The Growing Fiscal Deficit, the Keynesian Stimulus Policies of Trump, and the FY20/21 Budget Agreement

A.  The Growing Fiscal Deficit Under Trump

Donald Trump, when campaigning for office, promised that he would “quickly” drive down the fiscal deficit to zero.  Few serious analysts believed that he would get it all the way to zero during his term in office, but many assumed that he would at least try to reduce the deficit by some amount.  And this clearly should have been possible, had he sought to do so, when Republicans were in full control of both the House and the Senate, as well as the presidency.

That has not happened.  The deficit has grown markedly, despite the economy being at full employment, and is expected to top $1 trillion this year, reaching over 5% of GDP.  This is unprecedented in peacetime.  Never before in US history, other than during World War II, has the federal deficit hit 5% of GDP with the economy at full employment.  Indeed, the fiscal deficit has never even reached 4% of GDP at a time of full employment (other than, again, World War II).

The chart at the top of this post shows what has happened.  The deficit is the difference between what the government spends (shown as the line in blue) and the revenues it receives (the line in green).  The deficit grew markedly following the financial and economic collapse in the last year of the Bush administration.  A combination of higher government spending and lower taxes (lower both because the economy was depressed but also from legislated tax cuts) were then necessary to stabilize the economy.  As the economy recovered the fiscal deficit then narrowed.  But it is now widening again, and as noted above, is expected to top $1 trillion dollars in FY2019 (which ends on September 30).

More precisely, the US Treasury publishes monthly a detailed report on what the federal government received in revenues and what was spent in outlays for that month and for up to that point in the fiscal year.  See here for the June report, and here for previous monthly reports.  It includes a forecast of what will be received and spent for the fiscal year as a whole, and hence what the deficit will be, based on the budget report released each spring, usually in March.  For FY2019, the forecast was of a deficit of $1.092 trillion.  But these are forecasts, and comparing the forecasts made to the actuals realized over the last three fiscal years (FY2016 to18), government outlays were on average overestimated by 2.0% and government revenues by 2.2%.  These are similar, and scaling the forecasts of government outlays and government revenues down by these ratios, the deficit would end up at $1.075 trillion.  I used these scaled figures in the chart above.

The widening in the deficit in recent years is evident.  The interesting question is why.  For this one needs counterfactuals, of what the figures would have been if some alternative decisions had been made.

For government revenues (taxes of various kinds), the curve in orange show what they would have been had taxes remained at the same shares of the relevant income (depending on the tax) as they were in FY2016.  Specifically, individual income taxes were kept at a constant share of personal income (as defined and estimated in the National Income and Product Accounts, or NIPA accounts, assembled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, or BEA, of the US Department of Commerce); corporate profit taxes were kept at a constant share of corporate profits (as estimated in the NIPA accounts); payroll taxes (primarily Social Security taxes) were kept at a constant share of compensation of employees (again from the NIPA accounts); and all other taxes were kept at a constant share of GDP.  The NIPA accounts (often referred to as the GDP accounts) are available through the second quarter of CY2019, and hence are not yet available for the final quarter of FY2019 (which ends September 30, and hence includes the third quarter of CY2019).  For this, I extrapolated the final quarter’s figures based on what growth had been over the preceding four quarters.

Note also that the base year here (FY2016) already shows a flattening in tax revenues.  If I had used the tax shares of FY2015 as a base for the comparison, the tax losses in the years since then would have been even greater.  Various factors account for the flattening of tax revenues in FY2016, including (according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office) passage by Congress of Public Law 114-113 in December 2015, that allowed for a more rapid acceleration of depreciation allowances for investment by businesses.  This had the effect of reducing corporate profit taxes substantially in FY2016.

Had taxes remained at the shares of the relevant income as they were in FY2016, tax revenues would have grown, following the path of the orange curve.  Instead, they were flat in nominal dollar amount (the green curve), indicating they were falling in real terms as well as a share of income.  The largest loss in revenues stemmed from the major tax cut pushed through Congress in December 2017, which took effect on January 1, 2018.  Hence it applied over three of the four quarters in FY2018, and for all of FY2019.

An increase in government spending is also now leading, in FY2019, to a widening of the deficit.  Again, one needs to define a counterfactual for the comparison.  For this I assumed that government spending during Trump’s term in office so far would have grown at the same rate as it had during Obama’s eight years in office (the rate of increase from FY2008 to 16).  That rate of increase during Obama’s two terms was 3.2% a year (in nominal terms), and was substantially less than during Bush’s two terms (which was a 6.6% rate of growth per year).

The rate of growth in government spending in the first two years of Trump’s term (FY2017 and 2018) then almost exactly matched the rate of growth under Obama.  But this has now changed sharply in FY19, with government spending expected to jump by 8.0% in just one year.

The fiscal deficit is then the difference, as noted above, between the two curves for spending and revenues.  Its change over time may be clearer in a chart of just the deficit itself:

The curve in black shows what the deficit has been, and what is expected for FY2019.  The deficit narrowed to $442 billion in FY2015, and then started to widen.  Primarily due to flat tax revenues in FY2016 (spending was following the path it had been following before, after several years of suppression), the deficit grew in FY2016.  And it then continued to grow until at least through FY2019.  The curve in red shows what the deficit would have been had government spending continued to grow under Trump at the pace it had under Obama.  This would have made essentially no difference in FY2017 and FY2018, but would have reduced the deficit in FY2019 from the expected $1,075 billion to $877 billion instead.  Not a small deficit by any means, but not as high.

But more important has been the contribution to the higher deficit from tax cuts.  The combined effect is shown in the curve in blue in the chart.  The deficit would have stabilized and in fact reduced by a bit.  For FY2019, the deficit would have been $528 billion, or a reasonable 2.5% of GDP.  Instead, at an expected $1,075 billion, it will be over twice as high.  And it is a consequence of Trump’s policies.

B.  Have the Tax Cuts Led to Higher Growth?

The Trump administration claimed that the tax cuts (and specifically the major cuts passed in December 2017) would lead to such a more rapid pace of GDP growth that they would “pay for themselves”.  This clearly has not happened – tax revenues have fallen in real terms (they were flat in nominal terms).  But a less extreme argument was that the tax cuts, and in particular the extremely sharp cut in corporate profit taxes, would lead to a spurt of new corporate investment in equipment, which would raise productivity and hence GDP.  See, for example, the analysis issued by the White House Council of Economic Advisors in October 2017.

But this has not happened either.  Growth in private investment in equipment has in fact declined since the first quarter of 2018 (when the law went into effect):

The curve in blue shows the quarter to quarter changes (at an annual rate), while the curve in red smooths this out by showing the change over the same quarter of a year earlier.  There is a good deal of volatility in the quarter to quarter figures, while the year on year changes show perhaps some trends that last perhaps two years or so, but with no evidence that the tax cut led to a spurt in such investment.  The growth has in fact slowed.

Such investment is in fact driven largely by more fundamental factors, not by taxes.  There was a sharp fall in 2008 as a result of the broad economic and financial collapse at the end of the Bush administration, it then bounced back in 2009/10, and has fluctuated since driven by various industry factors.  For example, oil prices as well as agricultural prices both fell sharply in 2015, and the NIPA accounts indicate that equipment investment in just these two sectors reduced private investment in equipment by more than 2% points from what the total would have been in 2015.  This continued into 2016, with a reduction of a further 1.3% points.  What matters are the fundamentals.  Taxes are secondary, at best.

What about GDP itself?:

Here again there is quarter to quarter volatility, but no evidence that the tax cuts have spurred GDP growth.  Over the past three years, real GDP growth on a quarter to quarter basis peaked in the fourth quarter of 2017, before the tax cuts went into effect, and has declined modestly since then.  And that peak in the fourth quarter of 2017 was not anything special:  GDP grew at a substantially faster pace in the second and third quarters of 2014, and the year on year rate in early 2015 was higher than anything reached in 2017-19.  Rather, what we see in real GDP growth since late 2009 is significant quarter to quarter volatility, but around an average pace of about 2.3% a year.  There is no evidence that the late 2017 tax cut has raised this.

The argument that tax cuts will spur private investment, and hence productivity and hence GDP, is a supply-side argument.  There is no evidence in the numbers to support this.  But there may also be a demand-side argument, which is basically Keynesian.  The argument would be that tax cuts lead to higher (after-tax) incomes, and that these higher incomes led to higher consumption expenditures by households.  There might be some basis to this, to the extent that a portion of the tax cuts went to low and middle-income households who will spend more upon receiving it.  But since the tax cut law passed in December 2017 went primarily to the rich, whose consumption is not constrained by their current income flows (they save the excess), the impact of the tax cuts on household consumption would be weak.  It still, however, might be something.

But this still did not lead to a more rapid pace of GDP growth, as we saw above.  Why?  One needs to recognize that GDP is a measure of production in the domestic economy (GDP is Gross Domestic Product), and not of demand.  GDP is commonly measured by adding up the components of demand, with any increase or decrease in the stock of inventories then added (or subtracted, if negative) to tell us what production must have been.  But this is being done because the data is better (and more quickly available) for the components of GDP demand.  One must not forget that GDP is still an estimate of production, and not of total domestic demand.

And what the economy can produce when at full employment is constrained by whatever capacity was at that point in time.  The rate of unemployment has fallen steadily since hitting its peak in 2009 during the downturn:

Aside from the “squiggles” in these monthly figures (the data are obtained from household surveys, and will be noisy), unemployment fell at a remarkably steady pace since 2009.  One can also not discern any sharp change in that pace before and after January 2017, when Trump took office.  But the rate of unemployment is now leveling off, as it must, since there will always be some degree of frictional unemployment when an economy is at “full employment”.

With the economy at full employment, growth will now be constrained by the pace of growth of the labor force (about 0.5% a year) plus the growth in productivity of the average labor force member (which analysts, such as at the Congressional Budget Office, put at about 1.5% a year in the long term, and a bit less over the next decade).  That is, growth in GDP capacity will be 2% a year, or less, on average.

In such situations, Keynesian demand expansion will not raise the growth in GDP beyond that 2% rate.  There will of course be quarter to quarter fluctuations (GDP growth estimates are volatile), but on average over time, one should not expect growth in excess of this.

But growth can be less.  In a downturn, such as that suffered in 2008/09, GDP growth can drop well below capacity.  Unemployment soars, and Keynesian demand stimulus is needed to stabilize the economy and return it to a growth path.  Tax cuts (when focused on low and middle income households) can be stimulative.  But especially stimulative in such circumstances is direct government spending, as such spending leads directly to people being hired and put to work.

Thus the expansion in government spending in 2008/09 (see the chart at the top of this post) was exactly what was needed in those circumstances.  The mistake then was to hold government spending flat in nominal terms (and hence falling in real terms) between 2009 and 2014, even though unemployment, while falling, was still relatively high.  That cut-back in government spending was unprecedented in a period of recovery from a downturn (over at least the past half-century in the US).  And an earlier post on this blog estimated that had government spending been allowed to increase at the same pace as it had under Reagan following the 1982 downturn, the US economy would have fully recovered by 2012.

But the economy is now at full employment.  In these circumstances, extra demand stimulus will not increase production (as production is limited by capacity), but will rather spill over into a drawdown in inventories (in the short term, but there is only so much in inventories that one can draw down) or an increase in the trade deficit (more imports to satisfy the domestic demand, or exports diverted to meet the domestic demand).  One saw this in the initial estimates for the GDP figures for the second quarter of 2019.  GDP is estimated to have grown at a 2.1% rate.  But the domestic final demand components grew at a pace that, by themselves, would have accounted for a 3.6% point increase in GDP.  The difference was accounted for by a drawdown in inventories (accounting for 0.7% points of GDP) and an increase in the trade deficit (accounting for a further reduction of 0.8% points of GDP).  But these are just one quarter of figures, they are volatile, and it remains to be seen whether this will continue.

It is conceivable that domestic demand might fall back to grow in line with capacity.  But this then brings up what should be considered the second arm of Trump’s Keynesian stimulus program.  While tax cuts led to growing deficits in FY2017 and 18, we are now seeing in FY2019, in addition to the tax cuts, an extraordinary growth in government spending.  Based on US Treasury forecasts for FY2019 (as adjusted above), federal government spending this fiscal year is expected to grow by 8.0%.  This will add to domestic demand growth.  And there has not been such growth in government spending during a time of full employment since George H. W. Bush was president.

C.  The Impact of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019

Just before leaving for its summer recess, the House and the Senate in late July both passed an important bill setting the budget parameters for fiscal years 2020 and 2021.  Trump signed it into law on August 2.  It was needed as, under the budget sequester process forced on Obama in 2011, there would have otherwise been sharp cutbacks in the discretionary budgets for what government is allowed to spend (other than for programs such as Social Security or Medicare, where spending follows the terms of the programs as established, or for what is spent on interest on the public debt).  The sequesters would have set sharp cuts in government spending in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, and if allowed, such sudden cuts could have pushed the US economy into a recession.

The impact is clear on a chart:

The figures are derived from the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the impact on government spending from the lifting of the caps.  Without the change in the spending caps, discretionary spending would have been sharply reduced.  At the new caps, spending will increase at a similar pace as it had before.

Note the sharp contrast with the cut-backs in discretionary budget outlays from FY2011 to FY2015.  Unemployment was high then, and the economy struggled to recover from the 2008/09 downturn while confronting these contractionary headwinds.  But the economy is now at full employment, and the extra stimulus on demand from such spending will not, in itself and in the near term, lead to an increase in capacity, and hence not lead to a faster rate of growth than what we have seen in recent years.

But I should hasten to add that lifting the spending caps was not a mistake.  Government spending has been kept too limited for too long – there are urgent public needs (just look at the condition of our roads).  And a sharp and sudden cut in spending could have pushed the economy into a recession, as noted above.

