Ten years ago we were in the early stages of what would later prove to be the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. We'd all seen the charts and read the history of that tragic event and its terrible impact on the country, and we hoped it would never happen again. But there were things 10 years ago that we never expected to see, which later unfolded to our lasting astonishment. Here are just a handful of charts, which I offer to remind us of the amazing economic and financial developments of the past decade, about whose nature economists are still debating.
Chart #1 shows the dramatic - and ongoing - decline in initial unemployment claims. Ten years ago the vast majority of economists would have said that claims could never decline much below 300K per week, since that was most likely the minimum amount of normal turnover in the labor force. Yet, here we are today with weekly claims approaching 200K per week. And as Chart #2 (the ratio of weekly claims to total payrolls) shows, claims have never been so low in recorded history, relative to the size of the workforce. The risk of a typical worker finding him or herself laid off has never been so low. Today, employers are more likely to complain that it is harder to find skilled workers than to complain about the workers they have.
It's a brave new world for workers. But it makes central bankers nervous, since they worry that a tight labor market could result in higher wages that in turn could fuel rising inflation. This worry has its origins in the Phillips Curve theory of inflation, but that theory has never found substantiation in the data - it's the economic equivalent of an old wives' tale. Today's Fed governors are aware of this, so they are not necessarily sitting on pins and needles, but it is a source of policy uncertainty nonetheless.
Chart #3 shows what is arguably not only the most astounding economic or financial thing that happened in the past decade but also the most unbelievable. If you had asked any economist 10 years ago what were the chances of the Fed creating over $2.5 trillion of excess reserves in the space of a few years he or she would have stated flatly: Zero. It couldn't possibly happen, because if it did it would herald the collapse of the dollar and an inevitable hyperinflation. The consequences of such an event were so terrible that the event itself was considered to be impossible. Yet here we are today with inflation running around 2% (as it has for more than a decade) and the dollar trading pretty close to its long-term, inflation-adjusted average vis a vis other currencies.
Prior to late 2008, when the Fed launched its Quantitative Easing program, excess reserves were measured in billions of dollars, not trillions. The Fed managed monetary policy by adding or subtracting reserves (which prior to late 2008 paid no interest) from the banking system: by creating a scarcity of reserves, banks would be forced to pay more to borrow them, and that would result in higher short-term interest rates. Today, with a previously-unimaginable abundance of reserves, the Fed has resorted to pegging the interest rate it pays banks that hold reserves, and that seems to be working. Regardless, we've been sailing in uncharted monetary waters for most of the past 10 years, and economists are still debating how everything is going to work out in the years to come.
To this day there are still legions of observers who argue that what the Fed did starting in late 2008 was simply a massive amount of money-printing, a desperate monetary stimulus that was necessary to avoid a depression, and the economy has been running on fumes ever since.
Others, myself included, believe that what the Fed did was not monetary stimulus at all. It was simply a rational response to an unprecedented increase in the public's demand for money and money equivalents, which in turn was the result of the near-collapse of the global financial system and the worst global recession in modern memory. The world was running very scared, so the demand for safe monetary assets was nearly insatiable. Unfortunately, there were not enough T-bills (the classic monetary safe haven) to go around. By deciding to pay interest on bank reserves, the Fed effectively made bank reserves equivalent to T-bills, and that was exactly what the world wanted: trillions more of safe, default-free, interest-bearing assets, and the Fed had the ability to create bank reserves with abandon if need be. And so it was that the Fed bought trillions of notes and bonds, and in the process created trillions of T-bill equivalents. I explained this in greater detail in a post five years ago ("The Fed is not printing money"). It did the trick, and now the Fed is beginning to slowly unwind QE, as it should, given how much confidence has returned in the last year or so.
Chart #4 shows that the inflation-adjusted Fed Funds rate has been negative for almost exactly the past 10 years. Never before in modern times has this occurred. Those same legions of observers that think QE was monetary stimulus in disguise argue that real interest rates have been artificially depressed by the Fed's actions. I and others, in contrast, argue that real short-term interest rates have been extraordinarily low because of extraordinarily strong demand for safe, short-term assets. If the price of a bond is bid up high enough, its yield will turn negative; it's a simple matter of bond market math. T-bills and bank savings deposits have been in such high demand that investors have been willing to accept zero or negative real yields. The Fed has not been artificially lowering rates, the market has driven rates to very low levels because of very strong demand for safety and very high levels of risk aversion.
Prior to the Great Recession, most economists would have said that the 2% yields on 10-yr Treasuries we saw in the post-Depression years would never recur, because those yields were the by-product of very weak growth and very low inflation. Yet those same 10-yr yields fell to an all-time low of 1.3% in July 2012, during a period in which the US economy grew at a 2.4% annualized rate and inflation was on the order of 2%. I believe the only way to explain these extremely low yields is to understand that they were driven to low levels by intensely strong demand for default-free assets. After all, the Fed doesn't control 10-yr yields; the market does. Today, inflation is about the same as it was in 2012, but the economy is a bit stronger and confidence is much stronger. Demand for safe assets has declined, as a result, and 10-yr yields have doubled. It all makes sense.
Finally, we come to what is arguably the most unexpected chart of them all, Chart #6. Prior to the Great Recession, the US economy had suffered many recessions, but after a few years it had always bounced back to its long-term trend. And in fact, the deeper the recession, the stronger the recovery. Milton Friedman formalized this observation in 1964, calling it the Plucking Model (see my discussion of this here). Unfortunately, the economy hasn't bounced back this time: growth since mid-2009 has averaged about 2.2% per year. I've attributed this slow growth to the heavy burdens of government spending, regulations, and taxes, all of which rose beginning in late 2008. If the economy had returned to its previous growth path, it would be at least $3 trillion bigger today.
Chart #7 shows how productivity (output per hour of those working) has been extraordinarily low for the past 10 years; this is the main explanation for why growth has failed to snap back to its long-term trend. Prior to the Great Recession, productivity averaged about 2% per year. But productivity has been much less than 2% over the past 10 years. As I've noted, the lack of productivity can easily be traced to weak business investment, which in turn is a natural response to increased tax and regulatory burdens.
Although extraordinary and wholly-unexpected things have happened over the past 10 years, there is still a logical way to understand what has happened and why. And it follows, therefore, that it is reasonable to assume that things could get a lot better in the future if the Fed continues to slowly unwind QE and the federal government continues to reduce our onerous regulatory and tax burdens.
As it has since 2009, I believe it pays to remain optimistic.