The market does not want austerity (now)

If one looks at both nominal and inflation-adjusted treasury yields for the next five years, the market does not think near term austerity is necessary. In fact, it is pretty clear that the market wants more treasury issuance not less, with negative real yields through at least the next five years. With fiscal stimulus being reined in, the market expects the Fed to be the stimulator of last resort (and all the Fed can do is try to promote inflation through bond purchases), hence the gold price is rising as the market expects an even longer period of negative real interest rates.

Our economic problem is simple, we went from a period of over-stimulated and debt-fuelled real estate investment running at 8.5% of GDP to a collapse in real estate investment down to 4% of GDP. The collapse in real estate prices reduced the collateral value on trillions of dollars of loans and forced austerity among consumers.

To deal with the problem we needed only three steps:

  1. Recapitalize the banks to prevent an uncontrolled unwinding of leveraged positions (done);
  2. Increase temporary transfer payments to individuals to prop up consumer spending while savings levels are increased (done, but in danger of being unwound); and
  3. Increased government investment in infrastructure to put the millions of unemployed construction workers to work (not done, we focused on health care instead).

Business investment, exports and consumer spending have been doing fine since we came out of the recession, but the markets are fearing that a pullback in government spending worldwide, combined with continued weakness in real estate investment will tip the scales to recession.

I personally think the odds favor us muddling through for the next year or so and avoiding recession, and that the recent market correction is probably overdone. That does not mean I am calling a bottom, because the momentum could overwhelm the facts on the ground. I do, however, feel ok nibbling at stocks at this level.

With US banks in far better shape than in 2008, I don’t see a mini-replay of that crisis as the major threat to the economy. Europe has major issues, but they are also solvable in due course as long as Germany steps up to the plate. The next crisis may come from exactly where we don’t expect it today: a crash in emerging markets leading to global deflation.


Q4 Economic Growth – Be Happy, but Worry

There is alot to like in the recently announced 5.7% rate of US GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2009. 

While many commentators are brushing it off as a fluke tied to the vagaries of inventory trends, it is actually very normal for inventory swings to account for a good portion of GDP growth when the cycle is first turning.  The question is always whether growth can then get handed off to sustained consumption and private investment after a few quarters.  I think it can, but extreme swings in public policy could theoretically jeapordize the expansion.

The personal consumption number is encouraging, particularly given that consumer credit has been declining.  This implies that we are moving to a sustainable level of spending, complemented by a positive savings rate.  Government transfer payments tied to unemployment insurance and the stimulus package are supporting spending, of course, and my advice would be to withdraw this support only gradually in 2010, if at all.

Net Exports were actually weaker than the real GDP figures reported.  In nominal terms, the trade deficit actually widened as a percent of GDP in Q4.  Petroleum imports increased in nominal terms, but because of rising prices, fell in real terms.  On the flip side, exports grew 25% in nominal terms, meaning world trade is on the rebound and the US can benefit from a strong rebound in the manufacturing and service sectors if it can borrow excess demand from abroad.  Because both the domestic demand and supply of credit is limited, there is reason to be optomistic that exports should expand faster than imports if the dollar stabilizes at current levels.  From a purely economic point of view, it would make sense for the US tom implement policies to reduce its demand for imported oil (to go along with the environmental and security reasons to do so.)  In fact, virtually the entire trade deficit can be traced to the petroleum and auto sectors.

An increase in business investment, on the other hand, was limited purely to high tech equipment.  Traditional industrial and transportation equipment investment remains in the cellar.  There is good reason to expect investment in transportation equipment to rebound from the currently depressed levels not seen since the 1970s in real terms.  Industry, however, suffers from huge levels of excess capacity.  Many sectors of manufacturing got hammered as a whole in the downturn, and had only been skating sideways at best during the expansion of the 2000s.  The most successful manufacturing sectors in the 2000s were high tech, med tech and defense / aerospace which should all continue to thrive, in addition to housing related sectors like wood products, non-metallic minerals, furniture, appliances and fabricated metal products which are highly unlikely to thrive in the intermediate term.  Much of the rebound in manufacturing to date (again, outside of high tech) has been limited to cars, chemicals and steel bouncing from extremely depressed levels to just merely depressed.

Residential real estate investment has clearly bottomed and has added modestly to GDP in the last two quarters.  As a percent of GDP, however, it is at the lowest level since World War II.  Commercial real estate investment continues to plunge, which can be expected for another couple of quarters before bottoming out at record low levels of GDP as well.  Credit conditions, slowing demographics and recent over-investment will all conspire to keep real estate investment at record low levels for at least the intermediate term.

The huge excess capacity in construction workers and construction-related manufacturing leads me to continue to stress how beneficial it would be to focus additional stimulus on infrastructure spending.  These workers can not easily be retrained for health care, education and high tech office jobs.  The country has been behind on such spending anyway, so it would not be Japan-style "bridge-to-nowhere" investment as long as Congress can be reined in.  For this reason I like the "infrastructure bank" idea that takes some of the planning out of the hands of Congressional pork-meisters.