More fundamentally, keeping up a “high pressure” economy is not necessarily a mistake.  One will of course need to monitor what is happening to inventories and the trade deficit, but the pressure on the labor market from a low unemployment rate has been bringing into the labor force workers who had previously been marginalized out of it.  And while there is little evidence as yet that it has spurred higher wages, continued pressure to secure workers should at some point lead to this.  What one does not want would be to reach the point where this leads to higher inflation.  But there is no evidence that we are near that now.  Indeed, the Fed decided on July 31 to reduce interest rates (for the first time since 2008, in part out of concern that inflation has been too low.

D.  Summary, Implications, and Conclusion

Trump campaigned on the promise that he would bring down the government deficit – indeed bring it down to zero.  The opposite has happened.  The deficit has grown sharply, and is expected to reach over $1 trillion this fiscal year, or over 5% of GDP.  This is unprecedented in the US in a time of full employment, other than during World War II.

The increase in the deficit is primarily due to the tax cuts he championed, supplemented (in FY2019) by a sharp rise in government spending.  Without such tax cuts, and with government spending growth the same as it had been under Obama, the deficit in FY2019 would have been $530 billion.  It is instead forecast to be double that (a forecast $1.075 trillion).

The tax cuts were justified by the administration by arguing that they would spur investment and hence growth.  That has not happened.  Growth in private investment in equipment has slowed since the major tax cuts of December 2017 were passed.  So has the pace of GDP growth.

This should not be surprising.  Taxes have at best a marginal effect on investment decisions.  The decision to invest is driven primarily by more fundamental considerations, including whether the extra capacity is needed given demand for the products, by the technologies available, and so on.

But tax cuts (to the extent they go to low and middle income households), and even more so direct government spending, can spur demand in the economy.  At times of less than full employment, this can lead to a higher GDP in standard Keynesian fashion.  But when the economy is at full employment, the constraint is not aggregate demand but rather production capacity.  And that is set by the available labor force and how much each worker can produce (their productivity).  The economy can then grow only as fast as the labor force and productivity grow, and most estimates put that at about 2% or less per year in the US right now.

The spur to demand can, however, act to keep the economy from falling back into a recession.  With the chaos being created in the markets by the trade wars Trump has launched, this is not a small consideration.  Indeed, the Fed, in announcing its July 31 cut in interest rates, indicated that in addition to inflation tracking below its target rate of 2%, concerns regarding “global developments” (interpreted as especially trade issues) was a factor in making the cut.

There are also advantages to keeping high pressure on the labor markets, as it draws in labor that was previously marginalized, and should at some point lead to higher wages.  As long as inflation remains modest (and as noted, it is currently below what the Fed considers desirable), all this sounds like a good situation.  The fiscal policies are therefore providing support to help ensure the economy does not fall back into recession despite the chaos of the trade wars and other concerns, while keeping positive pressure in the labor markets.  Trump should certainly thank Nancy Pelosi for the increases in the government spending caps under the recently approved budget agreement, as this will provide significant, and possibly critical, support to the economy in the period leading up to the 2020 election.

So what is there not to like?

The high fiscal deficit at a time of full employment is not to like.  As noted above, a fiscal deficit of more than 5% of GDP during a time of full employment is unprecedented (other than during World War II).  Unemployment was similarly low in the final few years of the Clinton presidency, but the economy then had fiscal surpluses (reaching 2.3% of GDP in FY2000) as well as a public debt that was falling in dollar amount (and even more so as a share of GDP).

The problem with a fiscal deficit of 5% of GDP with the economy at full employment is that when the economy next goes into a recession (and there eventually always has been a recession), the fiscal deficit will rise (and will need to rise) from this already high base.  The fiscal deficit rose by close to 9 percentage points of GDP between FY2007 and FY2009.  A similar economic downturn starting from a base where the deficit is already 5% of GDP would thus raise the fiscal deficit to 14% of GDP.   And that would certainly lead conservatives to argue, as they did in 2009, that the nation cannot respond to the economic downturn with the increase in government spending that would be required to stabilize and then bring down unemployment.

Is a recession imminent?  No one really knows, but the current economic expansion, that began five months after Obama took office, is now the longest on record in the US – 121 months as of July.  It has just beaten the 120 month expansion during the 1990s, mostly when Clinton was in office.  Of more concern to many analysts is that long-term interest rates (such as on 10-year US Treasury bonds) are now lower than short-term interest rates on otherwise similar US Treasury obligations.  This is termed an “inverted yield curve”, as the yield curve (a plot of interest rates against the term of the bond) will normally be upward sloping.  Longer-term loans normally have to pay a higher interest rate than shorter ones.  But right now, 10-year US Treasury bonds are being sold in the market at a lower interest rate than the interest rate demanded on short-term obligations.  This only makes sense if those in the market expect a downturn (forcing a reduction in interest rates) at some point in the next few years.

The concern is that in every single one of the seven economic recessions since the mid-1960s, the yield curve became inverted prior to that downturn.  While this was typically two or three years before the downturn (and in the case leading up to the 1970 recession, about four years before), in no case was there an inverted yield curve without a subsequent downturn within that time frame.  Some argue that “this time is different”, and perhaps it will be.  But an inverted yield curve has been 100% accurate so far in predicting an imminent recession.

The extremely high fiscal deficit under Trump at a time of full employment is therefore leaving the US economy vulnerable when the next recession occurs.  And a growing public debt (it will reach $16.8 trillion, or 79% of GDP, by September 30 of this year, in terms of debt held by the public) cannot keep growing forever.

What then to do?  A sharp cut in government spending might well bring on the downturn that we are seeking to avoid.  Plus government spending is critically needed in a range of areas.  But raising taxes, and specifically raising taxes on the well-off who benefited disproportionately in the series of tax cuts by Reagan, Bush II, and then Trump, would have the effect of raising revenue without causing a contractionary impulse.  The well-off are not constrained in what they spend on consumption by their incomes – they consume what they wish and save the residual.

The impact on the deficit and hence on the debt could also be significant.  While now a bit dated, an analysis on this blog from September 2013 (using Congressional Budget Office figures) found that simply reversing in full the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 would lead the public debt to GDP ratio to fall and fall sharply (by about half in 25 years).  The Trump tax cuts of December 2017 have now made things worse, but a good first step would be to reverse these.

It was the Bush and now Trump tax cuts that have put the fiscal accounts on an unsustainable trajectory.  As was noted above, the fiscal accounts were in surplus at the end of the Clinton administration.  But we now have a large and unprecedented deficit even when the economy is at full employment.  In a situation like this, one would think it should be clear to acknowledge the mistake, and revert to what had worked well before.

Managing the fiscal accounts in a responsible way is certainly possible.  But they have been terribly mismanaged by this administration.

The Economy Under Trump in 8 Charts – Mostly as Under Obama, Except Now With a Sharp Rise in the Government Deficit

A.  Introduction

President Trump is repeatedly asserting that the economy under his presidency (in contrast to that of his predecessor) is booming, with economic growth and jobs numbers that are unprecedented, and all a sign of his superb management skills.  The economy is indeed doing well, from a short-term perspective.  Growth has been good and unemployment is low.  But this is just a continuation of the trends that had been underway for most of Obama’s two terms in office (subsequent to his initial stabilization of an economy, that was in freefall as he entered office).

However, and importantly, the recent growth and jobs numbers are only being achieved with a high and rising fiscal deficit.  Federal government spending is now growing (in contrast to sharp cuts between 2010 and 2014, after which it was kept largely flat until mid-2017), while taxes (especially for the rich and for corporations) have been cut.  This has led to standard Keynesian stimulus, helping to keep growth up, but at precisely the wrong time.  Such stimulus was needed between 2010 and 2014, when unemployment was still high and declining only slowly.  Imagine what could have been done then to re-build our infrastructure, employing workers (and equipment) that were instead idle.

But now, with the economy at full employment, such policy instead has to be met with the Fed raising interest rates.  And with rising government expenditures and falling tax revenues, the result has been a rise in the fiscal deficit to a level that is unprecedented for the US at a time when the country is not at war and the economy is at or close to full employment.  One sees the impact especially clearly in the amounts the US Treasury has to borrow on the market to cover the deficit.  It has soared in 2018.

This blog post will look at these developments, tracing developments from 2008 (the year before Obama took office) to what the most recent data allow.  With this context, one can see what has been special, or not, under Trump.

First a note on sources:  Figures on real GDP, on foreign trade, and on government expenditures, are from the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) of the Department of Commerce.  Figures on employment and unemployment are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the Department of Labor.  Figures on the federal budget deficit are from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  And figures on government borrowing are from the US Treasury.

B.  The Growth in GDP and in the Number Employed, and the Unemployment Rate

First, what has happened to overall output, and to jobs?  The chart at the top of this post shows the growth of real GDP, presented in terms of growth over the same period one year before (in order to even out the normal quarterly fluctuations).  GDP was collapsing when Obama took office in January 2009.  He was then able to turn this around quickly, with positive quarterly growth returning in mid-2009, and by mid-2010 GDP was growing at a pace of over 3% (in terms of growth over the year-earlier period).  It then fluctuated within a range from about 1% to almost 4% for the remainder of his term in office.  It would have been higher had the Republican Congress not forced cuts in fiscal expenditures despite the continued unemployment.  But growth still averaged 2.2% per annum in real terms from mid-2009 to end-2016, despite those cuts.

GDP growth under Trump hit 3.0% (over the same period one year before) in the third quarter of 2018.  This is good.  And it is the best such growth since … 2015.  That is not really so special.

Net job growth has followed the same basic path as GDP:

 

Jobs were collapsing when Obama took office, he was quickly able to stabilize this with the stimulus package and other measures (especially by the Fed), and job growth resumed.  By late 2011, net job growth (in terms of rolling 12-month totals (which is the same as the increase over what jobs were one year before) was over 2 million per year.  It went to as high as 3 million by early 2015.  Under Trump, it hit 2 1/2 million by September 2018.  This is pretty good, especially with the economy now at or close to full employment.  And it is the best since … January 2017, the month Obama left office.

Finally, the unemployment rate:

Unemployment was rising rapidly as Obama was inaugurated, and hit 10% in late 2009.  It then fell, and at a remarkably steady pace.  It could have fallen faster had government spending not been cut back, but nonetheless it was falling.  And this has continued under Trump.  While commendable, it is not a miracle.

C.  Foreign Trade

Trump has also launched a trade war.  Starting in late 2017, high tariffs were imposed on imports of certain foreign-produced products, with such tariffs then raised and extended to other products when foreign countries responded (as one would expect) with tariffs of their own on selected US products.  Trump claims his new tariffs will reduce the US trade deficit.  As discussed in an earlier blog post, such a belief reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the trade balance is determined.

But what do we see in the data?:

The trade deficit has not been reduced – it has grown in 2018.  While it might appear there had been some recovery (reduction in the deficit) in the second quarter of the year, this was due to special factors.  Exports primarily of soybeans and corn to China (but also other products, and to other countries where new tariffs were anticipated) were rushed out in that quarter in order arrive before retaliatory tariffs were imposed (which they were – in July 2018 in the case of China).  But this was simply a bringing forward of products that, under normal conditions, would have been exported later.  And as one sees, the trade balance returned to its previous path in the third quarter.

The growing trade imbalance is a concern.  For 2018, it is on course for reaching 5% of GDP (when measured in constant prices of 2012).  But as was discussed in the earlier blog post on the determination of the trade balance, it is not tariffs which determine what that overall balance will be for the economy.  Rather, it is basic macro factors (the balance between domestic savings and domestic investment) that determine what the overall trade balance will be.  Tariffs may affect the pattern of trade (shifting imports and exports from one country to another), but they won’t reduce the overall deficit unless the domestic savings/investment balance is changed.  And tariffs have little effect on that balance.

And while the trend of a growing trade imbalance since Trump took office is a continuation of the trend seen in the years before, when Obama was president, there is a key difference.  Under Obama, the trade deficit did increase (become more negative), especially from its lowest point in the middle of 2009.  But this increase in the deficit was not driven by higher government spending – government spending on goods and services (both as a share of GDP and in constant dollar terms) actually fell.  That is, government savings rose (dissavings was reduced, as there was a deficit).  Private domestic savings was also largely unchanged (as a share of GDP).  Rather, what drove the higher trade deficit during Obama’s term was the recovery in private investment from the low point it had reached in the 2008/09 recession.

The situation under Trump is different.  Government spending is now growing, as is the government deficit, and this is driving the trade deficit higher.  We will discuss this next.

D.  Government Accounts

An increase in government spending is needed in an economic downturn to sustain demand so that unemployment will be reduced (or at least not rise by as much otherwise).  Thus government spending was allowed to rise in 2008, in the last year of the Bush administration, in response to the downturn that began in December 2007.  This continued, and was indeed accelerated, as part of the stimulus program passed by Congress soon after Obama took office.  But federal government spending on goods and services peaked in mid-2010, and after that fell.  The Republican Congress forced further expenditure cuts, and by late 2013 the federal government was spending less (in real terms) than it was in early 2008:

This was foolish.  Unemployment was over 9 1/2% in mid-2010, and still over 6 1/2% in late-2013 (see the chart of the unemployment rate above).  And while the unemployment rate did fall over this period, there was justified criticism that the pace of recovery was slow.  The cuts in government spending during this period acted as a major drag on the economy, holding back the pace of recovery.  Never before had a US administration done this in the period after a downturn (at least not in the last half-century where I have examined the data).  Government spending grew especially rapidly under Reagan following the 1981/82 downturn.

Federal government spending on goods and services was then essentially flat in real terms from late 2013 to the end of Obama’s term in office.  And this more or less continued through FY2017 (the last budget of Obama), i.e. through the third quarter of CY2018.  But then, in the fourth quarter of CY2017 (the first quarter of FY2018, as the fiscal year runs from October to September), in the first full budget under Trump, federal government spending started to rise sharply.  See the chart above.  And this has continued.

