everyone one forecasting the recovery of the United States economy in the 2010s seems to be expecting that it will be a long, slow process.

The comparison I would like to consider in this post is the possibility that both of these periods represent a time in which the United States economy was going through a substantial structural change. Many people that have studied the 1930s period argue that the economy that existed in the United States in the 1950s was substantially different from the one that existed in the 1920s. Huge shifts took place in both manufacturing and agriculture throughout the 1930s and these shifts were just accelerated in the 1940s, a period of world war. The underlying cause of this change: technology had changed and the American economy had to adjust to become a modern nation. However, the mismanagement of the financial crisis in the 1930s just exacerbated the depth of the decline.

The argument can be made that major structural changes had to take place in the United States economy as it entered the 21st century. Changes of the magnitude of the present adjustment did not take place during the shorter, less severe recessions of the post-World War II period because the buildup of technological change takes time in order to build up a sufficient backlog of the new technology to really be disruptive. By the end of the 1990s, the structural change connected with the move from a society based upon manufacturing to an information society was ready to occur.

This buildup was not really a sudden one. It has been occurring throughout the last fifty years or so. I believe that the decline in the figures on capacity utilization for the United States captures this change very well.

Note in the accompanying chart that capacity utilization continues to decline throughout the whole period since the late 1960s. Obviously, cycles in this measure took place that were related to the various recessions occurring during the time span, but each new peak in capacity utilization never exceeds the peak it had reached in the previous cycle.

This, I believe, captures the changing nature of the United States economy and the movement from the foundational base of the Manufacturing Age to the growing impact of information technology and the Information Age. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the United States economy is not going back to where it was. But, this will take time.

Let me just point out three important factors that are playing a huge role in this change: evolving technologies, changing structure of the labor market, and the rise of the emerging nations.

First, the core of American commerce is not going to be manufacturing as we have known it. The future belongs to information technology, biotechnology, and knowledge. For the government to attempt to “force” workers back into jobs they held in the manufacturing world is just going to postpone the changes that WILL take place and threatens the stability of the society by re-establishing the inflationary environment of the last fifty years.

Second, the age of the labor union is past: non-public sector labor unions are legacy. There was a time when labor unions were needed to temper the pressures and demands of the industrial age of the large corporation who needed large numbers of physical laborers. These unions now compose less than half the union population in America yet have an over-sized impact on the politics of the country. In the next fifty years, the importance of the labor union is going to decline, economically and politically, as the United States moves from the manufacturing base that has dominated the last fifty years into the Information Age described in the previous paragraph.

Third, the United States, although it will remain the number one economic and military power in the world, is going to see its relative position in the world decline. The reason is that major emerging nations are beginning to feel their power and exert it. The immediate group of nations that come to mind are the BRICs. But, there are others. China, as we well know, is starting to exert its influence throughout the world. We see Brazil directly challenge America in the World Trade Organization concerning tariffs and subsidies. (See “Tax Move by Brazil Risks US Trade War”: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/dbf4284c-2afa-11df-886b-00144feabdc0.html.) And, more of this is to come! This is going to provide its own pressure for the economic structure of the United States to change.

These adjustments are going to take time. There will be substantial pain for those of working age who are not trained or educated for the new era. I believe that even the number of underemployed, 16%-17% of the work force, under-estimates the structural problem that exists. Thus, the estimate of 11 million new jobs that are now needed in the economy to get us back to where we were before the Great Recession began also under-states the problem.

Investment-wise, just as in the 1950s, the whole structure of opportunities available is changing from the earlier age. But, one needs to consider the new format of the economy that is evolving out of the manufacturing age in developing ones portfolio strategy. Similar to the 1930s, the 2000s are producing a modernization of the United States that will alter the world as it has been known and will produce a world that we can’t even hardly imagine yet.

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