After years of low interest rates and quantitative easing that amounts to more or less printing $4.5T, it would be easy to predict that inflation is bound to rise eventually. More dollars means, by supply and demand, that they have to be worth less, yes?
But the opposite is happening as the US economy charges ahead as the strongest economy in the developed world. While we have stopped stimulating our economy, Japan and Europe are only accelerating their programs. The US is poised to lose the currency war with the strongest currency standing – and a guarantee of lower prices for a lot more than just gasoline in the near future.
If you pay attention to social media, or even just talk amongst your friends, you may have heard some awful things about the economy. Many people, Republican and Democrat, are convinced that things are simply not improving. The feeling tends to be stronger among Republicans, especially Tea Partiers, who believe that socialist policies are still killing us. But the mood crosses party lines rather fluidly.
It boils down to six persistent myths about our economy today. Some are based on old news, taken from horror stories from the depths of this depression around 2010. Some are simply wrong. But all of them reinforce the emotional reason why this is indeed a depression, a dark feeling shared across society. It’s also rather wrong. Let’s run them down.
Now that the Eurozone Crisis is over, we can all breathe a little easier. Right? While it’s good to not be loping along from one crisis to the next, the aftermath of the flood that lasted from 2008-2012 in drips and drops is still being mopped up. The hits are just being absorbed by the banks and growth is going to be sub-par through 2014, meaning that the lingering unemployment problem is not going away.
There are two parts left to this clean-up – what comes next and what can we learn? They are both important and will dominate 2014 in Europe and the developed world.
Barataria has noted before that there are three great forces weighing on the economy today: business cycles, globalization, and demographics (the retirement of the Baby Boom, already starting). Business cycles don’t last forever, and this particularly destructive one should end about the same time the heart of the Baby Boom starts to retire in 2018. The latter is a genuinely double-edged sword, providing opportunities for young people to fill the jobs that open as the burden of retirees on public assistance grows. There is still the potential for a great period of economic expansion in the 2020s if we can manage the downside effectively.
As with everything in economics, a growing economy makes everything easier. But how can we grow the economy through this period if there is a shortage of workers? The missing part of this Managed Depression is, as always, the important policy changes that will set us up for the next economy once this phase of the business cycle is over. One part of this pending in Congress, held up by partisanship, is immigration reform.
In other words, the challenges of globalism present one solution to the challenges of demographics.
The October Jobs Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) came out last Friday, and it was incredibly positive. 204k jobs were added by the official measure, enough to send the stock market up and make everyone happy. Well, not everyone. There were some strange features in this report that only accelerated the criticism of this report that started the month before and sharpened the political debate over jobs in the new economy.
Much of this is long overdue, but some of the criticism was weak and pointless all the same. Labor force participation has fallen from 63.2% of all workers to a 35 year low of 62.8% – a figure that may or may not be important. And anyone paying attention to the ADP Employment report has to question where the great news came from seeing as the latter had a gain of only 130k jobs. What on earth is going on?
The short answer is that everyone is starting to question everything. It’s a good thing – if we can sort it all out. Let’s give it a try.
At what point does public debt become a problem? If you ask many Republicans when the debt hits 90% of GDP we’re in trouble. Given that the Federal Debt is above this level you can see why there is a push for budget control if not outright austerity. But where did that magic figure come from?
The answer is a work by two Harvard economists, Reinhart and Rogoff’s 2010 paper “Growth in a Time of Debt.” But now that this magic number has been debunked in spectacular style, will the call for austerity ease? Given how the sides have retrenched, no way. But it is true that a certain level of debt is indeed a problem – it just isn’t something you can pull from a formula and throw onto autopilot.
What does a future of low economic growth look like? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) economic forecast estimates a real growth (adjusted for inflation) of less than 2% for the foreseeable future. We have discussed before how this pattern is likely to hold through the next generation and around the world as population growth slows and new opportunities will come only through technology improvements.
The implications are vast, if for no other reason than investing and saving for retirement are going to be very different concepts than we have come to expect. Everything changes – and a few things may even change for the better. It’s worth thinking through, and carefully.