- The Obama Recovery. The U.S. economy was in free fall in late 2008, whether measured by GDP statistics, the monthly jobs numbers, or inter-bank spreads. Was the end of the recession in mid-2009 attributable to policies adopted by President Obama? A full evaluation of that question to economists’ standards would require delving into the complexity of mathematical models. The public generally has a simpler standard: was the impact big enough to be visible to the naked eye? Amazingly, the answer is “yes.” Whichever of those statistics one looks at, and whether it is coincidence or not: the economic free-fall ended almost precisely the month that Obama took office, January 2009.
- Emerging markets have generally had much better economic fundamentals over the last decade than advanced economies. For example, one third of developing countries have succeeded in breaking the historical syndrome of procyclical (destabilizing) fiscal policy. For the first time, they took advantage of the boom of 2003-08 to strengthen their budget balances, which allowed a fiscal easing when the global recession hit in 2008-09.
- The 15-year cycle in EMs. Market swings that start out based firmly on fundamentals can eventually go too far. Some emerging markets like Turkey look vulnerable this year. A crash would fit the biblical pattern: seven fat years, followed by seven lean years. Here are the last three cycles of capital flows to developing countries:
- 1975-81: 7 fat years (”recycling petrodollars”)
- 1982: crash (the international debt crisis)
- 1983-1989: 7 lean years (the “Lost Decade” in Latin America)
- 1990-1996: 7 fat years (Emerging Market boom)
- 1997: crash (the East Asia crisis)
- 1997-2003: 7 lean years (currency crises spread globally)
- 2003-2011: 7 fat years (the triumph of the BRICs)
- 2012: ?
Archive for the ‘recession’ Category
This morning the Bureau of Economic Analysis released its first estimate for 2011 GDP. It showed national output for the first time surpassing the pre-recession peak, which occurred in the last quarter of 2007. (See chart below) The expansion in 2011 was led by autos, computers, and other manufactured goods.
Given that the economy hit its trough in mid-2009, the long slow climb since then has been disappointing. The outcome turns out to have been worse than the conventional wisdom that sharp declines tend to be followed by sharp recoveries. On the other hand, the outcome turns out to have been somewhat better than the Reinhart-Rogoff thesis that when the cause of a recession is a financial crisis, the recovery tends to take many years.
To be sure, the housing market has yet to recover and households are still painstakingly rebuilding their battered balance sheets. But is this the complete explanation for the disappointing state of the economy — the origins of the crisis in a housing bubble and financial collapse?
The first point to note is that the biggest single reason why the level of GDP over the last three years has been lower than most people forecast in January 2009 has nothing to do with overly optimistic forecasts in January 2009 of the rate of growth looking forward, nor with how good or bad Obama’s policy proposals were, nor with how effective the Republicans turned out to be at blocking them. The BEA subsequently revised the GDP statistics substantially downward, and now reports that the real growth rate of the economy in the last quarter of the Bush Administration, instead of negative 3.8% per annum as reported that January, was in fact negative 8.9% per annum! The trough of the V was far deeper than was realized at the time.
The second point to note is that construction, which usually helps lead the economy out of a recession, remained, indeed had a strong negative influence on GDP throughour 2006-2010. Fortunately, in the latest figures, residential construction finally returned to a (small) positive source of growth in the economy over the last three quarters.
The third point to note is that the government sector has been the one component of demand to exert a substantial negative effect througout the last five quarters. The reason is the withdrawal of fiscal stimulus at the federal level, at a time when state and local governments are also cutting back sharply on spending and employment.
Obama’s slogan for the SOTU last night, “An Economy Built to Last,” was a way of referring to one of the accomplishments of his first years: successfully reviving the auto industry, which many had said couldn’t be done without nationalizing it. References to other accomplishments were stated more quickly, such as national security (withdrawal from Iraq, disposing of Osama bin Laden) or more obliquely, such as health care reform, financial reform, and arresting the freefall of the economy that Obama inherited in January 2009 (via fiscal stimulus and TARP - both of which are not especially popular programs).