US Indebtedness as a percentage of GDP actually declined in Q3 from 359% to 355%, due primarily to a decline in financial sector debt.  Household and business debt each declined in Q3 as well, but were offset by an increase in US government debt, which increased to 53%, up from 36% at the start of the recession.  In general, I expect this trend continued in Q4 as well, as the US offsets private deleveraging with public borrowing.

In conclusion, the strong parts of the economy (high tech, aerospace, health care and education) are now in expansion mode, and the extractive industries (farming, mining, energy) are likely to join soon.  Those manufacturing sectors exposed to export markets like industrial equipment (think Caterpillar) should resume growth as well unless there is a major economic crisis in the emerging markets.   "Old economy" manufacturing and real estate investment remain a problem and are likely to remain so without increased infrastructure investment.  The trick for policy makers is to transition from a period of broad stimulus to one of consumer and government belt-tightening while letting business investment, infrastructure spending and exports become the primary economic growth drivers.  It would be a neat trick, indeed.

Invest in infrastructure to stimulate jobs

Clearly, today most Americans would identify the weak job market as the biggest problem facing the country today. While the job market will recover on its own eventually, there is a desire in many quarters to roll out a second stimulus package to promote job growth. As Paul Krugman noted in a recent NYT opinion piece, the standard American approach to stimulus is to focus on expanding the economy as a whole with the assumption that jobs will follow. The traditional approach makes a great deal of sense during a run-of-the-mill recession. The problem today is that some of the dislocations in the economy and job market are so large, it could take many years to retrain and relocate the unemployed, particularly among the large pool of unemployed manufacturing and construction workers. In addition, the downturn in employment in construction and manufacturing are the result of long term or secular trends, not purely cyclical unemployment. To stimulate jobs among this large pool of unemployed workers, we should increase our investment in infrastructure on a sustained, multi-year basis.

"Blue collar" job losses

Of the 6.7 million jobs lost in the United States since 2007, nearly 58% were lost in construction and manufacturing. These largely male, "blue collar" occupations have seen such large losses that women now make up more than 50% of the workforce for the first time in history. Over 2.2 million jobs have been lost in manufacturing, but as can be seen in the chart below, the decline of manufacturing (dark green line) as a share of employment is in line with the historical trend. Manufacturing employment as a percent of total non-farm employment has fallen pretty much in a straight line from about a third at the end of World War II to under 10% today. As I have written previously (see here), this decline is due primarily to the consistent increase in manufacturing productivity. Manufacturing production has continued to grow and has largely maintained its share of GDP, even while employment has plunged. In other words, even if there was a large rebound in manufacturing, the vast majority of manufacturing jobs that have been lost in the last decade are never coming back.

Chart 1: Employment by Sector as a % of total Non-Farm Employment

                    Source:, author's calculations

Construction employment (the maroon line) has consistently run at around 5% of the total workforce since World War II. The 5% number makes sense, and is in line with the long term trend in real estate investment, which has run at about 5% of GDP as well.

Chart 2: Private Investment to Nominal GDP


                   Source:, author's calculations

Chart 2 shows the annual numbers through 2008, and 2009 will show a further plunge in private investment in both business equipment and real estate. In addition, given slower demographic growth and the large overhang of unsold homes, potential foreclosures and homeowners in negative equity situations, there is no reason to expect a strong rebound in real estate investment anytime in the next five years.

Where will new jobs come from?

On Chart 1 we can see that there has been a secular increase in the share of jobs going toward "white collar" occupations like health & education (orange line), business & professional services (office & tech jobs, pink line) and leisure & hospitality (light purple line). Of these careers, health, education and non-administrative office jobs tend to require time-consuming and expensive training, and it's hard to envision the government laying out a vision of promoting employment in leisure & hospitality jobs as the route to a strong America.

Having a large pool of angry, unemployed men does not for pleasant politics make. The traditional US government approach of using tax cuts and interest rate cuts to stimulate private spending and investment will not work in the near term (for reasons I outline here). For reasons I won't get into in this article, it also appears that the world economic system is not quite ready to be geared toward stimulating US export growth and trade surpluses. That leaves the US government directly stimulating demand.

Invest in infrastructure

In normal circumstances, I am not one to argue for more government intervention in the economy. However, these are certainly not normal circumstances. I am advocating the government committing to a sustained, multi-year program of increased investment in the nation's infrastructure as a way of both directly creating demand and stimulating private investment. I am not advocating a boondoggle like the stimulus bill from early this year. The US needs to target infrastructure investments that directly improve the long-term productivity of the US workforce by laying out a long-term plan and set of priorities. The investment should have the following goals:

  1. Reduce the amount of time and energy Americans spend commuting (investment in commuter rail, highways and bridges)
  2. Increase the efficiency of moving people and goods around the country (investment in rail, a new air traffic control system, highways, bridges)
  3. Reduce our reliance on imported energy (investment in wind, solar, nuclear, transmission grid, battery technology)
  4. Increase broadband capacity and penetration (invest in rural and wireless broadband)

If carried out in a thoughtful way (i.e. not driven by parochial real estate interests), such a program would make America stronger in the long term while creating near term construction jobs and stimulating domestic manufacturing.