We've Got A Sub-Par Recovery For Investment, Not Consumption

by: Mark J. Perry
Robert Higgs makes an important point that "Consumption Spending HAS Already Recovered," and it's private investment spending that is lagging and holding the economy back:

Commentators and pundits, some of whom ought to know better, continue to harp on the idea that the recession persists because consumers are not spending. Every Keynesian seems to believe that because consumers are in a dreadful funk, only government stimulus spending can rescue the moribund economy, given (to them, at least) that investors will not spend more because the Fed, having already driven interest rates to extraordinarily low levels, cannot use conventional policies to drive them any lower and thereby elicit more investment spending.

People, please look at the data. They are conveniently available to one and all at the website maintained by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. According to these data, real personal consumption expenditure recovered from its recession decline by the fourth quarter of 2010 (see chart above). Continuing to grow, it now stands (as of the most recent data, for the second quarter of 2011) even farther above its pre-recession peak.

The economy remains moribund not because consumption spending has failed to recover and not because government spending has failed to increase, but because the true driver of economic growth—private investment—remains deeply depressed. Gross private domestic fixed investment fell steeply after the second quarter of 2007, and in the second quarter of 2011 it remained 19 percent below its pre-recession peak (see chart above).

Here is the true reason for the recession’s persistence. Private investors, despite the full recovery of real consumer spending, remain apprehensive about the future of new investments, especially new long-term investments. I have argued repeatedly during the past three years that an important reason for this apprehension and the consequent reluctance to make new capital commitments is regime uncertainty—in this case, a widespread, serious fear that the government’s major policies in areas such as taxation, Obamacare, financial reform, environmental regulation, and other areas will have the effect of depriving investors of control over their capital or diminishing their ability to appropriate the income that the capital generates. President Obama’s harping on the desirability of making “the rich” pay their “fair share” of the government’s ever-rising costs only exacerbates regime uncertainty. Business leaders have spoken again and again of how the present political environment is discouraging risk-taking and entrepreneurship.

In any event, it should be crystal clear that the problem is not the failure of consumer spending to recover. Let us please have more respect for the facts than to continue singing that old, thoroughly worn-out tune.

Greg Mankiw makes a similar point in his Sunday NY Times article, "How to Make Business Want to Invest Again":

Business investment has been weak. Over the last two years, nonresidential fixed investment has grown by only 12 percent, whereas during the two years after the 1982 recession, it grew by 27 percent. Similarly, the narrow category of spending on business equipment and software fell more than twice as much in this recession as it did in the 1982 recession, and it has been slower to recover.

To stimulate investment spending Professor Mankiw recommends: a) lowering the income tax burden on corporations, b) promoting greater international trade by passing the free trade agreement with S. Korea (and I assume the FTAs with Colombia and Panama as well), and c) reducing the regulatory burden on business, e.g. reining in the National Labor Relations Board for trying to block Boeing's investment in a non-union plant in S. Carolina.

Bottom Line: Unfortunately, there's not much in the Obama jobs plan that will stimulate or increase private investment business spending, and as long as we have "an investment-less recovery," we'll probably also continue to have a "jobless recovery."