I realize of course that some will not view these as true “accomplishments.” They will argue that we should have let the auto industry go bankrupt, or should have spent another 10 years in Iraq, or that bin Laden was deprived of his human rights, or that the Dodd-Frank bill went too far in financial regulation (or not far enough), or that a federal effort to reduce unnecessary hospital infections constitutes “socialism” or “death panels.” But most Americans wanted these policies.
Evidently the President also has in mind reducing American dependence on imported oil. And slowing the big rise in income inequality, in part by allowing to expire on schedule the tax cuts on the top earners like Mitt Romney that ten years ago brought their tax rates down to 15%.
To me, the phrase “built to last” suggests that the medium-term goal is economic growth that resembles the record expansion of the late 1990s, which was driven by expanding exports, technology, and private sector employment. This would be an improvement over the unsustainable finance-based economic expansion of the 2002-2007, or those of the 1960s, 70s or 80s; they were built on easy monetary or fiscal policy and an expanding government sector, and thus contained the seeds of their own destruction when inflation, debts and asset prices got out of control.
Indeed, as inadequate as the current economic recovery has been, the expansion of private sector jobs over the two years has exceeded the rate during the Bush Administration (when the government sector was the primary source of what limited job creation there was). This comparison holds even if one excludes the two recessions at the beginning and end of the 8-year Bush period, as the graph shows.
[TV clip, Post Mortem on the State of the Union Message," BNN," 2012.]
Emerging markets have performed amazingly well over the last seven years. They have outperformed the advanced industrialized countries in terms of economic growth, debt-to-GDP ratios, and countercyclical fiscal policy. Many now receive better assessments by rating agencies and financial markets than some of the advanced economies.
As 2012 begins, however, emerging markets may be due for a correction, triggered by a new wave of “risk off” behavior among investors. Will China experience a hard landing? Will a decline in commodity prices hit Latin America? Will the sovereign-debt woes of the European periphery spread to neighbors such as Turkey in a new “Aegean crisis”?
Engorged by large capital inflows, some emerging market countries were in an overheated state a year ago. It is unlikely that the rapid economic growth and high trade deficits that Turkey has experienced in recent years can be sustained. Likewise, high GDP growth rates in Brazil and Argentina over the same period could soon reverse, particularly if global commodity prices fall - not a remote prospect if the Chinese economy falters or global real interest rates were to rise this year. China, for its part, could land hard as its real-estate bubble deflates and the country’s banks are forced to work off their bad loans.
The World Bank has now downgraded economic forecasts for developing countries in 2012 (Global Economic Prospects, Jan.18, 2012). Brazil’s economic growth, for example, came to a halt in the third quarter of 2011 and is forecast at only 3.4 percent in 2012 …well below the rapid 2010 growth rate of 7.5 percent. Reflecting a sharp slowdown in the second half of the year in India, South Asia is coming off of a torrid six years, including 9.1 percent growth in 2010. Regional growth is projected to ease further to 5.8 percent in 2012.
But will economic slowdown turn to financial crash? Three possible lines of argument support the worry that emerging markets’ performance are fated to suffer dramatically in 2012: empirical, literary, and causal. Each line of argument is admittedly tentative.
The empirical argument is just historically based numerology: emerging-market crises seem to come in 15-year cycles. The international debt crisis surfaced in Mexico in mid-1982, and then spread to the rest of Latin America and beyond. The East Asian crisis erupted 15 years later, in Thailand in mid-1997, and then spread to the rest of the region and beyond. We are now another 15 years down the road. So is 2012 the time for the third round of emerging markets crises?
The hypothesis of regular boom-bust cycles is supported by a long-standing scholarly literature, such as the writings of Carmen Reinhart. But I would appeal to an even older source: the Old Testament - in particular, the story of Joseph, who was called upon by the Pharaoh to interpret a dream about seven fat cows followed by seven skinny cows.
Joseph prophesied that there would come seven years of plenty, with abundant harvests from an overflowing Nile, followed by seven lean years, with famine resulting from drought. His forecast turned out to be accurate. Fortunately the Pharaoh had empowered his technocratic official (Joseph) to save grain in the seven years of plenty, building up sufficient stockpiles to save the Egyptian people from starvation during the bad years. That is a valuable lesson for today’s government officials in industrialized and developing countries alike.