There are certainly high priority government spending needs.  But the sequencing has been terribly mismanaged.  Higher government spending (e.g. to repair our public infrastructure) could have been carried out when unemployment was still high.  Utilizing idle resources, one would not only have put people to work, but also would have done this at little cost to the overall economy.  The workers were unemployed otherwise.

But higher government spending now, when unemployment is low, means that workers hired for government-funded projects have to be drawn from other activities.  While the unemployment rate can be squeezed downward some, and has been, there is a limit to how far this can go.  And since we are close to that limit, the Fed is raising interest rates in order to curtail other spending.

One sees this in the numbers.  Overall private fixed investment fell at an annual rate of 0.3% in the third quarter of 2018 (based on the initial estimates released by the BEA in late October), led by a 7.9% fall in business investment in structures (offices, etc.) and by a 4.0% fall in residential investment (homes).  While these are figures only for one quarter (there was a deceleration in the second quarter, but not an absolute fall), and can be expected to eventually change (with the economy growing, investment will at some point need to rise to catch up), the direction so far is worrisome.

And note also that this fall in the pace of investment has happened despite the huge cuts in corporate taxes from the start of this year.  Trump officials and Republicans in Congress asserted that the cuts in taxes on corporate profits would lead to a surge in investment.  Many economists (including myself, in the post cited above) noted that there was little reason to believe such tax cuts would sput corporate investment.  Such investment in the US is not now constrained by a lack of available cash to the corporations, so giving them more cash is not going to make much of a difference.  Rather, that windfall would instead lead corporations to increase dividends as well as share buybacks in order to distribute the excess cash to their shareholders.  And that is indeed what has happened, with share buybacks hitting record levels this year.

Returning to government spending, for the overall impact on the economy one should also examine such spending at the state and local level, in addition to the federal.  The picture is largely similar:

This mostly follows the same pattern as seen above for federal government spending on goods and services, with the exception that there was an increase in total government spending from early 2014 to early-2016, when federal spending was largely flat.  This may explain, in part, the relatively better growth in GDP seen over that period (see the chart at the top of this post), and then the slower pace in 2016 as all spending leveled off.

But then, starting in late-2017, total government expenditures on goods and services started to rise.  It was, however, largely driven by the federal government component.  Even though federal government spending accounted only for a bit over one-third (38%) of total government spending on goods and services in the quarter when Trump took office, almost two-thirds (65%) of the increase in government spending since then was due to higher spending by the federal government.  All this is classical Keynesian stimulus, but at a time when the economy is close to full employment.

So far we have focused on government spending on goods and services, as that is the component of government spending which enters directly as a component of GDP spending.  It is also the component of the government accounts which will in general have the largest multiplier effect on GDP.  But to arrive at the overall fiscal deficit, one must also take into account government spending on transfers (such as for Social Security), as well as tax revenues.  For these, and for the overall deficit, it is best to move to fiscal year numbers, where the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides the most easily accessible and up-to-date figures.

Tracing the overall federal fiscal deficit, now by fiscal year and in nominal dollar terms, one finds:

The deficit is now growing (the fiscal balance is becoming more negative) and indeed has been since FY2016.  What happened in FY2016?  Primarily there was a sharp reduction in the pace of tax revenues being collected.  And this has continued through FY2018, spurred further by the major tax cut bill of December 2017.  Taxes had been rising, along with the economic recovery, increasing by an average of $217 billion per year between FY2010 and FY2015 (calculated from CBO figures), but this then decelerated to a pace of just $26 billion per year between FY2015 and FY2018, and just $13 billion in FY2018.  The rate of growth in taxes between FY2015 and FY2018 was just 0.8%, or less even than just inflation.

Federal government spending, including on transfers, also rose over this period, but by less than taxes fell.  Overall federal government spending rose by an average of just $46 billion per year between FY2010 and FY2015 (a rate of growth of 1.3% per annum, or less than inflation in those years), and then by $140 billion per year (in nominal dollar terms) between FY2015 and FY2018.  But this step up in overall spending (of $94 billion per year) was well less than the step down in the pace of tax collection (a reduction of $191 billion per year, the difference between $217 billion annual growth over FY2010-15 and the $26 billion annual growth over FY2015-18).

That is, about two-thirds (67%) of the increase in the fiscal deficit since FY2015 can be attributed to taxes being cut, and just one-third (33%) to spending going up.

Looking forward, this is expected to get far worse.  As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, the CBO is forecasting (in their most recent forecast, from April 2018) that the fiscal deficits under Trump will reach close to $1 trillion in FY2019, and will exceed 5% of GDP for most of the 2020s.  This is unprecedented for the US economy at full employment, other than during World War II.  Furthermore, these CBO forecasts are under the optimistic scenario that there will be no economic downturn over this period.  But that has never happened before in the US.

Deficits need to be funded by borrowing.  And one sees an especially sharp jump in the net amount being borrowed in the markets in CY 2018:

 

These figures are for calendar years, and the number for 2018 includes what the US Treasury announced on October 29 it expects to borrow in the fourth quarter.  Note this borrowing is what the Treasury does in the regular, commercial, markets, and is a net figure (i.e. new borrowing less repayment of debt coming due).  It comes after whatever the net impact of public trust fund operations (such as for the Social Security Trust Fund) is on Treasury funding needs.

The turnaround in 2018 is stark.  The US Treasury now expects to borrow in the financial markets, net, a total of $1,338 billion in 2018, up from $546 billion in 2017.  And this is at time of low unemployment, in sharp contrast to 2008 to 2010, when the economy had fallen into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression  Tax revenues were then low (incomes were low) while spending needed to be kept up.  The last time unemployment was low and similar to what it is now, in the late-1990s during the Clinton administration, the fiscal accounts were in surplus.  They are far from that now. 

E. Conclusion 

The economy has continued to grow since Trump took office, with GDP and employment rising and unemployment falling.  This has been at rates much the same as we saw under Obama.  There is, however, one big difference.  Fiscal deficits are now rising rapidly.  Such deficits are unprecedented for the US at a time when unemployment is low.  And the deficits have led to a sharp jump in Treasury borrowing needs.

These deficits are forecast to get worse in the coming years even if the economy should remain at full employment.  Yet there will eventually be a downturn.  There always has been.  And when that happens, deficits will jump even further, as taxes will fall in a downturn while spending needs will rise.

Other countries have tried such populist economic policies as Trump is now following, when despite high fiscal deficits at a time of full employment, taxes are cut while government spending is raised.  They have always, in the end, led to disasters.

Why Do the Quarterly GDP Figures Bounce Around So Much?: Econ 101

A.  Introduction

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released on July 27 its initial estimate of GDP growth in the second quarter of 2018 (what it technically calls its “advance estimate”).  It was a good report:  Its initial estimate is that GDP grew at an annualized rate of 4.1% in real terms in the quarter.  Such growth, if sustained, would be excellent.

But as many analysts noted, there are good reasons to believe that such a growth rate will not be sustained.  There were special, one-time, factors, such as that the second quarter growth (at a 4.1% annual rate) had followed a relatively modest rate of growth in the first quarter of 2.2%.  Taking the two together, the growth was a good, but not outstanding, rate of 3.1%.

More fundamentally, with the economy now at full employment, few (other than Trump) expect growth at a sustained rate of 4% or more.  Federal Reserve Board members, for example, on average expect GDP growth of 2.8% in 2018 as a whole, with this coming down to a rate of 1.8% in the longer run.  And the Congression Budget Office (in forecasts published in April) is forecasting GDP growth of 3.0% in 2018, coming down to an average rate of 1.8% over 2018 to 2028.  The fundamental issue is that the population is aging, so the growth rate of the labor force is slowing.  As discussed in an earlier post on this blog, unless the productivity of those workers started to grow at an unprecedented rate (faster than has ever been achieved in the post-World War II period), we cannot expect GDP to grow for a sustained period going forward at a rate of 3%, much less 4%.

But there will be quarter to quarter fluctuations.  As seen in the chart at the top of this post covering the period just since 2006, there have been a number of quarters in recent years where GDP grew at an annualized rate of 4% or more.  Indeed, growth reached 5.1% in the second quarter of 2012, with this followed by an also high 4.9% rate in the next quarter.  But it then came back down.  And there were also two quarters (setting aside the period of the 2008/09 recession) which had growth of a negative 1.0%.  On average, GDP growth was around 2% (at an annual rate) during Obama’s two terms in office (2.2% annually from the end of the recession in mid-2009).

Seen in this context, the 4.1% rate in the initial estimate for the second quarter of 2018 was not special.  There have been a number of such cases (and with even substantially higher growth rates for a quarter or even two) in the recent past, even though average growth was just half that.  The quarterly rates bounce around.  But it is of interest to examine why they bounce around so much, and that is the purpose of this blog post.

B.  Reasons for this Volatility

There are a number of reasons why one should not be surprised that these quarter to quarter growth rates in GDP vary as they do.  I will present several here.  And note that these reasons are not mutually exclusive.  Several of them could be acting together and be significant factors in any given quarter.

a)  There may have been actual changes in growth:

To start, and to be complete, one should not exclude the possibility that the growth in the quarter (or the lack of it) was genuine.  Perhaps output did speed up (or slow down) as estimated.  Car plants might go on extra shifts (or close for a period) due to consumers wanting to buy more cars (or fewer cars) in the period for some reason.  There might also be some policy change that might temporarily spur production (or the opposite).  For example, Trump’s recent trade measures, and the response to them from our trading partners, may have brought forward production and trade that would have been undertaken later in the year, in order to avoid tariffs threatened to be imposed later.  This could change quarterly GDP even though GDP for the year as a whole will not be affected positively (indeed the overall impact would likely be negative).

[Side note:  But one special factor in this past quarter, cited in numerous news reports (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here), was that a jump in exports of soybeans was a key reason for the higher-than-recently-achieved rate of GDP growth.  This was not correct.  Soybean exports did indeed rise sharply, with this attributed to the response threatened by China and others to the new tariffs Trump has imposed.  China and others said they would respond with higher tariffs of their own, targeted on products such as soybeans coming from the US.  There was thus a rush to export soybeans in the period between when China first announced they would impose such retaliatory tariffs (in late March) and when they were then imposed (ultimately on July 6).

But while soybean exports did indeed increase sharply in the April to June quarter, soybeans are a crop that takes many months to grow.  Whatever increase in shipments there was had to come out of inventories.  An increase in exports would have to be matched by a similar decrease in inventories, with this true also for corn and other such crops.  There would be a similar issue for any increase in exports of Kentucky bourbon, also a target of retaliatory tariffs.  Any decent bourbon is aged for at least three years.

One must keep in mind that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is a measure of production, and the only production that might have followed from the increased exports of soybeans or similar products would have been of packing and shipping services.  But packing and shipping costs are only a relatively small share of the total value of the products being exported.

Having said that, one should not then go to the opposite extreme and assume that the threatened trade war had no impact on production and hence GDP in the quarter.  It probably did.  With tariffs and then retaliatory tariffs being threatened (but to be imposed two or three months in the future), there were probably increased factory orders to make and ship various goods before such new tariffs would enter into effect.  Thus there likely was some impact on GDP, but to an extent that cannot be quantified in what we see in the national level accounts.  And with such factory orders simply bringing forward orders that likely would have been made later in the year, one may well see a fallback in the pace of GDP growth in the remainder of the year.  But there are many other factors as well affecting GDP growth, and we will need to wait and see what the net impact will be.]

So one should not exclude the possibility that the fluctuation in the quarterly growth rate is real.  But it could be due to many other factors as well, as we will discuss below.

b)  Change at an Annualized Rate is Not the Change in a Quarter:

While easily confused, keep in mind also that in the accounts as normally published and presented in the US, the rates of growth of GDP (and of the other economic variables) are shown as annual equivalent rates.  The actual change in the quarter is only about one-fourth of this (a bit less due to compounding).  That is, in the second quarter of 2018, the BEA estimated that GDP (on a seasonally adjusted basis, which I will discuss below as a separate factor) grew by 1.00% (and yes, exactly 1.00% within two significant digits).  But at an annualized rate (some say “annual rate”, and either term can be used), this would imply a rate of growth of 4.06% (which rounded becomes 4.1%).  It is equal to slightly more than 4.0% due to compounding.  [Technically, 1% growth in the quarter means 1.00 will grow to 1.01, and taking 1.01 to the fourth power yields 1.0406, or an increase of 4.06%.]

Thus it is not correct to say that “GDP grew by 4.1% in the second quarter”.  It did not – it grew by 1.0%.  What is correct is to say that “GDP grew at an annualized rate of 4.1% in the second quarter”.

Not all national statistical agencies present such figures in annualized terms.  European agencies, for example, generally present the quarterly growth figures as simply the growth in the quarter.  Thus, for example, Eurostat on June 7 announced that GDP in the eurozone rose by an estimated 0.4% in the first quarter of 2018.  This 0.4% was the growth in the quarter.  But that 0.4% growth figure would be equivalent to growth of 1.6% on an annualized basis (actually 1.61%, if the growth had been precisely 0.400%).  Furthermore, the European agencies will generally also focus on the growth in GDP over what it had been a year earlier in that same quarter.  In the first quarter of 2018, this growth over the year-earlier period was an estimated 2.5% according to the Eurostat release.  But the growth since the year-earlier period is not the same as the growth in the current quarter at an annualized rate.  They can easily be confused if one is not aware of the conventions used by the different agencies.

c)  Don’t confuse the level of GDP with the change in GDP:

Also along the lines of how we might misleadingly interpret figures, one needs to keep in mind that while the quarterly growth rates can, and do, bounce around a lot, the underlying levels of GDP are really not changing much.  While a 4% annual growth rate is four times as high as a 1% growth rate, for example, the underlying level of GDP in one calendar quarter is only increasing to a level of about 101 (starting from a base of 100 in this example) with growth at a 4% annual rate, versus to a level of 100.25 when  growth is at an annual rate of 1%.  While such a difference in growth rates matters a great deal (indeed a huge deal) if sustained over time, the difference in any one quarter is not that much.

