GDP Retains Pre-Recesssion Peak

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.

“Build To Last” – A Reaction To Obama’s State Of The Union Message

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.]

Will Emerging Markets Fall In 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.

[This article was published in Project Syndicate, which holds the copyright.]

Barack Obama’s Biggest Economic Mistake Has Been…

In the current issue of Foreign Policy, the editors of the FP Survey ask “top experts” for pithy solutions to the world’s economic problems, “twitter style.”  Some of the answers:

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 •

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

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

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

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

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