The Sluggish Recovery: Fiscal Drag Continues to Hold Back the Economy

Recessions - GDP Around Peak, 12Q before to 22Q after

I.  Introduction

The recovery from the 2008 economic collapse remains sluggish, with GDP growing in the first half of 2013 at an annualized rate of only 1.4% (according to recently released BEA estimates).  And based on fourth quarter to fourth quarter figures, GDP grew by only 2.0% in 2011 followed by just 2.0% again in 2012.  As a result, the unemployment rate has come down only slowly, from a peak of 10.0% in 2009 to a still high 7.4% as of July.

Conservatives have asserted that the recovery has been slow due to huge and unprecedented increases in government spending during Obama’s term, and that the answer should therefore be to cut that spending.  But as has been noted in earlier posts on this blog, direct government spending during Obama’s term has instead been falling.  This reduction in demand for what the economy can produce has slowed the recovery from what it would have been.

This blog will update numbers first presented in a March 2012 post on this blog, which compared the paths of GDP, government spending, and other items in the periods before and after the start of each of the recessions the US has faced since the 1970s.  That earlier blog post looked at the paths of GDP and the other items from 12 quarters before the business cycle peak (as dated by the NBER, the entity that organizes a panel of experts to date economic downturns) to 16 quarters after those peaks (when the downturns by definition begin).  The figures were rebased to equal 100.0 at the business cycle peaks.  We now have an additional year and a half of GDP account data, so it is now possible to extend the paths to 22 quarters from the start of the recent downturn in December 2007.  This has therefore been done for all.

The conclusions from the earlier post unfortunately remain, but are even more clear with the additional year and a half of observations.  GDP growth remains sluggish, government spending has fallen by even more, and residential investment remains depressed (although it has finally begun to recover).

II.  The Path of Real GDP

The graph at the top of this post shows the path followed by real GDP in the periods from 12 quarters before to 22 quarters after the onset dates of each of the recessions the US has faced since the 1970s.  The sluggish recovery from the current downturn is clear.

The economy fell sharply in the final year of the Bush administration, and then stabilized quickly after Obama took office.  GDP then began to grow from the third quarter of 2009 and has continued to grow since.  But the pace of recovery has been slow.  By 22 quarters from the previous business cycle peak, real GDP in the current downturn is only 4% above where it had been at that peak.  At the same point in the other downturns since the 1970s, real GDP was between 15% and 20% above where it had been at the previous peak.  This has been a terrible recovery.

 III.  The Path of Government Spending

How has this recovery differed from the others?  To start to understand this, look at the path government spending has taken:

Recessions - Govt Cons + Inv Expenditures Around Peak, 12Q before to 22Q after

Direct government spending has fallen in this recovery, in sharp contrast to the increases seen in the other recoveries.  Real government spending was 26% higher by 22 quarters after the onset of the July 1981 recession (the green line) during the Reagan presidency, and 13% higher at the same point in the recovery from the March 2001 recession (the plum colored line) during the Bush II presidency.  While both Reagan and Bush claimed to represent small government conservatism, government spending instead rose sharply during their terms.

In contrast, in the current downturn direct government spending is now 1.2% below what it had been at the start of the recession in December 2007.  Furthermore, it is worth noting that while it rose in the final year of the Bush presidency and then in the first half year after Obama took office (a major reason why the recovery then began), it has since fallen sharply.  Government spending is now almost 7% below where it had been in mid-2009, a half year after Obama took office.  Such a decline (indeed no decline) has ever happened before, going back at least four decades, as the economy has struggled to recover from a recession.  The closest was during the Clinton years, when government spending was essentially flat (a 1% increase at the same point in the recovery).

Note that the measure of government spending shown here is that for total government spending on consumption and investment (i.e. all government spending on goods and services).  This is the direct component of GDP.  Government spending can also be measured by including transfer payments to households (such as for Social Security or unemployment insurance), but as was noted in the earlier blog post from March 2012, the results are similar.  Note also that the government spending figures include spending at the state and local levels, in addition to federal spending.  While we speak of government spending as taking place during some presidential term in office, the decisions are made not simply by the president but also by many others (including state and local officials, and the Congress) in the US system.  But the president at the time is typically assigned the blame (or the credit) for the outcome.

IV.  The Path of Residential Investment

The current downturn and recovery also differs from the others by the scale of the housing collapse, and consequent fall in residential investment:

Recessions - Residential Investment Around Peaks, 12Q before to 22Q after

The build up of the housing bubble from 2002 to 2006 was unprecedented in the US, and the collapse then more severe.  As the graph above shows, there has been a start in the recovery of residential investment from the lows it had reached in 2009 / 2010, but it is still far below the levels seen in previous downturns.