Indeed, I personally find the estimated quarter to quarter levels of GDP in the US (after seasonal adjustment, which will be discussed below) to be surprisingly stable.  Keep in mind that GDP is a flow, not a stock.  It is like the flow of water in a river, not a stock such as the body of water in a reservoir.  Flows can go sharply up and down, while stocks do not, and some may mistakenly treat the GDP figures in their mind as a stock rather than a flow.  GDP measures the flow of goods and services produced over some period of time (a calendar quarter in the quarterly figures).  A flow of GDP to 101 in some quarter (from a base of 100 in the preceding quarter) is not really that different to an increase to 100.25.  While this would matter (and matter a good deal) if the different quarterly increases are sustained over time, this is not that significant when just for one quarter.

d)  Statistical noise matters:

Moving now to more substantive reasons why one should expect a significant amount of quarter to quarter volatility, one needs to recognize that GDP is estimated based on surveys and other such sources of statistical information.  The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) of the US Department of Commerce, which is responsible for the estimates of the GDP accounts in the US (which are formally called the National Income and Product Accounts, or NIPA), bases its estimates on a wide variety of surveys, samples of tax returns, and other such partial figures.  The estimates are not based on a full and complete census of all production each quarter.  Indeed, such an economic census is only undertaken once every five years, and is carried out by the US Census Bureau.

One should also recognize that an estimate of real GDP depends on two measures, each of which is subject to sampling and other error.  One does not, and cannot, measure “real GDP” directly.  Rather, one estimates what nominal GDP has been (based on estimates in current dollars of the value of all economic transactions that enter into GDP), and then how much prices have changed.  Price indices are estimated based on the prices of surveyed samples, and the components of real GDP are then estimated from the nominal GDP of the component divided by the relevant price index.  Real GDP is only obtained indirectly.

There will then be two sets of errors in the measurements:  One for the nominal GDP flows and one for the price indices.  And surveys, whether of income flows or of prices, are necessarily partial.  Even if totally accurate for the firms and other entities sampled, one cannot say with certainty whether those sampled in that quarter are fully representative of everyone in the economy.  This is in particular a problem (which the BEA recognizes) in capturing what is happening to newly established firms.  Such firms will not be included in the samples used (as they did not exist when the samples were set up) and the experiences of such newly established firms can be quite different from those of established firms.

And what I am calling here statistical “noise” encompasses more than simply sampling error.  Indeed, sampling error (the fact that two samples will come up with different results simply due to the randomness of who is chosen) is probably the least concern.  Rather, systemic issues arise whenever one is trying to infer measures at the national level from the results found in some survey.  The results will depend, for example, on whether all the components were captured well, and even on how the questions are phrased.  We will discuss below (in Section C, where we look at a comparison of estimates of GDP to estimates of Gross Domestic Income, or GDI, which in principle should be the same) that the statistical discrepancy between the estimates of GDP and GDI does not vary randomly from one quarter to the next but rather fairly smoothly (what economists and statisticians call “autocorrelation” – see Section C).  This is an indication that there are systemic issues, and not simply something arising from sample randomness.

Finally, even if that statistical error was small enough to allow one to be confident that we measured real GDP within an accuracy of just, say, +/- 1%, one would not then be able to say whether GDP in that quarter had increased at an annualized rate of about 4%, or decreased by about 4%.  A small quarterly difference looms large when looked at in terms of annualized rates.

I do not know what the actual statistical error might be in the GDP estimates, and it appears they are well less than +/- 1% (based on the volatility actually observed in the quarter to quarter figures).  But a relatively small error in the estimates of real GDP in any quarter could still lead to quite substantial volatility in the estimates of the quarter to quarter growth.

e)  Seasonal adjustment is necessary, but not easy to do:

Economic activity varies over the course of the year, with predictable patterns.  There is a seasonality to holidays, to when crops are grown, to when students graduate from school and enter the job market, and much much more.  Thus the GDP data we normally focus on has been adjusted by various statistical methods to remove the seasonality factor, making use of past data to estimate what the patterns are.

The importance of this can be seen if one compares what the seasonally adjusted levels of GDP look like compared to the levels before seasonal adjustment.  Note the level of GDP here is for one calendar quarter – it will be four times this at an annual rate:

There is a regular pattern to GDP:  It is relatively high in the last quarter of each year, relatively low in the first quarter, and somewhere in between in the second and third quarters.  The seasonally adjusted series takes account of this, and is far smoother.  Calculating quarterly growth rates from a series which has not been adjusted for seasonality would be misleading in the extreme, and not of much use.

But adjusting for seasonality is not easy to do.  While the best statisticians around have tried to come up with good statistical routines to do this, it is inherently difficult.  A fundamental problem is that one can only look for patterns based on what they have been in the past, but the number of observations one has will necessarily be limited.  If one went back to use 20 years of data, say, one would only have 20 observations to ascertain the statistical pattern.  This is not much.  One could go back further, but then one has the problem that the economy as it existed 30 or 40 years ago (and indeed even 20 years ago) was quite different from what it is now, and the seasonal patterns could also now be significantly different.  While there are sophisticated statistical routines that have been developed to try to make best use of the available data (and the changes observed in the economy over time), this can only be imperfect.

Indeed, the GDP estimates released by the BEA on July 27 incorporated a number of methodological changes (which we will discuss below), one of which was a major update to the statistical routines used for the seasonal adjustment calculations.  Many observers (including at the BEA) had noted in recent years that (seasonally adjusted) GDP growth in the first quarter of each year was unusually and consistently low.  It then recovered in the second quarter.  This did not look right.

One aim of the update to the seasonal adjustment statistical routines was to address this issue.  Whether it was fully successful is not fully clear.  As seen in the chart at the top of this post (which reflects estimates that have been seasonally adjusted based on the new statistical routines), there still appear to be significant dips in the seasonally adjusted first quarter figures in many of the years (comparing the first quarter GDP figures to those just before and just after – i.e. in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2014, and perhaps 2017 and 2018.  This would be more frequent than one would expect if the residual changes were now random over the period).  However, this is an observation based just on a simple look at a limited sample.  The BEA has looked at this far more carefully, and rigorously, and believes that the new seasonal adjustment routines it has developed have removed any residual seasonality in the series as estimated.

f)  The timing of weekends and holidays may also enter, and could be important:

The production of the goods and services that make up the flow of GDP will also differ on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.  But the number of Saturdays, Sundays, and certain holidays may differ from one year to the next.  While there are normally 13 Saturdays and 13 Sundays in each calendar quarter, and most holidays will be in the same quarter each year, this will not always be the case.

For example, there were just 12 Sundays in the first quarter of 2018, rather than the normal 13.  And there will be 14 Sundays in the third quarter of 2018, rather than the normal 13.  In 2019, we will see a reversion to the “normal” 13 Sundays in each of the quarters.  This could have an impact.

Assume, just for the sake of illustration, that production of what goes into GDP is only one-half as much on a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday, than it is on a regular Monday through Friday workday.  It will not be zero, as many stores, as well as certain industrial plants, are still open, and I am just using the one-half for illustration.  Using this, and based on a simple check of the calendars for 2018 and 2019, one will find there were 62 regular, Monday through Friday, non-holiday workdays in the first quarter of 2018, while there will be 61 such regular workdays in the first quarter of 2019.  The number of Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays were 28 in the first quarter of 2018 (equivalent to 14 regular workdays in terms of GDP produced, assuming the one-half figure), while the number of Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays will be 29 in the first quarter of 2019 (equivalent to 14.5 regular workdays).  Thus the total regular work-day equivalents will be 76 in 2018 (equal to 62 plus 14), falling to 75.5 in 2019 (equal to 61 plus 14.5).  This will be a reduction of 0.7% between the periods in 2018 and 2019 (75.5/76), or a fall of 2.6% at an annualized rate.  This is not small.

The changes due to the timing of holidays could matter even more, especially for certain countries around the world.  Easter, for example, was celebrated in March (the first quarter) in 2013 and 2016, but came in April (the second quarter) in 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018.  In Europe and Latin America, it is customary to take up to a week of vacation around the Easter holidays.  The change in economic activity from year to year, with Easter celebrated in one quarter in one year but a different one in the next, will make a significant difference to economic activity as measured in the quarter.

And in Muslim countries, Ramadan (a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset), followed by the three-day celebration of Eid al-Fitr, will rotate through the full year (in terms of the Western calendar) as it is linked to the lunar cycle.

Hence it would make sense to adjust the quarterly figures not only for the normal seasonal adjustment, but also for any changes in the number of weekends and holidays in some particular calendar quarter.  Eurostat and most (but not all) European countries make such an adjustment for the number of working days in a quarter before they apply the seasonal adjustment factors.  But I have not been able to find how the US handles this.  The adjustment might be buried somehow in the seasonal adjustment routines, but I have not seen a document saying this.  If no adjustment is made, then this might explain part of the quarterly fluctuations seen in the figures.

g)  There have been, and always will be, updates to the methodology used:

As noted above, the GDP figures released on July 27 reflected a major update in the methodology followed by the BEA to arrive at its GDP estimates.  Not only was there extensive work on the seasonal adjustment routines, but there were definitional and other changes.  The accounts were also updated to reflect the findings from the 2012 Economic Census, and prices were changed from a previous base of 2009 to now 2012.  The July 27 release summarized the changes, and more detail on what was done is available from a BEA report issued in April.  And with the revisions in definitions and certain other methodological changes, the BEA revised its NIPA figures going all the way back to 1929, the first year with official GDP estimates.

The BEA makes such changes on a regularly scheduled basis.  There is normally an annual change released each year with the July report on GDP in the second quarter of the year.  This annual change incorporates new weights (from recent annual surveys) and normally some limited methodological changes, and the published estimates are normally then revised going back three and a half years.  See, for example, this description of what was done in July 2017.

On top of this, there is then a much larger change once every five years.  The findings from the most recent Economic Census (which is carried out every five years) are incorporated, seasonal adjustment factors are re-estimated, and major definitional or methodological changes may be incorporated.  The July 2018 release reflected one of those five-year changes.  It was the 15th such comprehensive revision to the NIPA accounts undertaken by the BEA.

I stress this to make the point that the GDP figures are estimates, and as estimates are always subject to change.  The professionals at the BEA are widely admired around the world for the quality of their work, and do an excellent job in my opinion.  But no estimates will ever be perfect.  One has to recognize that there will be a degree of uncertainty surrounding any such estimates, and that the quarter to quarter volatility observed will derive at least in part from the inherent uncertainty in any such estimates.

C.  Estimates of GDP versus Estimates of GDI

One way to develop a feel for how much the changes in quarterly GDP may be due to the inherent uncertainty in the estimates is to compare it to the estimated quarterly changes in Gross Domestic Income (GDI).  GDP (Gross Domestic Product) measures the value of everything produced.  GDI measures the value of all incomes (wages, profits, rents, etc.) generated.  In principle, the totals should be the same, as the value of whatever is produced accrues to someone as income.  They should add up to the same thing.

But the BEA arrives at its estimates of GDP and of GDI by different routes.  As a consequence, the estimates of the totals will then differ.  The differences are not huge in absolute amount, nor have they grown over time (as a share of GDP or of GDI).  That is, on average the estimates match each other over time, with the same central tendency.  But they differ by some amount in any individual quarter, and hence the quarter to quarter growth rates will differ.  And for the reasons reviewed above, those slight changes in the levels in any individual quarter can translate into often major differences in the growth rates from one quarter to the next.  And these differences may appear to be particularly large when the growth rates are then presented in annualized terms.

For the period since 2006, the two sets of growth rates were (where the initial estimate for the second quarter of 2018 will not be available until the end-August figures come out):

As is seen, the alternative estimates of growth in any individual quarter can be quite different.  There was an especially large difference in the first quarter of 2012, when the estimated growth in GDP was 3.2% at an annual rate, while the estimated growth in GDI was a giant 8.7%.

Which is correct?  Was the growth rate in the first quarter of 2012 3.2% (as found with the GDP estimate) or 8.7% (as found with the GDI estimate)?  The answer is we do not know, and indeed that probably neither is correct.  What is most likely is that the true figure is probably somewhere in between.

Furthermore, and also moderating what the impact on the differences in the respective estimated growth rates will be, it is not the case that the estimates of GDP and GDI are statistically independent of each other, with the two bouncing around randomly with respect to each other.  Rather, if one looks at what the BEA calls the “statistical discrepancy” (the difference between GDP and GDI), one finds that if, say, the estimate of GDP were above the estimate of GDI in one quarter, then it likely would also be above in the next quarter.  Not by the same amount, and the differences would evolve over time, but moving more like waves than as balls ricocheting around.  Economists and statisticians refer to this as “autocorrelation”, and it indicates that there is some systemic error in the estimates of GDP and of GDI, which carries over from one quarter to the next.  What the source of that is, we do not know.  If we did know, then it would be eliminated.  But the fact such autocorrelation exists tells us that there is some source of systemic error in the measures of GDP and GDI, and we have not been able to discover the source.

Estimates are estimates.  We need to recognize that there will be statistical uncertainty in any such figures.  Even if they even out over time, the estimated growth from one quarter to the next will reflect such statistical volatility.  The differences seen in the estimated rates of growth in any one quarter for total output (estimated by way of GDP versus by way of GDI) provides a useful benchmark for how to judge the reported changes seen in growth for GDP in any individual quarter.  The true volatility (for purely statistical reasons) is likely to be at least as much, if not more.

D.  Conclusion

There are many reasons, then, to expect the quarterly growth figures to bounce around.  One should not place too much weight on the estimates from any individual quarter.  It is the longer term trends that matter.  The estimated figure for growth in GDP of 4.1% in the second quarter was not out of line with what has been seen in a number of quarters in recent years.  But growth since mid-2009 has only been about one half as much on average, despite several quarters when estimated growth was well in excess of 4.1%.