For emerging markets, the first phase of seven years of plentiful capital flows occurred in 1975-1981, with the recycling of petrodollars in the form of loans to developing countries. The international debt crisis that began in Mexico in 1982 was the catalyst for the seven lean years, known in Latin America as the “lost decade.” The turnaround year, 1989, was marked by the first issue of Brady bonds, which helped write down the debt overhang and put a line under the crisis.
The second cycle of seven fat years was the period of record capital flows to emerging markets in 1990-1996. Following the 1997 “sudden stop” in East Asia came seven years of capital drought. The third cycle of inflows, often identified as a “carry trade,” came in 2004-2011 and persisted even through the global financial crisis. If history repeats itself, it is now time for a third sudden stop of capital flows to emerging markets.
Are a couple of data points and a biblical parable enough to take the hypothesis of a 15-year cycle seriously? We need some sort of causal theory that could explain such periodicity to international capital flows.
Here is a possibility: 15 years is how long it takes for individual loan officers and hedge-fund traders to be promoted out of their jobs. Today’s young crop of asset pickers knows that there was a crisis in Turkey in 2001, but they did not experience it first hand. They think that perhaps this time is different.
If emerging markets crash in 2012, remember where you heard it first - in ancient Egypt.
THE BIGGEST THREAT TO THE GLOBAL ECONOMY IS …
Anti-market bias. -Bryan Caplan • Procrastination. -Peter Diamond • Short-term thinking. -Esther Dyson • A euro meltdown. -Dean Baker • Tax-cut fanatics. -Jeffrey Frankel • The bond market. -Andy Sumner •
MY OUT-OF-THE-BOX SUGGESTION TO REVIVE THE GLOBAL ECONOMY IS
Wipe out debts. -Daron Acemoglu • Require candidates for national office to pass ninth-grade tests on arithmetic, history, and geography. -Jeffrey Frankel • Double down on science. -Tyler Cowen • A government lottery where winners have mortgages, student loans, or other debt paid off. -Mark Thoma • We don’t need “out-of-the-box” solutions; we need “head-out-of-the-sand” ones. -Adam Hersh • Pray. -David Smick
BARACK OBAMA’S BIGGEST ECONOMIC MISTAKE HAS BEEN …
Letting Larry Summers go. -Gary Hufbauer • Not reorganizing the big banks. —David Smick • Trying too hard to find common ground with an opposition that won’t compromise on any terms. -Vincent Crawford • Assuming office in January 2009. -Jeffrey Frankel
OCCUPY WALL STREET IS …
A misdirected tantrum. -Philip Levy • A harmless pastime for unemployed youth. -Gary Hufbauer • Reasonable complaints about crony capitalism plus self-righteous economic illiteracy. -Bryan Caplan
BY ELECTION DAY 2012, THE U.S. ECONOMY WILL BE …
Improving, but leaving many people behind. -Arnold Kling . Limping along, with unemployment declining but still around 8 percent. -Daron Acemoglu . Blamed for the outcome. -Jeffrey Frankel
ECONOMISTS SHOULD BE PAYING MORE ATTENTION TO …
How people actually behave rather than how they are idealized to behave. -Abhijit Banerjee • Corporate governance. -Peter Diamond • The fact that macroeconomic theory went up a blind alley some 20 years ago. -Jeffrey Frankel • Creeping protectionism across the global economy. -Gary Hufbauer • The impediments to job creation for young people. -Valerie Ramey • Reality. -James D. Hamilton
The Fed has come in for a surprising amount of criticism since its decision in the fall of 2010 to launch a new round of monetary easing — Quantitative Easing 2. Ben Bernanke and his colleagues are right not to give in to these attacks.
Critiques seem to be of four sorts. (Some are mutually exclusive.)
