An intriguing op-ed in USAToday provides a great opportunity to return to an important subject RealityChek has neglected a bit in recent weeks – the quality of America’s economic growth.
The article, by Maurie Backman of the Motley Fool investing website, does a fine job of scolding Americans for not saving enough – and of debunking many of the excuses heard for their lack of thrift. One of his especially interesting arguments: No matter how little one earns, it’s always possible to save something.
This is literally true, although economists widely agree on the seemingly commonsense proposition that (all else equal, of course!) the less you earn, the harder you’ll find saving, and in fact the less you’ll save. But what I immediately began thinking about is a major implication of this pattern. Namely, if Americans started saving even a little more, wouldn’t future economic growth be even slower than it’s been? At least unless the country found some other engine of growth – like investment or trade?
The light shed by the latest data on America’s growth shows just what an enormous transition this will entail. These numbers come from the government’s second read on the gross domestic product for the fourth quarter of last year and how its changed. (We’ll get one more fourth quarter figure next week and that will be the final result for that period – until a more comprehensive set of revisions is released a little further down the road.)
What they reveal is that the economy nowadays has never been more consumption-heavy. In fact, it’s even more consumption-heavy than at its peak during the mutually reinforcing credit and housing bubbles of the previous decade – which eventually collapsed into the worst financial crisis to hit the United States and the world since the 1930s.
During the fourth quarter, personal consumption as a share of the inflation-adjusted gross domestic product (GDP) hit 69.64 percent. That slightly eclipsed the former record of 69.60 percent – which dates only from the second quarter of last year.
So is it time to hit the economic panic button? Not (quite?) yet. Because housing – the second part of the toxic combination that helped trigger the crisis – still remains depressed compared with the previous decade’s levels. Housing’s share of real GDP peaked in the second quarter of 2005 at 6.17 percent. During the fourth quarter of last year, it was a relatively subdued 3.52 percent.
As a result, the toxic combination’s total share of the economy after adjusting for prices stood at 73.16 percent. That’s a bit lower than the old combined record of 73.27 percent (during the third quarter of 2005). But it’s only a bit lower.
And therein lies the biggest dilemma facing American policymakers – whether in the White House or the Congress or the Federal Reserve: Spending-based growth is unhealthy and unsustainable – and the story usually ends very badly. But reorienting the country’s national business model and turning it into “an economy built to last” looks to be disruptive enough to exact major short-term costs.