Although Thursday’s latest official report on U.S. economic growth was encouraging from a trade policy and national self-sufficiency perspective, as I contended, it was much less heartening from a quality of growth perspective. That, as known by RealityChek regulars, is the crucial issue of whether America’s output is being powered by the kind of engines that can last, or by the kinds (specifically housing spending and personal consumption) that tend to inflate bubbles and produce calamitous burstings.
Specifically, Thursday’s figures pegging a pretty solid rate of economic growth both for the fourth quarter of 2019 (2.06 percent at an annual rate), and for the entirety of last year (2.33 percent least preliminarily), also made clear that way too much of this growth stemmed from housing and personal consumption – which I call the toxic combination because their combined and indeed intertwined bloat produced the last (terrifying) financial crisis and ensuing (punishing) Great Recession.
The highlights (lowlights?): On a quarterly basis, the toxic combination’s share of the total U.S. economy (technically, the gross domestic product, or GDP) in real terms (how all the following dollar figures will be presented) during the last three months of last year came to 72.91 percent. That’s nothing less than the highest such figure during the current economic recovery.
The personal consumption share alone totaled 69.78 percent of inflation-adjusted GDP and actually fell slightly from the third quarter’s 69.79 percent. Even so, that figure was the recovery’s second highest. The housing share of the after-inflation economy hit 3.13 percent – up from the third quarter’s 3.10 percent, but the highest total only since the fourth quarter of 2018 (3.16 percent). That’s an indication that housing spending has been notably subdued for about the last three years – and in fact that only personal consumption levels still deserve that “toxic” label.
On a yearly basis, the combined personal consumption and housing share of price-adjusted GDP climbed from 72.68 percent in 2018 to 72.90 percent in 2019 – the highest such level since the 73.04 percent of 2006, when the bubbles were about to burst. Personal consumption climbed from 69.45 percent in 2018 to 69.79 percent – its highest since 2004, when the previous decade’s bubbles were inflating strongly. De-toxified housing’s real GDP share fell from 3.23 percent in 2018 to 3.11 percent in 2019 – its lowest level since 2014’s 2.98 percent.
Another sign of some recent decline in the quality of U.S. growth: the combined personal consumption and housing share not of constant dollar GDP on a standstill basis, but on the economy’s annual real growth. In 2019, they powered 74.25 percent of a 2.33 percent expansion in after-inflation output. The previous year’s share was just 68.62 percent.
This performance still leaves Trump era price-adjusted growth less bubblier and higher quality by this measure than growth during Barack Obama’s presidency (as shown by the table below). But it’s a regression all the same – as growth itself slowed:
Toxic combination share of total growth Total growth
09-10: 46.92% 2.56%
10-11: 80.63% 1.55%
11-12: 60.91% 2.25%
12-13: 73.89% 1.84%
13-14: 117.22% 2.53%
14-15: 96.90% 2.91%
15-16: 130.00% 1.64%
16-17: 86.82% 2.37%
17-18: 68.62% 2.93%
18-19″ 74.25% 2.33%
In fact, overall, 80.74 percent of U.S. inflation-adjusted growth during the 32 full quarters of the Obama presidency’s stewardship of the economy stemmed from the growth of personal consumption and housing. The figure for the eleven quarters of the Trump economy has totaled 74.12 percent. But that Trump percentage is gaining on the Obama figure, and this kind of race to the bottom in growth quality isn’t one the President and his supporters should want to win.