Housing had been overbuilt during the bubble in the Bush years, leaving an oversupply of housing once the bubble burst.  And while supply was in excess, demand for housing was reduced due to the severe recession.  As was discussed in an earlier blog post on the housing crisis, the result was a doubling up of households as well as delays in household formation as young adults continued to live with their parents.  Residential investment therefore collapsed, and has recovered only very slowly.

V.  The Path of Household Debt

The housing bubble also led to over-indebtedness of households.  Nothing of this sort at all close to this scale had ever happened before in the US.  With the lack of regulation and oversight of the financial sector during the Bush administration, banks and other financial entities launched and aggressively marketed and sold financial instruments that led to a bidding up of home prices.  But these new financial instruments were only viable if housing prices continued to rise forever.  When the housing bubble burst, widespread defaults followed.  And those households who did not default struggled to pay down the debts they had taken on, for assets now worth less than the size of the debts tied to them.

The result was a sustained fall in household debt (three-quarters of which is mortgage debt) in the period of the downturn:

Recessions - HH Debt Around Peak, 12Q before to 22Q after

This pay-down of debt had never happened before, and is in stark contrast to the rise in household debt seen in all the other downturns of the last four decades.

VI.  The Path of Personal Consumption Expenditure

Households struggling to pay down their debt have to cut back on their consumption expenditures.  This brings us to the last element of the current recovery I would like to highlight:  the especially slow recovery in household consumption.  That path of consumption during the current downturn stands out again in contrast to the paths followed in the other downturns and recoveries of the last four decades in the US:

Recessions - Personal Consumption Around Peaks, 12Q before to 22Q after

The difference is stark.  Households could spend more in the prior recoveries in part because they could continue to borrow (see the graph on household debt above).  In this recovery, households have instead had to pay down the debts they had accumulated in the housing bubble years, and could increase their household consumption only modestly.

VII.  Conclusion

The recovery in the current downturn has been disappointing.  GDP has grown since soon after Obama took office, but has grown only slowly, and has been on a path well below that seen in other recoveries.

There are a number of reasons for this.  Household consumption has kept to a low path as households have struggled to repay the over-indebtedness they had accumulated during the housing bubble years.  Residential investment collapsed as well following the bubble, is only now starting to recover, and remains far below the levels seen at similar points in other recoveries.
And government spending has been allowed to fall during Obama’s term.  This had never happened before in the previous downturns.  Indeed, while real government spending rose by 26% at the same point in the economic recovery during the Reagan presidency, it has been reduced by over 1% in this recovery (and reduced by 7% from what it had been a half year after Obama took office).
The reduction in government spending reduced the demand for what the economy could have produced.  In this it was similar to the reduced demand resulting from lower residential investment or lower household consumption expenditure.  All these reductions in demand reduced GDP, reduced the demand for workers, and hence increased unemployment.  But while residential investment and household consumption can only be influenced indirectly and highly imperfectly by government policy, government has direct control over how much it spends.  That is, government can decide whether to build a road or a school building, and doing so will employ workers and will lead to an increase in GDP.  Hence government spending is a direct instrument that can be used to raise growth and employment, should the government so choose.
Sadly, and in stark contrast to the sharp increase in government spending during the Reagan period that spurred the recovery to the 1981 downturn, US politics during the Obama presidency have instead led to a cut-back in government spending, with a resulting drag on growth.  The disappointing consequences are clear.

New Housing Starts, While Better, Are Still Depressed

US housing starts, private single family homes, January 1980 to August 2012The US Census Bureau released this morning its regular monthly report on US housing starts.  News reports were positive, noting that housing starts are rising and are now well above where they were.  Starts on private single family homes in August grew by 27% over what they were a year ago to a pace of 535,000 (at a seasonally adjusted annual rate), while starts on all private housing units, including multi-family units such as apartments, grew by 29% over the year ago figure to a pace of 750,000.

Such growth rates are substantial.  But looking at the figures over a longer period than just a year shows that the increases, while welcome, are not as strong as they would appear.  The housing market remains depressed, with housing construction still far below what a more normal level might be, and even further below where it was during the 2002 to 2006 housing bubble.  The graph above puts the recent figures in the longer term context.