1) “QE is weird.” Quantitative Easing entails the central bank buying a somewhat wider range of securities than the traditional short-term Treasury bills that are the usual focus of the Fed’s open market operations. This has been a bold strategy, which nobody would have predicted 3 or 4 years ago. But it has been appropriate to the equally unexpected financial crisis and recession. Some who find QE alarmingly non-standard may not realize that other central banks do this sort of thing, and that the US authorities themselves did it in the more distant past. It is amusing to recall that when Ben Bernanke was first appointed Chairman, some reacted “He is a fine economist, but he doesn’t have the market experience of a Wall Street type.” The irony is that nobody who had spent his or her career on Wall Street would have had the relevant experience to deal with the shocks of the last three years, since none of them were there in the 1930s. But as an economic historian, Bernanke had just the broader perspective that was needed. Thank heaven he did.
2) “Monetary easing under current circumstances has no effect.” It is true that, with short-term interest rates already near zero for the last two years, further monetary expansion is likely to be of less help than in a normal recession. (The classic “liquidity trap” has been re-born as the “zero lower bound.”) But monetary policy can work through other channels besides short-term interest rates. Seven such mechanisms are: long-term interest rates, expected inflation, the exchange rate, equity prices, real estate prices, commodity prices, and the credit channel. QE is worth a try, given that the economy is still weak and given the constraints that keep fiscal policy sub-optimal.
3) “Monetary ease will lead to inflation. What we need now, if anything, is monetary tightening.” This is the view, for example, expressed recently by some conservative economists, including John Taylor. It seems to me way off base. With unemployment far above the natural rate, GDP well below potential, and inflation (slightly) below target, it is clear that the Fed’s November 3 decision to ease further was appropriate.
4) “The Fed is firing a volley in a destructive international currency war.” This is the criticism that has come from some of our trading partners: in particular, China, Germany and Brazil. I don’t generally do “My country, right or wrong.” But my country is right on this one. Monetary easing is not a beggar-thy-neighbor policy. The colorful phrase “currency wars“ seems to have confused some people. The current situation is precisely the point of floating exchange rates: when some countries feel that their high unemployment calls for monetary expansion (US) at the same time that others feel that their overheating calls for monetary tightening (Brazil, India, Korea, China…), an appreciation of the latter currencies against the former is precisely the way that floating rates accommodate the differences. This is why Milton Friedman favored floating rates, so that each country could pursue its own desired policies independently. I realize that the pressure which US monetary easing puts on countries like China to allow appreciation is unwelcome. China is finding it increasingly difficult to cling to its exchange rate target by means of controls on capital inflows and sterilized foreign exchange intervention. But capital flows are a far more legitimate way to let China feel the pressure than the alternative: Congressional threats to impose WTO-inconsistent tariffs on Chinese imports if it won’t allow faster appreciation of the yuan.
I was glad to see that today’s decision by the Federal Open Market Committee to stay the course was unanimous. The Fed is right not to give in to misguided criticisms. This is what we have central bank independence for.
[Comments can be posted on the Belfer site.]
December 31 is technically the end of the first decade of the 21st century. It is perhaps an appropriate time to review one’s predictions. It seems to me that I got some things right over the last decade. Indulge me while I review the predictions that came true, before turning to those that did not work out as well.
Stock market peak At the end of the 1990s, I felt that the dizzying ascent of equity prices could not continue into the new decade, that there was “…a bubble component in the stock market” (Nov. 20, 1999). This was four months before the bubble burst in 2000. So far so good.
The Euro Also at the start of the decade, I thought the european currency was undervalued. My prophesy: “… there will be a major appreciation of the euro against the dollar” (June 21, 2000). Over the next eight years the euro in fact rose 60% in value. (But, incidentally, ”I don’t mean to express an optimistic forecast regarding European economics or governance…. Europeans have made many mistakes, the leaders and public alike.” 2006.)
The Yen In January 2008, I wrote about “…the carry from the yen to the euro: it has been predictably profitable for the last five years, and this will predictably end soon, as the yen reverses its depreciation against the euro.” (”Getting Carried Away: How the Carry Trade and Its Potential Unwinding Can Explain Movements in International Financial Markets,” Milken Institute Review 10, no.1, pp.38-45) By November 2008 the yen had sharply reversed, precisely in the way predicted.
