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Here’s a great example of how badly the U.S. economy might be getting distorted by last year’s steep, sharp, largely government-mandated recession, and by the V-shaped recovery experienced since then.as CCPVirus-related restrictions have been lifted. Therefore, it’s also a great example of how the many of the resulting statistics may still be of limited usefulness at best in figuring out the economy’s underlying health.

The possible example?  New official figures showing that, as of the second quarter of this year, the U.S. economy is even more dangerously bubble-ized than it was just before the financial crisis of 2007-08.

As RealityChek regulars might recall, for several years I wrote regularly on what I called the quality of America’s growth. (Here‘s my most recent post.) I viewed the subject as important because there’s broad agreement that a big reason the financial crisis erupted was the over-reliance earlier in that decade n the wrong kind of growth. Specifically, personal spending and housing had become predominant engines of expansion – and therefore prosperity. Their bloated roles inflated intertwined bubbles whose bursting nearly collapsed the U.S. and entire global economies, and produced the worst American economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

As a result, there was equally broad agreement that the nation needed to transform what you might call its business model from one depending largely on borrowing, spending, and paying for them by counting on home prices to rise forever, to one based on saving, investing, and producing. As former President Obama cogently put it, America needed “an economy built to last.”

Therefore, I decided to track how well the nation was succeeding at this version of “build back better” by monitoring the official quarterly reports on economic growth to examine the importance of housing and consumption (which I called the “toxic combination”) in the nation’s economic profile and whether and how they were changing.

For some perspective, in the third quarter of 2005, as the spending and housing bubbles were at their worst, these two segments of the economy accounted for 73.90 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP – the standard measure of the economy’s size) adjusted for inflation (the most widely followed of the GDP data. By the end of the Great Recession caused by the bursting of these bubbles, in the second quarter of 2009, this figure was down to 71.55 percent – mainly because housing had crashed.

At the end of the Obama administration (the fourth quarter of 2016), the toxic combination has rebounded to represent 72.31 percent of after-inflation GDP. So in quality-of-growth terms, the economy was heading in the wrong direction. And under President Trump, this discouraging trend continued. As of the fourth quarter of 2019 (the last quarter before the pandemic began significantly affecting the economy), this figure rose further, to 73.19 percent.

Yesterday, the government reported on GDP for the second quarter of this year, and it revealed that the toxic combination share of the economy in constant dollar terms to 74.24 percent. In other words, the toxic combination had become a bigger part of the economy than during the most heated housing and spending bubble days.

But does that mean that the economy really is even more, and more worrisomely lopsided than it was back then? That’s far from clear. Pessimists could argue that recent growth has relied heavily on the unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus provided by Washington since spring, 2020. Optimists could point out that far from overspending, consumers have been saving massively. Something else of note: Business investment’s share of real GDP in the second quarter of this year came to 14.80 percent – awfully lofty by recent standards.  During the 2005 peak of the last bubble, that spending (officially called “nonresidential fixed investment”) was 11.62 percent. 

My own take is that this situation mainly reflects the unexpected strength of the reopening-driven recovery and the transportation and logistics bottlenecks it’s created. An succinct summary of the situation was provided by Richard F. Moody, chief economist of Regions Bank. He wrote yesterday that the new GDP data “embody the predicament facing the U.S. economy, which is that the supply side of the economy has simply been unable to keep pace with demand.” The result is not only the strong recent inflation figures, but a ballooning of personal spending’s share of the economy.

Moody expects that both problems will end “later rather than sooner,” and for all I know, he (and other inflation pessimists) are right. But unless you believe that West Coast ports will remain clogged forever, that semiconductors will remain in short supply forever, that truck drivers will remain scarce forever, that businesses will never adjust adequately to any of this, and/or that new CCP Virus variants will keep the whole economy on lockdown-related pins and needles forever, the important point is that these problems will end. Once they do, or when the end is in sight, we’ll be able to figure out just how bubbly the economy has or hasn’t grown – but not, I’m afraid, one moment sooner.