Don't Blame the Boom for Our Economic Collapse

by: Andy Harless

The US is in a depression. It is rather a mild depression, as depressions go, but if I may use the terms “recession” and “depression” in accordance with their verbal roots, although US economic activity is no longer receding, it is still depressed. (It is depressed by any standard, I think, but particularly, my own criterion would be, in comparison with what we know the US economy is capable of producing.) And it will remain so, even in the best case, “for a considerable period of time.” You don’t go from a doubling of the unemployment rate, back to normal business activity, without experiencing a great deal of melancholia along the way.

Most observers blame the economic collapse on the humungous housing and credit boom, which went bust in a particularly unpleasant manner. But what would have happened if the boom had never taken place? That very boom, even with war spending as an additional stimulus, and with households that were willing to consume their entire income, was, it seems to me, barely enough to forestall depression. Despite having such considerable help, the financial boom did not produce an economic boom. It barely created enough demand to bring US economic activity up to its potential for a year or so.

The bigger they come, the harder they fall, and this one was huge – but not huge enough, not strong enough, even in its days of glory, to fully hoist the boulder by which we are now being crushed. Blame this decade’s financial excess for the acuteness of the recession, but don’t blame it for the existence of a depression. It’s not clear exactly what it is, but we are dealing with some sort of “long wavelength” economic phenomenon whose underpinnings were a pre-existing condition. Today, one or two powerful shots of temporary fiscal stimulus may help chase away the worst of the blue devils, but they won’t be sufficient to restore health.

As I see it, there are only two ways the US can end this depression. One is by deliberately, intentionally, publicly and resolutely engineering a moderately high inflation rate (in the future) by promising to use whatever monetary policy is necessary to achieve a mercilessly escalating series of price level targets once that policy finally acquires traction. That approach would force people (and businesses) to abandon “safe” investments and start building something that will allow them to take advantage of the inflation by selling the products at higher prices than they cost to create.

The other way is to risk (but probably not create) a very high inflation rate (again, in the future, not in the present) by means of massive deficit spending sustained to the point of recklessness. This deficit spending could take the form either of increased government purchases, which stimulate economic activity directly, or of “helicopter drop” tax cuts financed by creating money, which, if done on a sufficiently large scale, will eventually make people (and/or businesses) feel wealthy enough to start spending more.

Neither of these things is going to happen. Not in the current political climate, and not in any political climate that I can imagine over the next decade. I conclude that, when this depression ends, it will not be the US that ends it. This depression will end when the rest of the world (considered collectively) decides that it wants more than it is able or willing to produce, and when it approaches the US, bearing its accumulated IOU’s, offering to retire them at a substantial discount (a discount enforced by the foreign exchange market, not by renegotiating the instruments themselves), and asking the US to produce the remainder of what it wants.

Or else this depression will just continue. Eventually, some day, America’s capital stock will have deteriorated to the point where it cannot even supply the depressed level of demand that it will still be experiencing. (I mean demand “depressed” relative to what the US would have been capable of producing if growth had somehow proceeded normally, making efficient use of available resources. I’m optimistic that the US will experience growth over the next decade, just not enough growth. In my lexicon, if, for example, growth of demand were just sufficient to absorb labor force and productivity growth while leaving 10.2% of the labor force unemployed and 17.5% of the broadly defined labor force either unemployed or under-employed, as they are today, that would definitely still qualify as a continuing depression, though, by the way, it wouldn’t necessarily leave investors feeling depressed.) And once our capital stock does deteriorate sufficiently – in the future, but not in the foreseeable future – we will have to start building something again.

Disclosure: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management.