The big economic story of the decade of course was its second recession, the worst in 70 years, and the severe financial crisis that caused it. A number of economists got important parts of the 2007-09 crisis right ahead of time (although nobody got all of it right). I give credit in particular to Krugman, Shiller, Gramlich, Rajan, Borio and White at the BIS, Rogoff, and Roubini. A 2009 paper identifies 12 commentators as having warned that the US housing market would end in a serious recession.
What parts of the crisis did I get right?
Severity of 2008-09 recession After the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, I predicted that spending growth and deficits would rise rather than fall, and that the legacy of high debt would mean that the next recession would be longer and more severe than past recessions:
”Good economic logic does not support the idea that Bush fiscal policies caused the weak economy of the last three years. Good economic logic supports, rather, a causal link between Bush fiscal policies and the next recession. The future downturn is likely to be far worse than the recent one…They also created long-range uncertainty that makes planning difficult (nobody from either party expects the relevant tax law to remain as it is currently written)… It is impossible to say when the next recession will come. But when it does, it is likely to be worse than the 2001 recession. Why? Precisely because we will enter it at a time when the budget deficit and national debt are already alarmingly high…Thus when the next recession hits, we will not have luxury of being able to cut taxes and increase spending as George II has done. … The resulting pain will make the economic travails of George II’s first term pale in comparison…” (Oct. 30, 2003. Also Dec.2003 and Nov.2004).
I said it again as the downturn began:”… if the economy does go into a recession, Mr. Frankel says, “it is likely to be worse than the last one” (WSJ, 1/21/2008).
That seems to me precisely what happened.
Budget deficits At the start of the decade: “We need to think about using our budget surplus to provide for the retirement of the baby boom generation, not to blow it on a big tax cut” (May 16, 2001). But of course the Administration chose the latter policy. Like many others, I continued throughout the decade to warn that fiscal policy was irresponsible. The “White House forecast of cutting budget deficit in half by 2009 will not be met,” and “Further, the much more serious deterioration will start after 2009.” (May 24, 2006.) Indeed.
Market underestimation of risk I was dubious of the “Great Moderation.” By 2006, I was warning frequently of serious risks facing the economy, arguing that even though the odds of each sort of possible setback were small in any given year, the cumulative probability that at least one of them would hit the economy over the next couple of years was relatively high. (May 24, 2006.) The markets were underestimating this risk:
”How can the implied volatility in options prices be so low? Perhaps investors are judging risk solely from the statistics of recent history, and not from a forward-looking open-eyed consideration of the risks facing the global economy.” (Nov. 2006.) “The implicit volatilities in options prices are substantially too low, and will rise. … market estimates of risk are lower than they should be. … the market is basing its perception of risk on recent history, not on a forward-looking assessment of the risks facing the US and global economies. Such risks include further falls in housing or rises in oil, a hard landing for the dollar, and geopolitical risks arising from the Middle East.” (Jan.12, 2007. And again, May 14, 2007.)
The VIX (the CBOE index of market-expected volatility) was close to 10 when that was written. It was to go as high as 80 when the full financial crisis hit in 2008.
The carry trade “should be reversing.” (Jan.12, 2007.) Market perceptions of risk had “fallen to irrational lows, as reflected in the low interest rates at which governments of developing countries, unqualified American homebuyers and high-risk businesses could borrow money.” (Nov.19, 2007, and Jan. 2008.)
International crises When asked “Have financial developments made the International Monetary Fund obsolete?” my answer was “The IMF is by no means obsolete. …. It is foolhardy to think, just because emerging market spreads have been very low recently, that there will be no more crises in the future.” (March 1, 2007) I identified Hungary and other Eastern European countries as particularly vulnerable. (Jan. 2008.)
The coming financial crash The comments I made at a Cato conference held in November 2006, shortly before the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit in 2007, look good now:
”The Greenspan Fed probably erred by providing too much liquidity in 2001-2004….If the Fed erred in keeping interest rates so low so long after the 2001 recession, what cost are we paying? None yet; but dangers lie in the future. It is not that I am especially worried about inflation at the moment. … what cost do I fear might come from the extraordinarily easy monetary policy of 2001-04? As the Bank for International Settlements points out, some of the biggest financial crashes and some of the longest recession periods have followed liquidity-fed booms that never did show up as goods inflation, but rather as asset inflation…” (In Responding to Crises, Cato Journal, Spring 2007.)