The graph shows how new private housing starts (monthly, but at seasonally adjusted annual rates) have moved since 1980.  Housing starts can be volatile, but they have never been so volatile (going back to 1980) as the recent boom and collapse.  The housing bubble started to build in early 2002, and new starts reached an annualized (and seasonally adjusted) peak of over 1.8 million new units in January 2006.  They then fell steadily, and the collapse in the housing market was the major underlying cause of the overall economic collapse in 2008, in the last year of the Bush Administration.  They reached a trough of 358,000 in January 2009, the month Obama was inaugurated, a fall of 80% from the peak.  Since then they have increased, to 535,000 last month, but remain far below what they had been.

A recovery to the previous bubble peak would be unwarranted (on a sustained basis), as it was the build-up of an excess supply of housing which led to the bubble collapsing.  But the American population continues to grow and needs housing, and it is clear that the current pace of construction is insufficient (based on historical patterns).  Prior to 2002, new housing starts was on an upward trend, but at a moderate pace.  But to keep things simple and conservative, one can take as a reasonable floor of where housing starts need to be as the average in 2001, when 1.27 million units were started.

Based on this conservative benchmark, the new housing starts of 535,000 single family homes in August 2012 would need to increase by a factor of  almost 2 1/2 to return to a more normal level.  While this is better than where it was last year in August (when it would have had to triple to reach the benchmark), it still has a long way to go.

But as has been noted previously in this blog (see the posts here and here), the shortfall in home construction since the collapse of the bubble indicates suggests a substantial potential, once housing begins to recover.  (Note that these earlier blog posts focused on new home sales, while the current post focuses on the broader concept of new home starts.  The starts figure includes starts of home units that would not only be sold, but also those which would eventually be rented, whether by original intention or because the new home could not be sold, plus homes which were built by or for a specific owner.)  The need for new homes remains, as the population continues to grow.  In the short-run, families double up, or adult children continue to live with their parents, as was discussed in the blog posts cited above.  But as soon as they are able, these people want to buy their own homes.

Based on a 1.27 million units per year norm, the graph above shows the excess of new homes (shaded in blue) between 2002 and late 2006, and then the deficiency (shaded in red) since then to now.  Based on this norm, the excess of housing started during the bubble totaled 1.3 million units over the full period.  This excess has now been more than worked off.  The cumulative shortfall (shaded in red) comes to 3.9 million units, or triple the previous excess.  Stated another way, there is now a shortfall of a net 2.6 million single family housing units.  There will be pressure to catch up on this once the economy, and the housing market, begins to recover.

Such a catch-up on the accumulated short-fall in new home construction of recent years could serve as a significant stimulus to the economy, as was discussed in the blog posts cited above.  Other commentators, such as Paul Krugman recently, have noted this as well.  But while such a stimulus to demand would be welcome, one needs also to recognize that fiscal drag has been quantitatively more important than the collapse in residential construction in explaining the lack of a strong recovery from the 2008 collapse.  This was discussed in a posting on this blog from last March.  Residential construction is only 2.4% of GDP currently, down from over 6% of GDP at the peak of the bubble, and about 4% of GDP in more normal times.  Government consumption and investment (as in the GDP accounts) is about 20% of GDP, and total government spending (including transfer payments, such as for Social Security or Medicare) is 36% of GDP.  Government is a much larger share of the economy than is residential construction.  Because of this, reversing the fiscal drag resulting from the scaling back of government expenditures in recent years (particularly at the state and local level) and allowing it to grow as it had during the Reagan years, would add more to the economy than a recovery in housing, welcome as a recovery in housing would be.  Numbers are provided in the March post cited above.

In summary, while there have been recent positive signs, housing construction remains depressed.  However, because housing construction has been so depressed for so long, there is now a shortfall in housing units relative to what is needed for a growing population.  Hence a recovery in new home construction should be expected as the economy begins to recover, and could lead to a doubling or tripling of new home construction from where it is now.  This would be a welcome stimulus to the economy.  But welcome as this would be, allowing government expenditures to recover would make an even larger contribution.

Recent Data on Home Prices and New Home Sales: Still Far To Go

Case - Shiller Home Price Index, 10-city composite, January 1987 to April 2012

US new home sales, 1980 to May 2012, annual data

A pair of new reports on housing released yesterday and today have sparked positive reports on conditions in the housing market.  Both indicate that conditions have improved.  But comparisons to the recent past can be misleading as conditions have been so miserable.  It is important to look at the data also in a long-term context.  This blog post updates two which were posted on this site last December (here and here).

Yes, compared to the recent past, conditions have improved.  But viewed over a longer term context, one cannot yet say that the changes are significant.  The recent data might ultimately turn out to have marked a turning point.  But it is too early to say that.  Plus there is far to go before one can say there has been a meaningful recovery from the downturn in US housing that started in early 2006 when the housing bubble burst.

