, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One of the biggest economic questions facing Americans this holiday season – whether they’re heavily into the roller-coaster stock market or not – is whether the nation will slide into recession. I’m skeptical on that score, but I’m still wondering more about what I’ve long regarded as an even more important question: Will the quality of America’s growth start improving meaningfully?

As I’ve often explained, I prioritize this issue because, as significant as maintaining economic growth is, not all growth is created equal. In particular, unhealthy growth eventually tends to produce terrible results – the prime lesson Americans should have learned since the bubble-ized expansion of the previous decade collapsed into a terrifying financial crisis and the worst recession since the Great Depression.

So this looks like a good time once again to check into whether the U.S. growth recipe has changed since then, and if so, how much. As known by RealityChek regulars, the main indicator is how heavily increases in the inflation-adjusted gross domestic product (the growth measure most widely followed by knowledgeable students of the economy) depend on personal consumption and housing. For these are the parts of the economy whose bubble-decade bloat directly sparked the crisis. And the big takeaway as of last week’s release of the final (for now) figures on third quarter GDP? The situation is turning around, but at supertanker-like (i.e., painfully slow) speed.

Specifically, what I’ve called the toxic combination of personal consumption and housing (parts of the economy dominated by spending and borrowing, rather than saving and investing) came in at 72.66 percent of real GDP in the third quarter. This means that it’s decreased consistently since the first quarter of 2017 – the first quarter of the Trump administration’s stewardship of the economy – when it stood at 73.01 percent. For the record, as of the last quarter of the Obama economy (the fourth quarter of 2016), this figure stood at 72.93 percent

So that’s cause for encouragement. It’s also crucial, however, to recall that at the start of the last recession – at the end of 2007 – personal consumption plus housing as a share of real GDP was 71.49 percent. As a result, over that key time-span, the economy has evolved exactly the way we shouldn’t want. But at least by this measure the economy isn’t nearly as bubbly as at its peak during that bubble decade – when the toxic combination reached 73.74 percent of after-inflation GDP.

Another measure of America’s progress toward recreating an “economy built to last” (a wonderfully on-target phrase used by former President Obama) is the share of real GDP devoted business spending. Here, however, the trends show some troubling recent signs of backsliding.

At the start of the current economic recovery, in the middle of 2009, such spending represented 11.19 percent of price-adjusted GDP. The annual numbers since then, through 2017, are presented below:

2010: 11.42 percent

2011: 12.22 percent

2012: 13.08 percent

2013: 13.37 percent

2014: 13.95 percent

2015: 13.80 percent

2016: 13.65 percent

2017: 14.06 percent

Through 2014, in other words, business spending (or investment, if you prefer) as a share of the economy rose healthily. But this growth shifted into reverse in 2015 and 2016, before rebounding in 2017.

For the third quarter of 2018, business investment as a share of real GDP reached 14.61 percent – which represents further improvement. But the quarterly story isn’t as positive:

1Q 18 14.48 percent

2Q 18 14.64 percent

3Q 18 14.61 percent

That is, business investment as a share of inflation-adjusted GDP dipped between the second and third quarters. Is this dip a blip? Or the start of a longer-term decline? I’m not in the crystal ball business; that’s why I’ll be watching these numbers closely going forward – and why I believe you should, too.