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The current U.S. economic recovery has lasted so long (at more than ten years old, it’s already tied with the 1990s expansion as the longest on record), that anxiety about how long it might last, and when a new recession might begin, is entirely understandable. Yet what most economy watchers keep missing is what RealityChek regulars have understood for years – the quality of America’s growth matters at least as much as the quantity.

As a result, the latest government report shedding light on this growth – the preliminary look at the gross domestic product (GDP) for the first quarter of this year – was important not only for revealing that the economy expanded at a healthy 3.21 percent at an annual rate. It was also important for showing that by several crucial measures, the growth recipe was by far the healthiest since at least the period during which United States enjoyed its last period of robust expansion – back in 2014 and 2015.

The definition of healthy growth used by RealityChek is growth that depends relatively little on increases in personal consumption and housing investment. Those segments of the GDP and their bloat were most responsible for inflating the previous decades’ bubbles that burst so disastrously in 2007 and 2008, nearly blew up the entire global economy, and triggered the worst national economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Fortunately, the GDP data compiled by the Commerce Department make it easy to calculate how their current growth contribution compares with their past record. And, as with the latest trade figures, they show that progress towards improving growth’s health has been dramatic so far during President Trump’s administration.

In particular, during that previous high growth period (under President Obama), the economy’s quarterly expansion ranged from 2.60 percent at an annual rate to 3.81 percent after inflation. But the growth contributions made by personal consumption and housing (which I’ve called a “toxic combination”) generally ranged from 62.86 percent to 79.70 percent (with one outlier quarter – the fourth of 2014 – coming in at nearly 187 percent, meaning that other elements of the GDP worked to shrink the economy).

During the high growth period under President Trump, which began in the first quarter of 2018, inflation-adjusted quarterly GDP has actually risen by a somewhat slower pace: between 2.58 percent annualized and that 3.21 percent rate of the first quarter of this year. But the contributions made by the toxic combination have ranged only from ten percent to 67.27 percent. And the figure for that high-growth first quarter of this year was only 22.19 percent.

Also worth noting are the growth rates during the Obama years when the role of the toxic combination was within that Trump range. They were somewhat lower.

Principally, in the second and third quarters of 2014, the toxic combination’s combined real growth contribution was 65.69 percent and 62.86 percent, respectively. Annualized constant dollar growth during those quarters was 2.60 percent and 3.04 percent. Those are solid results, but not quite as good as those from the second, third, and fourth quarters of 2018. Then, the toxic combination’s growth contribution ranged between 60 percent and 67.27 percent, and growth ranged from 2.87 percent to three percent.

As indicated above, these results can be pretty volatile from quarter to quarter. But smoothing them out by using annual figures tells a story even more favorable to the Trump record. Here are those annual figures starting with 2009-10, the first recovery year.

From left to right, the columns represent the personal consumption contribution to after-inflation growth measured in percentage points (e.g., the very first figures shows 0.99 percentage points of 1.80 percent growth), the housing contribution, the total percent – not percentage points – of growth they fueled, and the growth rate for the year in question.

09-10:          1.20/2.60       -0.08/2.60         1.12/2.60         46.92%         2.56%

10-11:          1.29/1.60        0.00/1.60         1.29/1.60         80.63%         1.55%

11-12:          1.03/2.20        0.31/2.20         1.34/2.20         60.91%         2.25%

12-13:          0.99/1.80        0.34/1.80         1.33/1.80         73.89%         1.84%

13-14:          1.97/2.50        0.12/1.80         2.09/1.80       116.11%         2.45%

14-15:          2.50/2.90        0.33/2.90         2.83/2.90         97.59%        2.88%

15-16:          1.85/1.60        0.23/1.60         2.08/1.60      130.00%         1.57%

16-17:          1.73/2.20        0.13/2.20         1.86/2.20        84.55%         2.22%

17-18           1.80/2.90      -0.01/2.90         1.79/2.90        61.72%          2.86%

From left to right, the columns represent the personal consumption contribution to after-inflation growth measured in percentage points (e.g., the very first figures shows 0.99 percentage points of 1.80 percent growth), the housing contribution, the total percent – not percentage points – of growth they fueled, and the growth rate for the year in question.

As with the quarterly figures, during the Obama years, when the growth contribution of the toxic combination was low, so was growth.  During the two full Trump data years, as growth itself sped up, the toxic combination’s contribution has plummeted to multi-year (at least) lows.

But a big question remains unanswered: When, under the Obama administration, the economy did manage to grow satisfactorily with a relatively small contribution by the toxic combination, this health growth recipe didn’t last. Indeed, by the third quarter of 2015, growth itself began slowing markedly, until it bottomed at 1.30 annualized in the second quarter of 2016. And it never broke two percent again. But the toxic combination’s contributions during that decelerating growth period ranged from 91.05 percent to a stunning 430 percent (in the fourth quarter of 2015).

The Trump years’ much better performance in this respect has lasted only two years. Only if this strengthening proves to have legs will it be legitimate to start considering the economy genuinely Great Again.

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