The top graph shows the Case-Shiller 10-City Composite home price index for the period from 1980 to April 2012, where the April figures were released this morning.  The Case-Shiller numbers are three month moving averages (so the “April” numbers represent an average over February, March, and April in their raw data).  The index is calculated by looking at changes over time of individual home prices, comparing the price of the home when it was sold to the price when it was purchased.  There is also a broader 20-City Composite Index, but this index only goes back to 2000.

The Case-Shiller numbers indicate an uptick in prices in recent months.  But the upticks are small, with monthly increases of just 0.7% in April and also in March, no change in February, and negative before.  Compared to a year ago, the index was 2.2% lower.

But all these changes are small compared to the fall of one-third in prices from the peak of the housing bubble in early 2006 to now.  Prices were plummeting in 2007 and 2008, and then finally stabilized within a few months of Obama taking office.  But there has not been a significant change since then.  Nor is it necessarily likely that there will be a significant change anytime soon.  As one can see in the diagram, average home prices were fairly flat for almost a decade, from late 1988 to late 1997.

The New Home Sales figures, released yesterday by the Census Bureau, were somewhat more positive.  Estimated new home sales in May reached 369,000 at an annualized rate.  This was almost 20% higher than the 308,000 figure for May 2011.  The January to May, 2012, average pace of new home sales was 352,800, which was 17% above the 300,400 pace of new home sales over January to May 2011 (with all figures at annual rates).

These increases are more encouraging.  But they are still small compared to the pace of new home sales that reached close to 1.3 million in 2005 at the peak of the housing bubble, as seen in the graph above.  The high rate of new home construction and sales during the bubble was clearly excessive.  As was discussed in the earlier blog post, annual sales of about 900,000 a year in the US right now might be considered roughly what is needed, on average, given the US population and its growth.  Sales at a pace of 369,000 units a year is still far below this.  An increase of 17% over the pace of 300,400 in the January to May 2011 period is good, but sales would need to almost triple (an increase of 200%) to reach 900,000 a year.

Over time, one should expect home building to recover to this roughly 900,000 level.  When this happens, it will serve as a significant spur to the economy.  And it might well start soon.  Taking the 900,000 figure as a rough benchmark, there was excess home construction during the bubble years of the Bush administration from 2002 to 2006.  This is shown as the area in blue in the figure above.  The excess during this period (i.e. the excess over the 900,000 benchmark) totaled 1.1 million housing units between 2002 and 2006.  Construction and sales then plummeted as the bubble burst.  With the continued depressed state of the economy, new home demand has remained low, and the cumulative shortfall from 2007 to now (calculated again relative to a 900,000 home unit per year pace as the “normal” demand) has come to 2.5 million units as of May 2012.  There is therefore now a net shortfall in housing units of 2.5 million minus the 1.1 million previous excess, for a net of 1.4 million units.  And at the current rate of 369,000 units per year (at annualized rates), the net shortfall is growing at a rate of 900,000 – 369,000 = 531,000 units per year, or about 44,000 units per month.

All this is consistent with recent published reports (see this Census Bureau report, or this Washington Post article based on it, from June 20) on how households are “doubling up” in record numbers, particularly with adult children in their 20s continuing to live with their parents.  The Census Bureau estimates that the number of doubled up households increased by 2.0 million between 2007 and 2010, with the number of “additional” adults (over and above the household head and his or her spouse or partner, and excluding students) in such households increasing by 3.8 million over this period.

Many of these additional adults will seek their own homes as soon as they can.  This will happen when the economy improves, and the home purchases will then in turn serve to spur further improvement in the economy.  When this happens, the impact on growth will be significant.  A rough calculation in the previous blog post suggested that new home construction and sales returning to a pace of 900,000 per year would add about 1% of GDP, or 2% of GDP assuming a multiplier of two.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that GDP is about 5% below potential, so such growth in new housing construction could act to make up a significant share of the gap.

This pent up housing demand could therefore act as a significant spur to the economy once the process starts.  This serves to underscore again how important it is to end the fiscal drag that is holding back the economy, and instead allow fiscal growth such as that which acted as a significant spur to the economy during the Reagan years (as was discussed in this earlier post on this blog).  Once growth starts, the recovery of housing construction and sales to a more normal level will act to reinforce the recovery.

It is, however, premature to claim that the recent housing data provides an indication that this recovery is underway.  While positive, the changes are still too small, when seen in the longer term context, to bear much weight in drawing such a conclusion.