The front page of the New York Times today reads, “Why So Glum? Numbers Point to a Recovery.” The economic recovery is at hand, yet to many, even to many economists, something seems to be missing.
Unemployment remains high, but it is a lagging indicator. Consumer debt remains high and home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies continue to stay near record levels, but these tend to be lagging indicators. State and Local governments are on the edge, apparently faced with becoming the “next Greece.” (For example, this morning see “Los Angeles Faces Threat of Insolvency” and “Next ‘Big Crisis’ Is Unfolding in Muni-Bond Market”) But these problems are related to the condition of the consumer and hence will not recover until the consumer recovers. Commercial banks are not lending, small businesses are not getting bank loans, and there are still concerns about the value of bank assets and the impending loan problems.
Floyd Norris, in his New York Times article, speaks about slow economic recoveries and attempts to put the current situation within the context of other post-World War II recessions. Within this context, he argues, the prospects for the current recovery are not that bad. When the economy is turning around, current data tend to be revised as more information becomes available and the recoveries, historically, appear to be “less slow” than they were during the time they were actually being experienced.
I believe that Norris is correct in his interpretation of where the United States economy is at the present time and how the data we are now receiving compares with the data relating to previous recoveries.
What this misses, as I have tried to present over the past six-to-nine months, is that there are other factors at play in the economic developments of the past fifty years and this has created a situation that is not favorable to a strong economic performance in upcoming years... unless some things change.
One of those necessary changes relates to the inflationary bias of our government’s monetary and fiscal policies. As I have mentioned many, many times before, inflation is not helpful over the longer run and, in fact, over the longer run tends to hurt the very people the inflationary bias is aimed to help. The fact that the purchasing power of a dollar has declined by over 80% in the last fifty years has left the American economy is a very weak position. Long-term inflation has had an impact on the economy.
For one, inflation is supposed to help existing manufacturing industries. Yet, we have seen that over the past fifty years, the capacity utilization of United States industry has continuously declined with each peak reached in a subsequent period of economic recovery lying below the level of the previous peak. (See my post “The Trouble with Recovery.”)
Inflation is supposed to help labor, yet the level of the under-employed has risen almost constantly during the last fifty years. As capacity utilization has declined, the “mainstream” laborer has found him- or her-self less and less trained to do something outside “mainstream” industry. Hence, the growing number of those that don’t “fit” into the twenty-first century industrial structure. It will be very difficult to put these people back-to-work on a full time basis.
The economy of the past fifty years has also relied on the strength of construction, especially the construction of houses. This area has received special attention in that the government has created many, many financially innovative ways to support this industry which has led to an inflation in real estate prices that has out-stripped those in other areas of the economy.
A consequence of this has been that most personal saving over the past fifty years was tied up in the value of a person’s home. People saved by investing in a home and then watching the value of the house continue to appreciate. This appreciation of home prices also allowed their owners the opportunity to borrow against the increased value of the house to maintain higher and higher living standards. Now much of this “wealth” has been destroyed.
And the inflationary bias has led to a hurricane of financial innovation. The creation of debt and financial innovation thrive in an inflationary environment. The last fifty years has been a treasure-trove for those in the financial industry and the financial innovation that has resulted exceeds that of any period in the history of human-kind. The economy may seem unbalanced with the growth of the finance industries relative to the manufacturing industries, but that is what you get when you have fifty years of consumer and asset price inflation.
The theoretical underpinnings of the policies that have resulted in the inflationary bias of the last fifty years were built on two primary assumptions. The first is that the labor force must be kept employed in order to avoid revolutionary unrest. The second assumption is that foreign exchange rates would be fixed in value. (See my book review here.)
The model derived from these assumptions is “short-run” in nature. (Remember, Keynes is quoted as saying: “In the long run we are all dead.”) Policy making within this paradigm, therefore, focuses upon achieving short-run goals even if the long run consequences, as presented above, are detrimental to the people that are, hopefully being helped. Since the world is a series of short-runs, the problems resulting from previous “short-run solutions” will be offset at a later date. As we have seen, this does not happen.
In addition, since 1971 most of the world has been operating within a regime of floating foreign exchange rates. A country cannot isolate itself from other countries, in terms of the fiscal and monetary policies it follows, without repercussions. In the case of the United States, we have seen during this period of inflationary bias the value of the United States dollar has declined. The two periods in which this was not the case were those of the late 1970s-early 1980s, when Paul Volcker was the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and the 1990s, when Robert Rubin was an influential member of the Clinton Administration. Overall, however, the value of the United States dollar has declined during this period and is currently substantially lower, relative to other major currencies, than it was in the 1970s.
The policy focus of the United States government must change. To me, Paul Volcker had it right when he argued that “a nation’s exchange rate is the single most important price in its economy.” Consequently, he argued that a government cannot ignore large swings in its exchange rate. A country’s exchange rate reflects how international markets interpret the inflationary stance of the monetary and fiscal policy of a government. In the future, more emphasis must be placed upon this price in making policy decisions for the United States no longer dominates the world the way it did in the past.
Second, the policy focus of the United States government must move away from employment in legacy industries. A recent research paper by Dane Stangler and Robert Litan, “Where Will the Jobs Come From?”, published by the Kauffman Foundation, emphasizes that “nearly all” of the jobs created in the United States from 1980-2005 were created in firms less than five years old. By focusing on legacy industries in determining its economic policy, the federal government is just fostering an environment in which under-employment is going to continue to grow. This is not healthy for the future of the American economy, especially as emerging nations around the world are focusing on the future and not the past.