Housing Of the various asset markets, housing was the area where policy had most clearly gone awry. I had long thought “that some people were being pushed to buy houses who couldn’t afford it, that (mirabile dictu) there was such a thing as too high a rate of national homeownership, and that the default rate would shoot up as soon as real interest rates rose or house prices stopped rising.” (March 26, 2007.) “Many people bought houses they could not afford unless prices continued to rise rapidly or real interest rates remained extraordinarily low, which predictably did not happen.” (April 28, 2007.)
The start of the recession “[A]t the time of writing [Jan. 2008], the United States appeared to be poised on the brink of recession….A coming recession may be more severe and long-lasting than the last one in 2001….” By May 2008 I had figured out that a recession was indeed probably underway– at a time when some Administration officials were still ruling it out and indeed GDP figures appeared to show positive growth in the first part of that year.
Banking crisis resolution When the Obama Administration announced its revised form of the Bush Administration’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, I argued that maybe they actually knew what they were doing and that the plan should be given a chance to work. (March 23, 2009.) I felt pretty isolated. Others attacked the plan, from both left and right. They expected Tim Geithner’s stress tests to be phony. The critics were sure that the taxpayer would end up paying hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the banks. They wanted either to nationalize the banks or leave everything to the free market. As things developed, however, financial collapse was averted without nationalization and the banks have since repaid the Treasury with interest.
The trough Financial markets stabilized in the first half of 2009. Turnarounds in the rates of growth and job loss led me to believe in the summer of 2009 that the economy had probably hit bottom by then. This turns out in fact to have been the case: The record shows that the recession ended that June.
Predictions gone wrong Needless to say, I got plenty wrong in the decade as well. For one thing, I kept expecting U.S. long-term interest rates to rise, because of the alarming long-term fiscal profile. Yet the bond market correction never came. For another thing, based on econometric estimation of reserve currency holdings, Menzie Chinn and I projected that the euro might eventually rival the dollar in international currency use by 2015 or 2022. It now seems unlikely. I certainly thought that the sort of financial crisis that began in the U.S. in 2007-08 would be accompanied by a fall in the dollar. Yet flows into the U.S. showed that the dollar is still a safe haven. For this reason I abandoned my euro-bullishness, even before the mismanaged Greek crisis in early 2010.
My most spectacularly wrong predictions were all in the area of politics. I had thought that if any presidential candidate gained the White House without winning the popular vote, his entire term would be consumed by divisive efforts to reform the Electoral College. (This did not happen after January 2001.) I had thought that if a high-casualty international terrorist attack hit the U.S. (September 11, 2001), American foreign policy would thereafter become ruled less by jingoism and more by expertise. (Not!) In 2008 I suspected that a Democrat who was perceived as a northern liberal could not be elected president. (Wrong again.)
In the coming decade, I resolve to eschew political forecasts, and stick to economics.
[Comments can be posted on the Belfer site.]
During much of the last decade, U.S. fiscal policy has been procyclical, that is, destabilizing. We wasted the opportunity of the 2003-07 expansion by running large budget deficits. As a result, in 2010, Washington now feels constrained by inherited debts to withdraw fiscal stimulus at a time when unemployment is still high. Fiscal policy in the UK and other European countries has been even more destabilizing over the last decade. Governments decide to expand when the economy is strong and then contract when it is weak, thereby exacerbating the business cycle.
Meanwhile, some emerging market and developing countries have learned how to run countercyclical fiscal policy - saving in the boom and easing in the recession - during the same decade that we advanced countries have forgotten how to.