To conclude, some may find of interest three country cases I am personally familiar with which illustrate why one needs to exercise care, and with an understanding of the country context, when considering what is meaningful or not for reported figures on GDP growth.  The countries are Japan, China, and an unidentified, but newly independent, former colony in the 1960s.

a)  Japan:  In the late 1990s / early 2000s, while holding a position within the World Bank Group, I was responsible for assessments of the prospects and risks of the countries of East Asia where the World Bank was active.  This was not long after the East Asia crisis of 1997, and the countries were just beginning to recover.  Japan was important, both as a trading partner to the others and because Japan itself had gone through a somewhat similar crisis following 1990, when the Japanese financial bubble burst.

As part of this, I followed closely the quarterly GDP growth figures for Japan.  But as many analysts at the time noted, the quarter to quarter figures behaved in ways that were difficult to understand.  Components went up when one would have thought they would go down (and vice versa), the quarterly changes were far more extreme than seen elsewhere, and in general the quarter to quarter fluctuations were difficult to make sense of.  The volatility in the figures was far greater than one would have expected for an economy such as Japan’s.

This view among analysts was such a common one that the government agency responsible for the estimates felt it necessary to issue a news release in June 2000 defending its work and addressing a number of the concerns that had been raised.

I have no doubt that the Japanese government officials responsible for the estimates were well-qualified and serious professionals.  But it is not easy to estimate GDP and its components, the underlying data on which the statisticians relied might have had problems (including sample sizes that were possibly too small), and there may have been segments of the economy (in the less formal sectors) which might not have been captured well.

I have not followed closely in recent years, and do not know if the issues continue.  But Japan’s case illustrates that even a sophisticated agency, with good professionals, can have difficulty in arriving at GDP estimates that behave as one would expect.

b)  China:  The case of China illustrates the mirror image problem of what was found in Japan.  While the Japanese GDP estimates bounced around far too sharply from one quarter to the next, the GDP estimates for China showed remarkable, and not believable, stability.

Chinese growth rates have normally been presented as growth of GDP in the current period over what it was in the same period one year ago.  Seasonal adjustment is then not needed, and indeed China only started to present seasonally adjusted figures in 2011.  However, these estimates are still not fully accepted by many analysts.  Comparing GDP in the current quarter to what it was in the same quarter a year before overcomes this, but at the cost that it does not present information on growth just in the quarter, as opposed to total growth over the preceding year.

And the growth rates reported over the same quarter in the preceding year have been shockingly smooth.  Indeed, in recent years (from the first quarter of 2015 through to the recently released figures for the second quarter of 2018), China’s reported growth of its GDP over the year-earlier period has not been more than 7.0% nor less than 6.7% in each and every quarter.  Specifically, the year on year GDP growth rates from the first quarter of 2015 through to the second quarter of 2018 were (in sequence):  7.0%, 7.0%, 6.9%, 6.8%, 6.7%, 6.7%, 6.7%, 6.8%, 6.9%, 6.9%, 6.8%, 6.8%, 6.8%, and 6.7% (one can find the figures in, for example, the OECD database).  Many find this less than credible.

There are other problems as well in the Chinese numbers.  For example, it has often been the case that the reported growth in provincial GDP of the 31 provincial level entities in China was higher in almost all of the 31 provinces, and sometimes even in all of the provinces, than GDP growth was in China as a whole.  This is of course mathematically impossible, but not surprising when political rewards accrue to those with fast reported growth.

With such weak credibility, analysts have resorted to coming up with proxies to serve as indicators of what quarter to quarter might have been.  These might include electricity consumption, or railway tonnage carried, or similar indicators of economic production.  Indeed, there is what has been labeled the “Li index”, named after Li Keqiang (who was vice premier when he formulated it, and later China’s premier).  Li said he did not pay much attention to the official GDP statistics, but rather focused on a combination of electricity production, rail cargo shipments, and loan disbursements.  Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco who reproduced this and fitted it through some regression analysis found that it worked quite well.

And the index I found most amusing is calculated using nighttime satellite images of China, with an estimation of how much more night-time illumination one finds over time.  This “luminosity” index tracks well what might be going on with China’s GDP.

c)  An unidentified, newly independent, former colony:  Finally, this is a story which I must admit I received third hand, but which sounds fully believable.  In the mid-1970s I was working for a period in Kuala Lumpur, for the Government of Malaysia.  As part of an economic modeling project I worked closely with the group in the national statistical office responsible for estimating GDP.  The group was led by a very capable, and talkative, official (of Tamil origin), who related a story he had heard from a UN consultant who had worked closely with his group in the early 1970s to develop their system of national accounts.

The story is of a newly independent country in the mid-1960s (whose name I was either not told or cannot remember), and its estimation of GDP.  An IMF mission had visited it soon after independence, and as is standard, the IMF made forecasts of what GDP growth might be over the next several years.  Such forecasts are necessary in order to come up with estimates for what the government accounts might be (as tax revenues will depend on GDP), for the trade accounts, for the respective deficits, and hence for what the financing needs might be.

Such forecasts are rarely very good, especially for a newly independent country where much is changing.  But something is needed.

As time passed, the IMF received regular reports from the country on what estimated GDP growth actually was.  What they found was that reported GDP growth was exactly what had been forecast.  And when asked, the national statisticians responded that who were they to question what the IMF officials had said would happen!

The Simple Economics of What Determines the Foreign Trade Balance: Econ 101

“There’s no reason that we should have big trade deficits with virtually every country in the world.”

“We’re like the piggybank that everybody is robbing.”

“the United States has been taken advantage of for decades and decades”

“Last year,… [the US] lost  … $817 billion on trade.  That’s ridiculous and it’s unacceptable.”

“Well, if they retaliate, they’re making a mistake.  Because, you see, we have a tremendous trade imbalance. … we can’t lose”

Statements made by President Trump at the press conference held as he left the G-7 meetings in, Québec, Canada, June 9, 2018.

 

A.  Introduction

President Trump does not understand basic economics.  While that is not a surprise, nor something necessarily required or expected of a president, one should expect that a president would appoint advisors who do understand, and who would tell him when he is wrong.  Unfortunately, this president has been singularly unwilling to do so.  This is dangerous.

Trump is threatening a trade war.  Not only by his words at the G-7 meetings and elsewhere, but also by a number of his actions on trade and tariffs in recent months, Trump has made clear that he believes that a trade deficit is a “loss” to the nation, that countries with trade surpluses are somehow robbing those (such as the US) with a deficit, that raising tariffs can and will lead to reductions in trade deficits, and that if others then also raise their tariffs, the US will in the end necessarily “win” simply because the US has a trade deficit to start.

This is confused on many levels.  But it does raise the questions of what determines a country’s trade balance; whether a country “loses” if it has a trade deficit; and what is the role of tariffs.  This Econ 101 blog post will first look at the simple economics of what determines a nation’s trade deficit (hint:  it is not tariffs); will then discuss what tariffs do and where do they indeed matter; and will then consider the role played by foreign investment (into the US) and whether a trade deficit can be considered a “loss” for the nation (a piggybank being robbed).

B.  What Determines the Overall Trade Deficit?

Let’s start with a very simple case, where government accounts are aggregated together with the rest of the economy.  We will later then separate out government.

The goods and services available in an economy can come either from what is produced domestically (which is GDP, or Gross Domestic Product) or from what is imported.  One can call this the supply of product.  These goods and services can then be used for immediate consumption, or for investment, or for export.  One can call this the demand for product.  And since investment includes any net change in inventories, the goods and services made available will always add up to the goods and services used.  Supply equals demand.

One can put this in a simple equation:

GDP + Imports = Domestic Consumption + Domestic Investment + Exports

Re-arranging:

(GDP – Domestic Consumption) – Domestic Investment = Exports – Imports

The first component on the left is Domestic Savings (what is produced domestically less what is consumed domestically).  And Exports minus Imports is the Trade Balance.  Hence one has:

Domestic Savings – Domestic Investment = Trade Balance

As one can see from the way this was derived, this is simply an identity – it always has to hold.  And what it says is that the Trade Balance will always be equal to the difference between Domestic Savings and Domestic Investment.  If Domestic Savings is less than Domestic Investment, then the Trade Balance (Exports less Imports) will be negative, and there will be a trade deficit.  To reduce the trade deficit, one therefore has to either raise Domestic Savings or reduce Domestic Investment.  It really is as straightforward as that.

Where this becomes more interesting is in determining how the simple identity is brought about.  But here again, this is relatively straightforward in an economy which, like now, is at full employment.  Hence GDP is essentially fixed:  It cannot immediately rise by either employing more labor (as all the workers who want a job have one), nor by each of those laborers suddenly becoming more productive (as productivity changes only gradually through time by means of either better education or by investment in capital).  And GDP is equal to labor employed times the productivity of each of those workers.

In such a situation, with GDP at its full employment level, Domestic Savings can only rise if Domestic Consumption goes down, as Domestic Savings equals GDP minus Domestic Consumption.  But households want to consume, and saving more will mean less for consumption.  There is a tradeoff.

The only other way to reduce the trade deficit would then be to reduce Domestic Investment.  But one generally does not want to reduce investment.  One needs investment in order to become more productive, and it is only through higher productivity that incomes can rise.

Reducing the trade deficit, if desirable (and whether it is desirable will be discussed below), will therefore not be easy.  There will be tradeoffs.  And note that tariffs do not enter directly in anything here.  Raising tariffs can only have an impact on the trade balance if they have a significant impact for some reason on either Domestic Savings or Domestic Investment, and tariffs are not a direct factor in either.  There may be indirect impacts of tariffs, which will be discussed below, but we will see that the indirect effects actually could act in the direction of increasing, not decreasing, the trade deficit.  However, whichever direction they act in, those indirect effects are likely to be small.  Tariffs will not have a significant effect on the trade balance.

But first, it is helpful to expand the simple analysis of the above to include Government as a separate set of accounts.  In the above we simply had the Domestic sector.  We will now divide that into the Domestic Private and the Domestic Public (or Government) sectors.  Note that Government includes government spending and revenues at all levels of government (state and local as well as federal).  But the government deficit is primarily a federal government issue.  State and local government entities are constrained in how much of a deficit they can run over time, and the overall balance they run (whether deficit or surplus) is relatively minor from the perspective of the country as a whole.

It will now also be convenient to write out the equations in symbols rather than words, and we will use:

GDP = Gross Domestic Product

C = Domestic Private Consumption

I = Domestic Private Investment

G = Government Spending (whether for Consumption or for Investment)

X = Exports

M = Imports

T = Taxes net of Transfers

Note that T (Taxes net of Transfers) will be the sum total of all taxes paid by the private sector to government, minus all transfers received by the private sector from government (such as for Social Security or Medicare).  I will refer to this as simply net Taxes (T).

The basic balance of goods or services available (supplied) and goods or services used (demanded) will then be:

GDP + M = C + I + G + X

We will then add and subtract net Taxes (T) on the right-hand side:

GDP + M = (C + T) + I + (G – T) + X

Rearranging:

GDP – (C + T) – (G – T) – I = X – M

(GDP – C – T) – I + (T – G) = X – M

Or in (abbreviated) words:

Dom. Priv. Savings – Dom. Priv. Investment + Govt Budget Balance = Trade Balance

Domestic Private Savings (savings by households and private businesses) is equal to what is produced in the economy (GDP), less what is privately consumed (C), less what is paid in net Taxes (T) by the private sector to the public sector.  Domestic Private Investment is simply I, and includes investment both by private businesses and by households (primarily in homes).  And the Government Budget Balance is equal to what government receives in net Taxes (T), less what Government spends (on either consumption items or on public investment).  Note that government spending on transfers (e.g. Social Security) is already accounted for in net Taxes (T).

This equation is very much like what we had before.  The overall Trade Balance will equal Domestic Private Savings less Domestic Private Investment plus the Government Budget Balance (which will be negative when a deficit, as has normally been the case except for a few years at the end of the Clinton administration).  If desired, one could break down the Government Budget Balance into Public Savings (equal to net Taxes minus government spending on consumption goods and services) less Public Investment (equal to government spending on investment goods and services), to see the parallel with Domestic Private Savings and Domestic Private Investment.  The equation would then read that the Trade Balance will equal Domestic Private Savings less Domestic Private Investment, plus Government Savings less Government Investment.  But there is no need.  The budget deficit, as commonly discussed, includes public spending not only on consumption items but also on investment items.

This is still an identity.  The balance will always hold.  And it says that to reduce the trade deficit (make it less negative) one has to either increase Domestic Private Savings, or reduce Domestic Private Investment, or increase the Government Budget Balance (i.e. reduce the budget deficit).  Raising Domestic Private Savings implies reducing consumption (when the economy is at full employment, as now).  Few want this.  And as discussed above, a reduction in investment is not desirable as investment is needed to increase productivity over time.

This leaves the budget deficit, and most agree that it really does need to be reduced in an economy that is now at full employment.  Unfortunately, Trump and the Republican Congress have moved the budget in the exact opposite direction, primarily due to the huge tax cut passed last December, and to a lesser extent due to increases in certain spending (primarily for the military).  As discussed in an earlier post on this blog, an increase in the budget deficit to a forecast 5% of GDP at a time when the economy is at full employment is unprecedented in peacetime.

What this implies for the trade balance is clear from the basic identity derived above.  An increase in the budget deficit (a reduction in the budget balance) will lead, all else being equal, to an increase in the trade deficit (a reduction in the trade balance).  And it might indeed be worse, as all else is not equal.  The stated objective of slashing corporate taxes is to spur an increase in corporate investment.  But if private investment were indeed to rise (there is in fact little evidence that it has moved beyond previous trends, at least so far), this would further worsen the trade balance (increase the trade deficit).

