Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Let's Look at the United States rather than Europe for a change

Durable goods orders are up 2.9% in April. New home sales rose last month. More and more statistical releases point to a continuing recovery. More and more it appears as if the Great Recession did end in July 2009 and we are, consequently, in the tenth month of the economic upturn.

However, it still doesn’t quite feel like much of an upturn. But, economic pundits contend that there is very little chance for a “double-dip” recession even with the financial turmoil rocking Europe. One analyst argued that with the European disorder the probability of having a “double-dip” recession has risen, but from about 5% a month earlier to around 20% now. In other words, he believed that it is highly unlikely that we will have a “double-dipper.”

My concern is still focused upon the long-term fact that there is so much un-used capacity in the United States. The efforts to stimulate the economy, as a consequence, represent efforts to put people back into “legacy” jobs (the jobs from which they were released) that will continue to thwart the competitiveness of the United States in world markets and put back to work “out-of-date” plant, machinery, and labor.

If we look at capacity utilization in the United States, we see that we are using more capacity now than we did in July 2009. For April the figure was below 73.7%. However, we are still substantially below the previous peak in capacity utilization, which came in at about 81.5% in 2006. And, the previous peak before that was below the previous high before that, 85% in 1997, which was lower than the previous peak and so forth for the whole post-World War II period.

Furthermore, industrial production remains depressed from the level it attained in early 2008 and also in 2000. Both series are making progress, but we are still running way below levels that were previously attained and although the “catch up” seems to be robust, the question remains as to whether or not these measures will exceed earlier highs in the near future.

Adding to this concern is the fact that the labor situation remains weak. Unemployment in April stayed just under 10%, but the number I am very concerned about is the total amount of workers that are under-employed. I am concerned, not only with those that are out-of-work, but those that are not fully employed but want to be fully employed, the discouraged who have left the workforce, and the people that have taken lower positions, positions that they can fill but are fully qualified to perform in other more challenging jobs. My estimate of these under-employed persons runs around 25%, about 1 out of every four people who could be considered to be in the labor force.

The fact that these factors are running so low relative to “capacity” employment raises concerns about the United States achieving its “potential” any time soon. To examine this possibility we look at a comparison between the estimates of the Congressional Budget Office of potential real Gross Domestic Product and the level that real Gross Domestic Product was actually attained. Not only was the United States economy producing at a level of output only 94% of potential, the rates of growth of actual real GDP seem to lie below the rate at which the CBO is estimating that potential real GDP should grow.

The economy of the United States is recovering, but one can understand why many people really do not seem to be experiencing it. Nothing in the previous stimulus plan, or in the one being developed, or in the current stance of monetary policy, gets the United States back on track. Different types of policies are needed to renew the productive capacity of the United States so that the U. S. can become fully competitive again and fully use its resources…both human and physical. Unfortunately no one seems to be working on these kinds of policies because they rely so heavily on the private sector. Also, these policies take too long to achieve results; politicians have a much shorter employment cycle.

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