Tuesday, September 27, 2011

An Economic View from the Supply Side

As I have written before, the United States economy is recovering.  It may not be recovering as fast as some would like, but economic growth is positive.  Economic growth is not as rapid as some would like because there is still a massive debt overhang that must be eliminated, one way or another.

Furthermore, unemployment and under-employment are not dropping as fast as some would like.  The labor market is not improving with any speed because the economic policies of the last fifty years has resulted in a large amount of the United States manufacturing capacity being unused.  As physical capital is unused so is human capital.

Both of these situations took a long time to get to their present state and will take a long time to regain higher levels of economic growth, capacity utilization, and employment. 

The background for this situation can be examined from the following chart.

  This chart contains a graph of real Gross Domestic Product beginning in 1960 and ending in 2010.  I start with the year 1960 because that is the year before the United States government, both Democratic and Republican, introduced a “new” economic philosophy into its policy considerations, one that emphasized the inflation of credit throughout the economy. 

To me, the important thing about this chart is that real GDP is almost continuously rising.  Yes, there is a sizeable bump at the far right-hand side of the chart, and this is associated with the Great Recession, an apt title.  Otherwise, there are other little deviations from the upward trend, but these are relatively minor movements along the way.

This is where I take my stand with the economic growth proponents.  In the United States economy, growth is almost always positive.  The annual compound rate of growth for the period covered in the chart is 3.1 percent.  The annual compound growth rate of the United States economy, ending the calculation in 2007 (the Great Recession began in December 2007) the rate of growth rises to something around 3.25 percent.  But, growth is dependent upon the private sector, not directly on the government.    

I define credit inflation as a period in which the rate of growth of debt in the economy exceeds the rate of growth of the economy.  Over the past fifty years, the debt of the United States government has increased by more that a 7.0 percent annual compound rate of growth.  The debt of the private economy has risen in the range of 11.0 to 12.0 percent every year.  This meets my definition of credit inflation because these growth rates are far in excess of the rate of growth of the economy. During this period, the purchasing power of the dollar declined by about 85 percent.  In other words, a 1960s dollar could only buy 15 cents worth of goods and services today versus a dollar’s worth in 1960.

Side note on credit bubbles: when the annual compound rate of growth of the debt being created in a subsector of the economy exceeds the annual compound rate of growth of the economic growth of the subsector, a credit bubble can be said to exist.  The housing market bubble of the early 2000s fits this definition.

Credit inflation can have a detrimental impact on economic growth.  Credit inflation creates incentives that cause manufacturers to move away from the producing of goods and to move into the creation of finance.  Two examples of this are GE and GM: for example a couple of years ago GE was earning more than two-thirds of its profits from its finance wing.  In terms of the whole economy, there has been a huge swing over the past fifty years from the manufacturing sectors of the economy to the financial services sector of the economy.

Some of the consequences of this re-allocation of capital is that the employment of capital declined: capacity utilization is around 77 percent now relative to more than 90 percent in the 1960s.  Under-employment is over 20 percent now and was under 10 percent in the 1960s.  And, the income/wealth distribution is more skewed toward the wealthy than it was 50 years ago.

This has impacted economic growth.  For example, the annual compound rate of growth of real GDP has only been 2.5 percent over the past twenty years, down substantially from the rate of growth for the whole period.  Credit inflation, as an economic policy of the government, seems to have exactly the opposite impact on the economy that is desired by policy makers.

But the other important thing to notice in the chart is the “bumps in the road”.  In my opinion, all of these “bumps” resulted in some way from dislocations in the growth of credit instruments as a result of the monetary or fiscal policies of the United States government.  In most cases, the dislocations were relatively minor. However, as the debt load expanded and the private sector devoted more and more resources to financial services, the ability to carry the load grew greater and greater.

The debt burden cannot keep growing: it has to collapse sometime and along with it the economy.  In most cases the “bumps” were relatively minor.  I know it is never fun for anybody to be un-employed or under-employed, but in the aggregate sense, the “bumps” were not large. 

During the Great Recession and following, the “bumps” were much larger because the build-up of the debt dislocations were greater than ever.  However, since the debt burden must be worked off, it will take more time for the economy to achieve the longer run rates of growth that were achieved earlier in this fifty years of economy prosperity.  But, it will come. 

We must be aware of these dislocations and the things that must be done to re-structure the economy and get back to the economic growth performance we are looking for.  For example, we cannot ignore the state of the banking industry in this recovery. (See my post from last Friday: http://seekingalpha.com/article/295630-why-banks-aren-t-lending.)  Resolving the “bumps” just means that the previously created dislocations in finance and economics must be resolved.    

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