Would raising tariffs have an impact?  One might argue that this would raise net Taxes paid, as tariffs on imports are a tax, which (if government spending is not then also changed) would reduce the budget deficit.  While true, the extent of the impact would be trivially small.  The federal government collected $35.6 billion in all customs duties and fees (tariffs and more) in FY2017 (see the OMB Historical Tables).  This was less than 0.2% of FY2017 GDP.  Even if all tariffs (and other fees on imports) were doubled, and the level of imports remained unchanged, this would only raise 0.2% of GDP.  But the trade deficit was 2.9% of GDP in FY2017.  It would not make much of a difference, even in such an extreme case.  Furthermore, new tariffs are not being pushed by Trump on all imports, but only a limited share (and a very limited share so far).  Finally, if Trump’s tariffs in fact lead to lower imports of the items being newly taxed, as he hopes, then tariffs collected can fall.  In the extreme, if the imports of such items go to zero, then the tariffs collected will go to zero.

Thus, for several reasons, any impact on government revenues from the new Trump tariffs will be minor.

The notion that raising tariffs would be a way to eliminate the trade deficit is therefore confused.  The trade balance will equal the difference between Domestic Savings and Domestic Investment.  Adding in government, the trade balance will equal the difference between Domestic Private Savings and Domestic Private Investment, plus the equivalent for government (the Government Budget Balance, where a budget deficit will be a negative).  Tariffs have little to no effect on these balances.

C.  What Role Do Tariffs Play, Then?

Do tariffs then matter?  They do, although not in the determination of the overall trade deficit.  Rather, tariffs, which are a tax, will change the price of the particular import relative to the price of other products.  If applied only to imports from some countries and not from others, one can expect to see a shift in imports towards those countries where the tariffs have not been imposed.  And in the case when they are applied globally, on imports of the product from any country, one should expect that prices for similar products made in the US will then also rise.  To the extent there are alternatives, purchases of the now more costly products (whether imported or produced domestically) will be reduced, while purchases of alternatives will increase.  And there will be important distributional changes.  Profits of firms producing the now higher priced products will increase, while the profits of firms using such products as an input will fall.  And the real incomes of households buying any of these products will fall due to the higher prices.

Who wins and who loses can rapidly become turn into something very complicated.  Take, for example, the new 25% tariff being imposed by the Trump administration on steel (and 10% on aluminum).  The tariffs were announced on March 8, to take effect on March 23.  Steel imports from Canada and Mexico were at first exempted, but later the Trump administration said those exemptions were only temporary.  On March 22 they then expanded the list of countries with temporary exemptions to also the EU, Australia, South Korea, Brazil, and Argentina, but only to May 1.  Then, on March 28, they said imports from South Korea would receive a permanent exemption, and Australia, Brazil, and Argentina were granted permanent exemptions on May 2.  After a short extension, tariffs were then imposed on steel imports from Canada, Mexico, and the EU, on May 31.  And while this is how it stands as I write this, no one knows what further changes might be announced tomorrow.

With this uneven application of the tariffs by country, one should expect to see shifts in the imports by country.  What this achieves is not clear.  But there are also further complications.  There are hundreds if not thousands of different types of steel that are imported – both of different categories and of different grades within each category – and a company using steel in their production process in the US will need a specific type and grade of steel.  Many of these are not even available from a US producer of steel.  There is thus a system where US users of steel can apply for a waiver from the tariff.  As of June 19, there have been more than 21,000 petitions for a waiver.  But there were only 30 evaluators in the US Department of Commerce who will be deciding which petitions will be granted, and their training started only in the second week of June.  They will be swamped, and one senior Commerce Department official quoted in the Washington Post noted that “It’s going to be so unbelievably random, and some companies are going to get screwed”.  It would not be surprising to find political considerations (based on the interests of the Trump administration) playing a major role.

So far, we have only looked at the effects of one tariff (with steel as the example).  But multiple tariffs on various goods will interact, with difficult to predict consequences.  Take for example the tariff imposed on the imports of washing machines announced in late January, 2018, at a rate of 20% in the first year and at 50% should imports exceed 1.2 million units in the year.  This afforded US producers of washing machines a certain degree of protection from competition, and they then raised their prices by 17% over the next three months (February to May).

But steel is a major input used to make washing machines, and steel prices have risen with the new 25% tariff.  This will partially offset the gains the washing machine producers received from the tariff imposed on their product.  Will the Trump administration now impose an even higher tariff on washing machines to offset this?

More generally, the degree to which any given producer will gain or lose from such multiple tariffs will depend on multiple factors – the tariff rates applied (both for what they produce and for what they use as inputs), the degree to which they can find substitutes for the inputs they need, and the degree to which those using the product (the output) will be able to substitute some alternative for the product, and more.  Individual firms can end up ahead, or behind.  Economists call the net effect the degree of “net effective protection” afforded the industry, and it can be difficult to figure out.  Indeed, government officials who had thought they were providing positive protection to some industry often found out later that they were in fact doing the opposite.

Finally, imposing such tariffs on imports will lead to responses from the countries that had been providing the goods.  Under the agreed rules of international trade, those countries can then impose commensurate tariffs of their own on products they had been importing from the US.  This will harm industries that may otherwise have been totally innocent in whatever was behind the dispute.

An example of what can then happen has been the impact on Harley-Davidson, the American manufacturer of heavy motorcycles (affectionately referred to as “hogs”).  Harley-Davidson is facing what has been described as a “triple whammy” from Trump’s trade decisions.  First, they are facing higher steel (and aluminum) prices for their production in the US, due to the Trump steel and aluminum tariffs.  Harley estimates this will add $20 million to their costs in their US plants.  For a medium-sized company, this is significant.  As of the end of 2017, Harley-Davidson had 5,200 employees in the US (see page 7 of this SEC filing).  With $20 million, they could pay each of their workers $3,850 more.  This is not a small amount.  Instead, the funds will go to bolster the profits of steel and aluminum firms.

Second, the EU has responded to the Trump tariffs on their steel and aluminum by imposing tariffs of their own on US motorcycle imports.  This would add $45 million in costs (or $2,200 per motorcycle) should Harley-Davidson continue to export motorcycles from the US to the EU.  Quite rationally, Harley-Davidson responded that they will now need to shift what had been US production to one of their plants located abroad, to avoid both the higher costs resulting from the new steel and aluminum tariffs, and from the EU tariffs imposed in response.

And one can add thirdly and from earlier, that Trump pulled the US out of the already negotiated (but still to be signed) Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.  This agreement would have allowed Harley-Davidson to export their US built motorcycles to much of Asia duty-free.  They will now instead be facing high tariffs to sell to those markets.  As a result, Harley-Davidson has had to set up a new plant in Asia (in Thailand), shifting there what had been US jobs.

Trump reacted angrily to Harley-Davidson’s response to his trade policies.  He threatened that “they will be taxed like never before!”.  Yet what Harley-Davidson is doing should not have been a surprise, had any thought been given to what would happen once Trump started imposing tariffs on essential inputs needed in the manufacture of motorcycles (steel and aluminum), coming from our major trade partners (and often closest allies).  And it is positively scary that a president should even think that he should use the powers of the state to threaten an individual private company in this way.  Today it is Harley-Davidson.  Who will it be tomorrow?

There are many other examples of the problems that have already been created by Trump’s new tariffs.  To cite a few, and just briefly:

a)  The National Association of Home Builders estimated that the 20% tariff imposed in 2017 on imports of softwood lumber from Canada added nearly $3,600 to the cost of building an average single-family home in the US and would, over the course of a year, reduce wages of US workers by $500 million and cost 8,200 full-time US jobs.

b)  The largest nail manufacturer in the US said in late June that it has already had to lay off 12% of its workforce due to the new steel tariffs, and that unless it is granted a waiver, it would either have to relocate to Mexico or shut down by September.

c)  As of early June, Reuters estimated that at least $2.5 billion worth of investments in new utility-scale solar installation projects had been canceled or frozen due to the tariffs Trump imposed on the import of solar panel assemblies.  This is far greater than new investments planned for the assembly of such panels in the US.  Furthermore, the jobs involved in such assembly work are generally low-skill and repetitive, and can be automated should wages rise.

So there are consequences from such tariffs.  They might be unintended, and possibly not foreseen, but they are real.

But would the imposition of tariffs necessarily reduce the trade deficit, as Trump evidently believes?  No.  As noted above, the trade deficit would only fall if the tariffs would, for some reason, increase domestic savings or reduce domestic investment.  But tariffs do not enter directly into those factors.  Indirectly, one could map out some chains of possible causation, but these changes in some set of tariffs (even if broadly applied to a wide range of imports) would not have a major effect on overall domestic savings or investment.  They could indeed even act in the opposite direction.

Households, to start, will face higher prices from the new tariffs.  To try to maintain their previous standard of living (in real terms) they would then need to spend more on what they consume and hence would save less.  This, by itself, would reduce domestic savings and hence would increase the trade deficit to the extent there was any impact.

The impacts on firms are more various, and depend on whether the firm will be a net winner or loser from the government actions and how they might then respond.  If a net winner, they have been able to raise their prices and hence increase their profits.  If they then save the extra profits (retained earnings), domestic savings would rise and the trade deficit would fall.  But if they increase their investments in what has now become a more profitable activity (and that is indeed the stated intention behind imposing the tariffs), that response would lead to an increase in the trade deficit.  The net effect will depend on whether their savings or their investment increases by more, and one does not know what that net change might be.  Different firms will likely respond differently.

One also has to examine the responses of the firms who will be the net losers from the newly imposed tariffs.  They will be paying more on their inputs and will see a reduction in their profits.  They will then save less and will likely invest less.  Again, the net impact on the trade deficit is not clear.

The overall impact on the trade deficit from these indirect effects is therefore uncertain, as one has effects that will act in opposing directions.  In part for this reason, but also because the tariffs will affect only certain industries and with responses that are likely to be limited (as a tariff increase today can be just as easily reversed tomorrow), the overall impact on the trade balance from such indirect effects are likely to be minor.

Increases in individual tariffs, such as those being imposed now by Trump, will not then have a significant impact on the overall trade balance.  But tariffs still do matter.  They change the mix of what is produced, from where items will be imported, and from where items will be produced for export (as the Harley-Davidson case shows).  They will create individual winners and losers, and hence it is not surprising to see the political lobbying as has grown in Washington under Trump.  Far from “draining the swamp”, Trump’s trade policy has made it critical for firms to step up their lobbying activities.

But such tariffs do not determine what the overall trade balance will be.

D.  What Role Does Foreign Investment Play in the Determination of the Trade Balance?

While tariffs will not have a significant effect on the overall trade balance, foreign investment (into the US) will.  To see this, we need to return to the basic macro balance derived in Section B above, but generalize it a bit to include all foreign financial flows.

The trade balance is the balance between exports and imports.  It is useful to generalize this to take into account two other sources of current flows in the national income and product accounts which add to (or reduce) the net demand for foreign exchange.  Specifically, there will be foreign exchange earned by US nationals working abroad plus that earned by US nationals on investments they have made abroad.  Economists call this “factor services income”, or simply factor income, as labor and capital are referred to as factors of production.  This is then netted against such income earned in the US by foreign nationals either working here or on their investments here.  Second, there will be unrequited transfers of funds, such as by households to their relatives abroad, or by charities, or under government aid programs.  Again, this will be netted against the similar transfers to the US.

Adding the net flows from these to the trade balance will yield what economists call the “current account balance”.  It is a measure of the net demand for dollars (if positive) or for foreign exchange (if a deficit) from current flows.  To put some numbers on this, the US had a foreign trade deficit of $571.6 billion in 2017.  This was the balance between the exports and imports of goods and services (what economists call non-factor services to be more precise, now that we are distinguishing factor services from non-factor services).  It was negative – a deficit.  But the US also had a surplus in 2017 from net factor services income flows of $216.8 billion, and a deficit of $130.2 billion on net transfers (mostly from households sending funds abroad).  The balance on current account is the sum of these (with deficits as negatives and surpluses as positives) and came to a deficit of $485.0 billion in 2017, or 2.5% of GDP.  As a share of GDP, this deficit is significant but not huge.  The UK had a current account deficit of 4.1% of GDP in 2017 for example, while Canada had a deficit of 3.0%.

The current account for foreign transactions, basically a generalization of the trade balance, is significant as it will be the mirror image of the capital account for foreign transactions.  That is, when the US had a current account deficit of $485.0 billion (as in 2017), there had to be a capital account surplus of $485.0 billion to match this, as the overall purchases and sales of dollars in foreign exchange transactions will have to balance out, i.e. sum to zero.  The capital account incorporates all transactions for the purchase or sale of capital assets (investments) by foreign entities into the US, net of the similar purchase or sale of capital assets by US entities abroad.  When the capital account is a net positive (as has been the case for the US in recent decades), there is more such investment going into the US than is going out.  The investments can be into any capital assets, including equity shares in companies, or real estate, or US Treasury or other bonds, and so on.

But while the two (the current account and the capital account) have to balance out, there is an open question of what drives what.  Look at this from the perspective of a foreigner, wishing to invest in some US asset.  They need to get the dollars for this from somewhere.  While this would be done by means of the foreign exchange markets, which are extremely active (with trillions of dollars worth of currencies being exchanged daily), a capital account surplus of $485 billion (as in 2017) means that foreign entities had to obtain, over the course of the year, a net of $485 billion in dollars for their investments into the US.  The only way this could be done is by the US importing that much more than it exported over the course of the year.  That is, the US would need to run a current account deficit of that amount for the US to have received such investment.