The frenetic debate at any moment for or against “fiscal conservatism” is artificial. It is not the right answer always to shrink any more than it is the right answer always to expand. Americans should take a perspective longer than the annual budget cycle or the bi-annual electoral cycle, let alone the daily news cycle. When the United States was able to take advantage of the long 1992-2000 boom to eliminate its budget deficit, the key legislation had been enacted in 1990 and 1993. Similarly, the big deficits of the last ten years were created by the legislation of 2001 and 2003. Bringing back far-sighted fiscal policy would mean taking steps today to lock in long-term progress toward fiscal responsibility (such as enacting social security reform) but at the same time extending last year’s short-term fiscal stimulus so long as the economy is still weak.
It might help to have ways to insulate fiscal policy from some of the wilder vagaries of politics. I came away from a conference in Chile recently, impressed anew by that country’s accomplishments. It has achieved countercyclical fiscal policy over the last ten years by means of some innovative institutions. Chile has a rule that targets the structural budget balance. In other words, it can only run a deficit to the extent that GDP and the price of copper are below their long-run trends. But a structural budget rule is not enough in itself. Who is to say which deficits are structural and which are temporary? Chile’s key innovation ten years ago was to vest responsibility for determining the long-run trends in GDP and copper prices in two panels of independent experts. Why does this matter? One reason that politicians spend too much in booms is that they convince themselves that deficits are temporary even when they are really structural. Officials in the US and Europe made overly-optimistic forecasts of future growth rates and tax revenues during the 2001-07 expansion. Research shows that this is a systematic pattern. The biased forecasts contributed to unaffordable tax cuts and accelerated spending, which in turn spelled excessive deficits and debts. Today we are living with the consequences of this procyclicality.
[For comments, go to SeekingAlpha.]
The NBER’s Business Cycle Dating Committee, of which I am a member, announced this morning that June 2009 was the trough of the recession that began in December 2007. It was the longest recession since the 1930s.
It is the fate of the Committee to be teased mercilessly every time we make one of our formal declarations of a turning point in the economy. We get it from both directions: We waited too late to call the end of the recession, or we did it too early. (Occasionally someone makes both criticisms simultaneously!) Even The Daily Show got in on the fun this time.
On the one hand, people say “Who needs the NBER to tell us what we already knew?” It is true that GDP has been expanding for 5 quarters now, and that most economists have therefore considered the recession over for some time. But it is not that easy to call the precise trough, for several reasons: different indicators say different things regarding the precise date of the bottom, data get revised, and we could not have been confident until now that a hypothetical new downturn would count as a second recession instead of a continuation of the first one. Does the 15-month lag in this announcement seem like a long time? It took us 18 months to declare the end of the preceding recession (2001).
On the other hand, people say “It doesn’t feel like the recession is over to me or to people I know. How can the NBER be so out of touch?” The main answer, here: The proposition that the recession is over is only a statement that things are no longer getting worse; it is not a statement that we are back to good times. The economy still feels bad for good reason: it is bad. In particular the unemployment rate is still very high. But things are much better now than they were 18 months ago, when the economy was in freefall, or in mid-2009, when we were at the bottom of the worst downturn since the Great Depression. It takes a long time to emerge fully from a hole that deep. And, to be sure, the current pace of the expansion is disappointingly slow, especially with respect to jobs. But GDP and employment are, at least, rising.
The other question that we are asked the most is whether one should worry about a double dip recession. The NBER does not forecast. I can speak only for myself. The possibility of a new downturn is indeed a concern, especially because Washington has been unable to deliver a sensible fiscal response. (A sensible policy in my view would consist of some more stimulus, as in February 2009, designed to maximize bang-for-the-buck, coupled with simultaneous steps to move the long-term fiscal path back toward responsibility, such as social security reform). But even without an appropriate fiscal response, I am optimistic that we can avoid sliding back into a second outright recession. More likely, we will have a slow continuation of the current (inadequate) recovery.
The NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee this morning posted an announcement that it had met in person April 8 - an infrequent event - but that it had not yet decided to call the trough in the recession that began in December 2007. The meeting has led to lots of questions from the press over the weekend, for stories that appeared today, and then more questions today in response to those stories. Here are some of the questions that have come up the most often, and my own personal answers, speaking for myself and not the Committee of which I am a member. (more…)