How Fast is GDP Growing?: A Curiosum

A.  How Fast is GDP Growing?

The Bureau of Economic Analysis released today its first estimate (what it calls it’s Advance Estimate) for the growth of GDP and its components for the third quarter of 2019.  Most of it looked basically as one would expect, with an estimate of real GDP growth of 1.9% in the quarter, or about the same as the 2.0% growth rate of the second quarter.  There has been a continued slowdown in private investment (which I will discuss below), but this has been offset by an expansion in government spending under Trump, coupled with steady growth in personal consumption expenditures (as one would expect with an economy now at full employment).

But there was a surprise on the last page of the report, in Appendix Table A.  This table provides growth rates of some miscellaneous aggregates that contribute to GDP growth, as well as their contribution to overall GDP growth.  One line shown is for “motor vehicle output”.  What is surprising is that the growth rate shown, at an annualized rate, is an astounding 32.6%!  The table also indicates that real GDP excluding motor vehicle output would have grown at just 1.2% in the quarter.  (I get 1.14% using the underlying, non-rounded, numbers, but these are close.)  The difference is shown in the chart above.

Some points should be noted.  While all these figures provided by the BEA are shown at annualized growth rates, one needs to keep in mind that the underlying figures are for growth in just one quarter.  Hence the quarterly growth will be roughly one-quarter of the annual rate, plus the effects of compounding.  For the motor vehicle output numbers, the estimated growth in the quarter was 7.3%, which if compounded over four quarters would yield the 32.6% annualized rate.  One should also note that the quarterly output figures of this sector are quite volatile historically, and while there has not been a change as large as the 32.6% since 2009/10 (at the time of the economic downturn and recovery) there have been a few quarters when it was in the 20s.

But what appears especially odd, but also possibly interesting to those trying to understand how the GDP accounts are estimated, is why there should have been such a tremendously high growth in the sector, of 32.6%, when the workers at General Motors were on strike for half of September (starting on September 15).  GM is the largest car manufacturer in the US, its production plummeted during the strike, yet the GDP figures indicate that motor vehicle output not only soared in the quarter, but by itself raised overall GDP growth to 1.9% from a 1.2% rate had the sector been flat.

This is now speculation on my part, but I suspect the reason stems from the warning the BEA regularly provides that the initial GDP estimates that are issued just one month after the end of the quarter being covered, really are preliminary and partial.  The BEA receives data on the economy from numerous sources, and a substantial share of that data is incomplete just one month following the end of a quarter.  For motor vehicle production, I would not be surprised if the BEA might only be receiving data for two months (July and August in this case), in time for this initial estimate.  They would then estimate the third month based on past patterns and seasonality.

But because of the strike, past patterns will be misleading.  Production at GM may have been ramped up in July and August in anticipation of the strike, and a mechanical extrapolation of this into September, while normally fine, might have been especially misleading this time.

I stress that this is speculation on my part.  Revised estimates of GDP growth in the third quarter, based on more complete data, will be issued in late November and then again, with even more data, in late December.  We will see what these estimates say.  I would not be surprised if the growth figure for GDP is revised substantially downwards.

B.  Growth in Nonresidential Private Fixed Investment

The figures released by the BEA today also include its estimates for private fixed investment.  The nonresidential portion of this is basically business investment, and it is interesting to track what it has been doing over the last few years.  The argument made for the Trump/Republican tax cuts pushed through Congress in December 2017 were that they would spur business investment.  Corporate profit taxes were basically cut in half.

But the figures show no spur in business investment following their taxes being slashed.  Nonresidential private fixed investment was growing at a relatively high rate already in the fourth quarter of 2017 (similar to rates seen between mid-2013 and mid-2014, and there even was growth of 11.2% in the second quarter of 2014).  This continued through the first half of 2018.  But growth since has fallen steadily, and is now even negative, with a decline of 3.0% in the third quarter of 2019:

There is no indication here that slashing corporate profit taxes (and other business taxes) led to greater business investment.

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.

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.

GDP Growth in the Recovery Remains Slow, But Policies Are Not Holding Back Business Investment

GDP growth in the economic recovery from the 2008 collapse remains weak.  The recently released GDP figures for the second quarter of 2011 (second revision, from the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the Department of Commerce), revises downward the growth estimate to 2.0% from the previous estimate of 2.5% (all figures are quarter on quarter growth, seasonally adjusted at annual rates).  While still positive, and better than earlier in the year, such growth is insufficient to bring down the still high unemployment to a significant degree.

Four points:

  1. The overall GDP growth rate would have been 1.55% points higher (i.e. a more decent 3 1/2%) if the change in private inventories had remained the same as it had been in the second quarter of 2011.  Over time, the contribution to GDP growth from inventory accumulation is on average close to zero, so one would expect that over the next couple of quarters this will switch back to positive from negative to balance out desired inventories.  Note that the contribution to the growth in GDP in any period is the change in the change in private inventories.  Private inventories did not fall in the third quarter of 2011:  they merely failed to grow as fast as they had in the second quarter.  I will try to prepare a methodology note discussing this arithmetic at some point in the future, and post it in the Econ 101 section of this blog.  (Update:  It is now posted here.)
  2. Obama has been strongly criticized by Republicans that his policies have been anti-business, and hence have led business not to invest, with this then resulting in the disappointing growth of GDP.  But the figures do not support this.  Business investment has in fact been quite good, as seen in the figure above, with growth of 15% in the most recent quarter, and generally quite strong growth since the beginning of 2010.  This is especially surprising as capacity utilization (as estimated by the US Fed) is still only 78% of potential capacity (and while never at 100%, this figure will be at around 85% when the economy is close to full capacity utilization).  Business is investing even with the current excess in capacity.
  3. An economic headwind that has been hurting growth, starting in late 2010 and then into 2011, has been the fall in government demand.  This has principally been from cutbacks in state and local governments.  If government demand had simply not been cut, GDP growth would have been about half a percentage point higher than what it was from simply the direct impact of the government cut-backs, and even higher if multiplier effects are included.
  4. And, perhaps stating the obvious, while Obama is now being blamed for the downturn, the critics need to be reminded that the sharp collapse in output came in 2008.  This was then turned around in 2009, after Obama took office, with growth since.  The growth has not been fast enough, and the economy remains well below its potential capacity, but reverting to the previous policies is the last thing one should do.