If there is an imbalance between the two (the current account and the capital account), one should expect that the excess supply or demand for dollars will lead to changes in a number of prices, most directly foreign exchange rates, but also interest rates and other asset prices.  These will be complex and we will not go into here all the interactions one might then have.  Rather, the point to note is that a current account deficit, even if seemingly large, is not a sign of disequilibrium when there is a desire on the part of foreign investors to invest a similar amount in US markets.  And US markets have traditionally been a good place to invest.  The US is a large economy, with markets for assets that are deep and active, and these markets have normally been (with a few exceptions) relatively well regulated.

Foreign nationals and firms thus have good reason to invest a share of their assets in the US markets.  And the US has welcomed this, as all countries do.  But the only way they can obtain the dollars to make these investments is for the US to run a current account deficit.  Thus a current account deficit should not necessarily be taken as a sign of weakness, as Trump evidently does.  Depending on what governments are doing in their market interventions, a current account deficit might rather be a sign of foreign entities being eager to invest in the country.  And that is a good sign, not a bad one.

E.  An “Exorbitant Privilege”

The dollar (and hence the US) has a further, and important, advantage.  It is the world’s dominant currency, with most trade contracts (between all countries, not simply between some country and the US) denominated in dollars, as are contracts for most internationally traded commodities (such as oil).  And as noted above, investments in the US are particularly advantageous due to the depth and liquidity of our asset markets.  For these reasons, foreign countries hold most of their international reserves in dollar assets.  And most of these are held in what have been safe, but low yielding, short-term US Treasury bills.

As noted in Section D above, those seeking to make investments in dollar assets can obtain the dollars required only if the US runs a current account deficit.  This is as true for assets held in dollars as part of a country’s international reserves as for any other investments in US dollar assets.  Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the 1960s, then the Minister of Finance of France, described this as an “exorbitant privilege” for the US (although this is often mistakenly attributed Charles de Gaulle, then his boss as president of France).

And it certainly is a privilege.  With the role of the dollar as the preferred reserve currency for countries around the world, the US is able to run current account deficits indefinitely, obtaining real goods and services from those countries while providing pieces of paper generating only a low yield in return.  Indeed, in recent years the rate of return on short-term US Treasury bills has generally been negative in real terms (i.e. after inflation).  The foreign governments buying these US Treasury bills are helping to cover part of our budget deficits, and are receiving little to nothing in return.

So is the US a “piggybank that everybody is robbing”, as Trump asserted to necessarily be the case when the US is has a current account deficit?  Not at all.  Indeed, it is the precise opposite.  The current account deficit is the mirror image of the foreign investment inflows coming into the US.  To obtain the dollars needed to do this those countries must export more real goods to the US than they import from the US.  The US gains real resources (the net exports), while the foreign entities then invest in US markets.  And for governments obtaining dollars to hold as their international reserves, those investments are primarily in the highly liquid and safe, short-term US Treasury bills, despite those assets earning low or even negative returns.  This truly is an “exorbitant privilege”, not a piggybank being robbed.

Indeed, the real concern is that with the mismanagement of our budget (tax cuts increasing deficits at a time when deficits should be reduced) plus the return to an ideologically driven belief in deregulating banks and other financial markets (such as what led to the financial and then economic collapse of 2008), the dollar may lose its position as the place to hold international reserves.  The British pound had this position in the 1800s and then lost it to the dollar due to the financial stresses of World War I.  The dollar has had the lead position since.  But others would like it, most openly by China and more quietly Europeans hoping for such a role for the euro.  They would very much like to enjoy this “exorbitant privilege”, along with the current account deficits that privilege conveys.

F.  Summary and Conclusion

Trump’s beliefs on the foreign trade deficit, on the impact of hiking tariffs, and on who will “win” in a trade war, are terribly confused.  While one should not necessarily expect a president to understand basic economics, one should expect that a president would appoint and listen to advisors who do.  But Trump has not.

To sum up some of the key points:

a)  The foreign trade balance will always equal the difference between domestic savings and domestic investment.  Or with government accounts split out, the trade balance will equal the difference between domestic private savings and domestic private investment, plus the government budget balance.  The foreign trade balance will only move up or down when there is a change in the balance between domestic savings and domestic investment.

b)  One way to change that balance would be for the government budget balance to increase (i.e. for the government deficit to be reduced).  Yet Trump and the Republican Congress have done the precise opposite.  The massive tax cuts of last December, plus (to a lesser extent) the increase in government spending now budgeted (primarily for the military), will increase the budget deficit to record levels for an economy in peacetime at full employment.  This will lead to a bigger trade deficit, not a smaller one.

c)  One could also reduce the trade deficit by making the US a terrible place to invest in.  This would reduce foreign investment into the US, and hence the current account deficit.  In terms of the basic savings/investment balance, it would reduce domestic investment (whether driven by foreign investors or domestic ones).  If domestic savings was not then also reduced (a big if, and dependant on what was done to make the US a terrible place to invest in), this would lead to a similar reduction in the trade deficit.  This is of course not to be taken seriously, but rather illustrates that there are tradeoffs.  One should not simplistically assume that a lower trade deficit achieved by any means possible is good.

d)  It is also not at all clear that one should be overly concerned about the size of the trade and current account deficits, at where they are today.  The US had a trade deficit of 2.9% of GDP in 2017 and a current account deficit of 2.5% of GDP.  While significant, these are not huge.  Should they become much larger (due, for example, to the forecast increases in government budget deficits to record levels), they might rise to problematic levels.  But at the current levels for the current account deficit, we have seen the markets for foreign exchange and for interest rates functioning pretty well and without overt signs of concern.  The dollars being made available through the current account deficit have been bought up and used for investments in US markets.

e)  Part of the demand for dollars to be invested and held in the US markets comes from the need for international reserves by governments around the world.  The dollar is the dominant currency in the world, and with the depth and liquidity of the US markets (in particular for short-term US Treasury bills) most of these international reserves are held in dollars.  This has given the US what has been called an “exorbitant privilege”, and permits the US to run substantial current account deficits while providing in return what are in essence paper assets yielding just low (or even negative) returns.

f)  The real concern should not be with the consequences of the dollar playing such a role in the system of international trade, but rather with whether the dollar will lose this privileged status.  Other countries have certainly sought this, most openly by China but also more quietly for the euro, but so far the dollar has remained dominant.  But there are increasing concerns that with the mismanagement of the government budget (the recent tax cuts) plus ideologically driven deregulation of banks and the financial markets (as led to the 2008 financial collapse), countries will decide to shift their international reserves out of the dollar towards some alternative.

g)  What will not reduce the overall trade deficit, however, is selective increases in tariff rates, as Trump has started to do.  Such tariff increases will shift around the mix of countries from where the imports will come, and/or the mix of products being imported, but can only reduce the overall trade deficit to the extent such tariffs would lead somehow to either higher domestic savings and/or lower domestic investment.  Tariffs will not have a direct effect on such balances, and indirect effects are going to be small and indeed possibly in the wrong direction (if the aim is to reduce the deficits).

h)  What such tariff policies will do, however, is create a mess.  And they already have, as the Harley-Davidson case illustrates.  Tariffs increase costs for US producers, and they will respond as best they can.  While the higher costs will possibly benefit certain companies, they will harm those using the products unless some government bureaucrat grants them a special exemption.

But what this does lead to is officials in government picking winners and losers.  That is a concern.  And it is positively scary to have a president lashing out and threatening individual firms, such as Harley-Davidson, when the firms respond to the mess created as one should have expected.

Productivity: Do Low Real Wages Explain the Slowdown?

GDP per Worker, 1947Q1 to 2016Q2,rev

A.  Introduction, and the Record on Productivity Growth

There is nothing more important to long term economic growth than the growth in productivity.  And as shown in the chart above, productivity (measured here by real GDP in 2009 dollars per worker employed) is now over $115,000.  This is 2.6 times what it was in 1947 (when it was $44,400 per worker), and largely explains why living standards are higher now than then.  But productivity growth in recent decades has not matched what was achieved between 1947 and the mid-1960s, and there has been an especially sharp slowdown since late 2010.  The question is why?

Productivity is not the whole story; distribution also matters.  And as this blog has discussed before, while all income groups enjoyed similar improvements in their incomes between 1947 and 1980 (with those improvements also similar to the growth in productivity over that period), since then the fruits of economic growth have gone only to the higher income groups, while the real incomes of the bottom 90% have stagnated.  The importance of this will be discussed further below.  But for the moment, we will concentrate on overall productivity, and what has happened to it especially in recent years.

As noted, the overall growth in productivity since 1947 has been huge.  The chart above is calculated from data reported by the BEA (for GDP) and the BLS (for employment).  It is productivity at its most basic:  Output per person employed.  Note that there are other, more elaborate, measures of productivity one might often see, which seek to control, for example, for the level of capital or for the education structure of the labor force.  But for this post, we will focus simply on output per person employed.

(Technical Note on the Data: The most reliable data on employment comes from the CES survey of employers of the BLS, but this survey excludes farm employment.  However, this exclusion is small and will not have a significant impact on the growth rates.  Total employment in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting, which is broader than farm employment only, accounts for only 1.4% of total employment, and this sector is 1.2% of GDP.)

While the overall rise in productivity since 1947 has been huge, the pace of productivity growth was not always the same.  There have been year-to-year fluctuations, not surprisingly, but these even out over time and are not significant. There are also somewhat longer term fluctuations tied to the business cycle, and these can be significant on time scales of a decade or so.  Productivity growth slows in the later phases of a business expansion, and may well fall as an economic downturn starts to develop.  But once well into a downturn, with businesses laying off workers rapidly (with the least productive workers the most likely to be laid off first), one will often see productivity (of those still employed) rise.  And it will then rise further in the early stages of an expansion as output grows while new hiring lags.

Setting aside these shorter-term patterns, one can break down productivity growth over the close to 70 year period here into three major sub-periods.  Between the first quarter of 1947 and the first quarter of 1966, productivity rose at a 2.2% annual pace.  There was then a slowdown, for reasons that are not fully clear and which economists still debate, to just a 0.4% pace between the first quarter of 1966 and the first quarter of 1982.  The pace of productivity growth then rose again, to 1.4% a year between the first quarter of 1982 and the second quarter of 2016.  But this was well less than the 2.2% pace the US enjoyed before.

An important question is why did productivity growth slow from a 2.2% pace between the late 1940s and mid-1960s, to a 1.4% pace since 1982.  Such a slowdown, if sustained, might not appear like much, but the impact would in fact be significant.  Over a 50 year period, for example, real output per worker would be 50% higher with growth at a 2.2% than it would be with growth at a 1.4% pace.

There is also an important question of whether productivity growth has slowed even further in recent years.  This might well still be a business cycle effect, as the economy has recovered from the 2008/09 downturn but only slowly (due to the fiscal drag from cuts in government spending).  The pace of productivity growth has been especially slow since late 2010, as is clear by blowing up the chart from above to focus on the period since 2000:

GDP per Worker, 2000Q1 to 2016Q2,rev

Productivity has increased at a rate of just 0.13% a year since late 2010.  This is slow, and a real problem if it continues.  I would hasten to add that the period here (5 1/2 years) is still too short to say with any certainty whether this will remain an issue.  There have been similar multi-year periods since 1947 when the pace of productivity growth appeared to slow, and then bounced back.  Indeed, as seen in the chart above, one would have found a similar pattern had one looked back in early 2009, with a slow pace of productivity growth observed from about 2005.

There has been a good deal of work done by excellent economists on why productivity growth has been what it was, and what it might be in the future.  But there is no consensus.  Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern University, considered by many to be the “dean in the field”, takes a pessimistic view on the prospects in his recently published magnum opus “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”.  Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT, in contrast, argue for a more optimistic view in their recent work “The Second Machine Age” (although “optimistic” might not be the right word because of their concern for the implication of this for jobs).  They see productivity growth progressing rapidly, if not accelerating.

But such explanations are focused on possible productivity growth as dictated by what is possible technologically.  A separate factor, I would argue, is whether investment in fact takes place that makes use of the technology that is available.  And this may well be a dominant consideration when examining the change in productivity over the short and medium terms.  A technology is irrelevant if it is not incorporated into the actual production process.  And it is only incorporated into the production process via investment.

To understand productivity growth, and why it has fallen in recent decades and perhaps especially so in recent years, one must therefore also look at the investment taking place, and why it is what it is.  The rest of this blog post will do that.

B.  The Slowdown in the Pace of Investment

The first point to note is that net investment (i.e. after depreciation) has been falling in recent decades when expressed as a share of GDP, with this true for both private and public investment:

Domestic Fixed Investment, Total, Public, and Private, Net, percentage of GDP, 1951 to 2015, updated Aug 16, 2016

Total net investment has been on a clear downward trend since the mid-1960s.  Private net investment has been volatile, falling sharply with the onset of an economic downturn and then recovering.  But since the late 1970s its trend has also clearly been downward. Net private investment has been less than 3 1/2% of GDP in recent years, or less than half what it averaged between 1951 and 1980 (of over 7% of GDP).  And net public investment, while less volatile, has plummeted over time.  It averaged 3.1% of GDP between 1951 and 1968, but is only 0.5% of GDP now (as of 2015), or less than one-sixth of what it was before.

With falling net investment, the rates of growth of public and private capital stocks (fixed assets) have fallen (where 2014 is the most recent year for which the BEA has released such data):

Rate of Growth In Per Capita Net Stock of Private and Government Fixed Assets, edited, 1951 to 2014

Indeed, expressed in per capita terms, the stock of public capital is now falling.  The decrepit state of our highways, bridges, and other public infrastructure should not be a surprise.  And the stock of private capital fell each year between 2009 and 2011, with some recovery since but still at almost record low growth.

Even setting aside the recent low (or even negative) figures, the trend in the pace of growth for both public and private capital has declined since the mid-1960s.  Why might this be?

C.  Why Has Investment Slowed?

The answer is simple and clear for pubic capital.  Conservative politicians, in both the US Congress and in many states, have forced cuts in public investment over the years to the current low levels.  For whatever reasons, whether ideological or something else, conservative politicians have insisted on cutting or even blocking much of what the United States used to invest in publicly.

Yet public, like private, investment is important to productivity.  It is not only commuters trying to get to work who spend time in traffic jams from inadequate roads, and hence face work days of not 8 1/2 hours, but rather 10 or 11 or even 12 hours (with consequent adverse impacts on their productivity).  It affects also truck drivers and repairmen, who can accomplish less on their jobs due to time spent in jams.  Or, as a consequence of inadequate public investment in computer technology, a greater number of public sector workers are required than otherwise, in jobs ranging from issuing driver’s licenses to enrolling people in Medicare.  Inadequate public investment can hold back economic productivity in many ways.

The reasons behind the fall in private investment are less obvious, but more interesting. An obvious possible cause to check is whether private profitability has fallen.  If it has, then a reduction in private investment relative to output would not be a surprise.  But this has in fact not been the case:

Rate of Return on Produced Assets, 1951 to 2015, updated

The nominal rate of return on private investment has not only been high, but also surprisingly steady over the years.  Profits are defined here as the net operating surplus of all private entities, and is taken from the national account figures of the BEA.  They are then taken as a ratio to the stock of private produced assets (fixed assets plus inventories) as of the beginning of the year.  This rate of return has varied only between 8 and 13% over the period since at least 1951, and over the last several years has been around 11%.

Many might be surprised by both this high level of profitability and its lack of volatility.  I was.  But it should be noted that the measure of profitability here, net operating surplus, is a broad measure of all the returns to capital.  It includes not only corporate profitability, but also profits of unincorporated businesses, payments of interest (on borrowed capital), and payments of rents (as on buildings). That is, this is the return on all forms of private productive capital in the economy.

The real rates of return have been more volatile, and were especially low between 1974 and 1983, when inflation was high.  They are measured here by adjusting the nominal returns for inflation, using the GDP deflator as the measure for inflation.  But this real rate of return was a good 9.6% in 2015.  That is high for a real rate of return.  It was higher than that only for one year late in the Clinton administration, and for several years between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s.  But it was never higher than 11%.  The current real rate of return on private capital is far from low.

Why then has private investment slowed, in relation to output, if profitability is as high now as it has ever been since the 1950s?  One could conceive of several possible reasons. They include:

a)  Along the lines of what Robert Gordon has argued, perhaps the underlying pace of technological progress has slowed, and thus there is less of an incentive to undertake new investments (since the returns to replacing old capital with new capital will be less).  The rate of growth of capital then slows, and this keeps up profitability (as the capital becomes more scarce relative to output) even as the attractiveness of new investment diminishes.

b)  Conservatives might argue that the reduced pace of investment could be due to increased governmental regulations, which makes investment more difficult and raises its cost.  This might be difficult to reconcile with the rate of return on capital nonetheless remaining high, but in principle could be if one argues that the slower pace of new investment keeps up profitability as capital then becomes more scarce relative to output. But note that this argument would require that the increased burden of regulation began during the Reagan years in the early 1980s (when the share of private investment in GDP first started to slow – see the chart above), and built up steadily since then through both Republican and Democratic administrations.  It would not be something that started only recently under Obama.

c)  One could also argue that the reduced investment might be a consequence of “Baumol’s Cost Disease”.  This was discussed in earlier posts on this blog, both for overall government spending and for government investment in infrastructure specifically.  As discussed in those posts, Baumol’s Cost Disease explains why activities where productivity growth may be relatively more difficult to achieve than in other activities, will see their relative costs increase over time.  Construction is an example, where productivity growth has been historically more difficult to achieve than has been the case in manufacturing.  Thus the cost of investing, both public and private, relative to the cost of other items will increase over time.  This can then also be a possible explanation of slowing new investment, with that slower investment then keeping profitability up due to increasing scarcity of capital.

One problem with each of the possible explanations described above is that they all depend on capital investments becoming less attractive than before, either due to higher costs or due to reduced prospective return.  If such factors were indeed critical, one would need to take into account also the effect of taxes on investment returns.  And such taxes have been cut sharply over this same period.  As discussed in an earlier blog post, taxes on corporate profits, for example, are taxed now at an effective rate of less than 20%, based on what is actually paid after all the legal deductions and credits are included.  And this tax rate has fallen steadily over time.  The current 20% rate is less than half the effective rate that applied in the 1950s and 1960s, when the effective rate averaged almost 45%.  And the tax rate on long-term capital gains, as would apply to returns on capital to individuals, fell from a peak of just below 40% in the mid-1970s to just 15% following the Bush II tax cuts and to 20% since 2013.

Such sharp cuts in taxes on profits implies that the after-tax rate of return on assets has risen sharply (the before-tax rate of return, shown on the chart above, has been flat).  Yet despite this, private investment has fallen steadily since the early 1980s as a share of GDP.

Such explanations for the reason behind the fall in private investment since the early 1980s are therefore questionable.  However, the purpose of this blog post is not to debate this. Economists are good at coming up with models, possibly convoluted, which can explain things ex post.  Several could apply here.

Rather, I would suggest that there might be an alternative explanation for why private investment has been declining.  While consistent with basic economics, I have not seen it before.  This explanation focuses on the stagnant real wages seen since the early 1980s, and the impact this would have on whether or not to invest.

D.  The Impact of Low Real Wages

Real wages have stagnated in the US since the early 1980s, as has been discussed in earlier posts on this blog (see in particular this post).  The chart below, updated to the most recent figures available, compares the real median wage since 1979 (the earliest year available for this data series) to real GDP per worker employed:

Real GDP per Worker versus Real Median Wage, 1979Q1 to 2016Q2, rev

Real median wages have been flat overall:  Just 3% higher in 2016 than what they were 37 years before.  But real GDP per worker is almost 60% higher over this same period.  This has critically important implications for both private investment and for productivity growth. To sum up in one line the discussion that will follow below, there is less and less reason to invest in new, productivity enhancing, capital, if labor is available at a stagnant real wage that has changed little in 37 years.

Traditional economics, as commonly taught, would find it difficult to explain the observed stagnation in real wages while productivity has risen (even if at a slower pace than before). A core result taught in microeconomics is that in “perfectly competitive” markets, labor will be paid the value of its marginal product.  One would not then see a divergence such as that seen in this chart between growth in productivity and a lack of growth in the real wage.

(The more careful observers among the readers of this post might note that the productivity curve shown here is for average productivity, and not the marginal productivity of an extra worker.  This is true.  Marginal productivity for the economy as a whole cannot be easily observed, nor indeed even be well defined.  However, one should note that the average productivity curve, as shown here, is rising over time.  This can only happen if marginal productivity on new investments are above average productivity at any point in time.  For other reasons, the real average wage would not rise permanently above average productivity (there would be an “adding-up” problem otherwise), but the theory would still predict a rise in the real wage with the increase in observed productivity.)

There are, however, clear reasons why workers might not be paid the value of their marginal product in the real world.  As noted, the theory applies in markets that are assumed to be perfectly competitive, and there are many reasons why this is not the case in the world we live in.  Perfect competition assumes that both parties to the transaction (the workers and employers) have complete information on not only the opportunities available in the market and on the abilities of the individual worker, but also that there are no costs to switching to an alternative worker or employer.  If there is a job on the other side of the country that would pay the individual worker a bit more, then the theory assumes the worker will switch to it.  But there are, of course, significant costs to moving to the other side of the country.  Furthermore, there will be uncertainty on what the abilities of any individual worker will be, so employers will normally seek to keep the workers they already have to fill their needs (as they know what these workers can do), than take a risk on a largely unknown new worker who might be willing to work for a lower wage.

For these and other reasons, labor markets are not perfectly competitive, and one should not then be surprised to find workers are not being paid the value of their marginal product.  But there is also an important factor coming from the macroeconomy. Microeconomics assumes that all resources, including labor resources, are being fully employed.  But unemployment exists and is often substantial.  Additional workers can then be hired at the current wage, without a need for the firm to raise that wage.  And that will hold whether or not the productivity of those workers has risen.

In such an environment, when unemployment is substantial one should not be surprised to find a divergence between growth in productivity and growth in the real wage.  And while there have of course been sharp fluctuations arising from the business cycle in the rate of unemployment from year to year, the simple average in the rate since 1979 has been 6.4%.  This is well in excess of what is normally considered the full employment rate of unemployment (of 5% or less).  Macro policy (both fiscal and monetary) has not done a very good job in most of the years since 1979 in ensuring there is sufficient demand in the aggregate in the economy to allow all workers who want to be employed in fact to be employed.

In such an environment, of workers being available for hire at a stagnant real wage which over time diverges more and more from their productivity, consider the investment decision a private firm faces.  Suppose they see a market opportunity and can sell more. To produce more, they have two options.  They can hire more labor to work with their existing plant and equipment to produce more, or they can invest in new plant and equipment.  If they choose the latter, they can produce more with fewer workers than they would otherwise need at the new level of production.  There will be more output per unit of labor input, or put another way, productivity will rise if the latter option is chosen.

But in an economy where labor is available at a flat real wage that has not changed in decades, the best choice will often simply be to hire more labor.  The labor is cheap.  New investment has a cost, and if the cost of the alternative (hire more labor) is low enough, then it is more profitable for the firm simply to hire more labor.  Productivity in such a case will then not go up, and may indeed even go down.  But this could be the economically wise choice, if labor is cheap enough.

Viewed in this way, one can see that the interpretation of many conservatives on the relationship between productivity growth and the real wage has it backwards.  Real wages have not been stagnant because productivity growth has been slow.  Labor productivity since 1979 has grown by a cumulative 60%, while real median wages have been basically flat.

Rather, the causation may well be going the other way.  Stagnant and low real wages have led to less and less of an incentive for private firms to invest.  And such a cut-back is precisely what we saw in the chart above on private (as well as public) investment as a share of GDP.  With less investment, the pace of productivity growth has then slowed.

As a reflection of this confusion, conservatives have denounced any effort to raise wages, asserting that if this is done, jobs will be lost as firms choose instead to invest and automate.  They assert that raising the minimum wage, which is currently lower in real terms than what it was when Harry Truman was president, would lead to minimum wage workers losing their jobs.  As a former CEO of McDonalds put it in a widely cited news report from last May, a $15 minimum wage would lead to “a job loss like you can’t believe.”   Fast food outlets like McDonalds would then find it better to invest in robotic arms to bag the french fries, he said, rather than hire workers to do this.

This is true.  The confusion comes from the widespread presumption that this is necessarily bad.  Outlets like McDonalds would then require fewer workers, but they would still need workers (including to operate the robotic arms), and those workers would be more productive.  They could be paid more, and would be if the minimum wage is raised.

The error in the argument comes from the presumption that the workers being employed at the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour do not and can not possess the skills needed to be employed in some other job.  There is no reason to believe this to be the case.  There was no problem with ensuring workers could be fully employed at a minimum wage which in real terms was higher in 1950, when Harry Truman was president, than what it is now.  And average worker productivity is 2.4 times higher now than what it was then.

Ensuring full employment in the economy as a whole is not a responsibility of private business.  Rather, it is a government responsibility.  Fiscal and monetary policy need to be managed so that labor markets are tight enough to ensure all workers who want a job can get a job, while not so tight at to lead to inflation.

Following the economic collapse at the end of the Bush administration in 2008, monetary policy did all it could to try to ensure sufficient aggregate demand in the economy (interest rates were held at or close to zero).  But monetary policy alone will not be enough when the economy collapsed as far as it did in 2008.  It needs to be complemented by supportive fiscal policy.  While there was the initial stimulus package of Obama which was critical to stabilizing the economy, it did not go far enough and was allowed to run out. And government spending from 2010 was then cut, acting as a drag which kept the pace of recovery slow.  The economy has only in the past year returned to close to full employment.  It is not a coincidence that real wages are finally starting to rise (as seen in the chart above).

E.  Conclusion

Productivity growth is key in any economy.  Over the long run, living standards can only improve if productivity does.  Hence there is reason to be concerned with the slower pace of productivity growth seen since the early 1980s, and especially in recent years.

Investment, both public and private, is what leads to productivity growth, but the pace of investment has slowed since the levels seen in the 1950s and 60s.  The cause of the decline in public investment is clear:  Conservative politicians have slowed or even blocked public investment.  The result is obvious in our public infrastructure:  It is overused, under-maintained, and often an embarrassment.

The cause of the slowdown in private investment is less obvious, but equally important. First, one cannot blame a decline in private investment on a fall in profitability:  Profitability is higher now than it has been in all but one year since the mid-1960s.

Rather, one needs to recognize that the incentive to invest in productivity enhancing tools will not be there (or not there to the same extent) if labor can be hired at a wage that has stagnated for decades, and which over time became lower and lower relative to existing productivity.  It then makes more sense for firms to hire more workers with their existing stock of capital and other equipment, rather than invest in new, productivity enhancing, capital.  And this is what we have observed:  Workers are being hired, but productivity is not growing.

An argument is often made that if firms did indeed invest in capital and equipment that would raise productivity, that workers would then lose their jobs.  This is actually true by definition:  If productivity is higher, then the firm needs fewer workers per unit of output than they would otherwise.  But whether more workers would be employed in the economy as a whole does not depend on the actions of any individual firm, but rather on whether fiscal and monetary policy is managed to ensure full employment.

That is, it is the investment decisions of private firms which determine whether productivity will grow or not.  It is the macro management decisions of government which determine whether workers will be fully employed or not.

To put this bluntly, and in simplistic “bumper sticker” type terms, one could say that private businesses are not job creators, but rather job destroyers.  And that is fine.  Higher productivity means that a firm needs fewer workers to produce what they make than would otherwise have been needed, and this is important for ensuring efficiency.  As a necessary complement to this, however, it is the actions of government, through its fiscal and monetary policies, which “creates” jobs by managing aggregate demand to ensure all workers who want to be employed, are employed.