Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

GDP Gap Stuck at 6%

Pro Growth Liberal points us to this interpretation of new economic data:

GDP Gap Stuck at 6%

Dean Baker gets it right with respect to the latest news on GDP:

A sharp drop in government spending, heavily concentrated in defense, coupled with a decline in inventories caused GDP to shrink at a 0.1 percent rate in the 4th quarter. Government spending fell at a 6.6 percent annual rate, driven by a 22.2 percent decline in defense spending, subtracting 1.33 percentage points from the growth rate in the quarter. A 40.3 drop in the rate of inventory accumulation reduced growth by another 1.27 percentage points. Without these factors, GDP would have grown at a 2.5 percent annual rate in the quarter. Pulling out these extraordinary factors, the GDP data were largely in line with prior quarters.

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GDP Growth Caused By Tax Cuts Has Never Happened

Mike’s post here got me thinking.  I’ll telegraph my conclusion.  He dramatically understated his case.

You can see the long range view of nominal and inflation adjusted GPD growth in Graph 1 of FRED quarterly YoY percent change data.

Graph 1 YoY growth Nominal and Inflation Adjusted GDP

Nominal GDP Growth was in a secular up-trend from 1960 through 1980.  However, inflation adjusted GDP growth quickly peaked after the Kennedy-Johnson tax cut, reaching a maximum value of 8.5% in Q4 of ’65 and Q1 of  ’66.  It then dropped dramatically for the next four years.  This peak value has been matched only once since: in 1984, during a sharp rebound from the double dip recession of 1980-82.

Since then, in the wake of numerous tax cuts, the rate of GDP growth has been anemic. To get a look at the rate of growth, I took an 8 year average of the annual percent change data presented above, and then plotted a 5 year rate of change for that data.  This is essentially the 2nd derivative of GDP, or GDP acceleration, as shown in Graph 2.

 Graph 2  GDP Acceleration

 Inflation Adjusted GDP acceleration peaked in Q3, 1966.   Fueled by the inflation of the 70′s, NGDP acceleration stayed high until Q1, 1980, then plummeted for 9 years.  It has been relentlessly negative since.

Inflation adjusted GDP acceleration has not done quite as badly in this disinflationary era, but has been below zero more than half the time since 1970.  This is a little bit worse than coasting.

This all might seem a bit abstract, but the message is clear.  If tax cuts were good for the economy, then GDP growth would be increasing.  In other words, acceleration would be positive and most especially so after a tax cut.  The data is not consistent with this notion.

Clinton’s famous tax increase preceded increased GDP growth by either measure, and an upturn in acceleration.  The Bush tax cuts preceded decreasing GDP growth.

I’m not going to get into a correlation vs causation discussion.  I’ll simply say that tax cuts over 5+ decades have been an utter failure at stimulating real economic growth in any inflationary environment.  Since the real world data correlation is counter to the received conservative wisdom, it might be worth trying an anti-conservative approach.

It might also give the NGDP targeting enthusiasts something to ponder.

Cross posted at Retirement Blues.

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Debt and Growth

Art at The New Arthurian Economics and I are looking at the relationship between debt and economic growth.  Art started with an observation of two FRED series, total credit market debt owed (TCMDO) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP,  nominal or GDPC1, inflation adjusted – take your pick.)

Graph 1, from FRED, shows these data series.  I’ve chosen nominal GDP and, for reference, also included the total Federal Debt.

 Graph 1 TCMDO, GDP and Total Federal Debt

In 1950, TCMDO was about 1.3 times GDP, but growing a bit more quickly.  By 1980, the ratio was 1.6, and by 1987 it was greater than 2.  Now that ratio is approaching 4.  Note that TCMDO is also close to 4 times greater than total public debt.  This is why Art and I agree that private, not public debt is the problem that needs to be addressed, but is largely ignored.

Linked here are Art’s posts with graphs of YoY growth in both factors, pre 1980 and post-1980.  Pre 1980, their moves are similar in magnitude, and pretty well coordinated. Post 1980 there is still some occasional similarity of motion, but the coordination breaks down and debt growth is generally quite a bit higher than GDP growth.  The 80′s in particular stand out as being starkly different from the previous period.

Graph 2 shows the entire data set, since 1952.

Graph 2 YoY % Growth in TCMDO and GDP

These observations led Art to the reasonable hypothesis that, “Output growth slowed when debt became excessive.”  This, in fact, might explain the great stagnation.

I suggested, and Art accepted two corollaries to his hypothesis.

1) There is a non-excessive amount of debt. Let’s call it “just right.”
2) Below the “just right” amount, there might also be “not enough.”

Actually, there is a lower level hypothesis, to which Art’s is corollary: That there is a functional relationship between debt and growth, in which growth is the dependent variable.

This is what I will explore in this post.

Graph 3 is a scatter plot of GDP vs TCMDO YoY % change for each, FRED quarterly data from Q4, 1952 through Q2, 2012, with a best fit straight line included.

Graph 3 GDP vs TCMDO, YoY % Change

The relationship is quite clearly positive.  The R^2 value at .39 is rather low, but not terrible.  There is quite a bit of scatter in the data.  Note the circle of data points around the left end of the line.  More on that later.

Next, I divided the data by decades, frex, 1961-1970.  This admittedly simplistic data parsing reveals that the slope and R^2 values are strongly variable over time.  Graph 4 shows the scatter plot along with the slope and R^2 values for each decade.  These data values are arranged in the chart in chronological order and color matched with the corresponding data points.

 Graph 4 GDP vs TCMDO, YoY % Change by Decade

I’ve added a brown line connecting the dots for the first decade of this century.  The chronology proceeds from a cluster near the center of the graph into a clockwise circular spiral.

Graph 5 shows how the slope and R^2 vary over time.

 Graph 5 Slope and R^2 Over Time for GDP vs TCMDO

After the 60′s, the slope plummets, and by the 80′s R^2 is a laughable 0.035.  Though the slope has remained low, R^2 has since recovered to 0.38, which is near the whole data set value of 0.39, and only slightly less than the 0.40 to 0.44 of the first three decades.

The slope changes can be interpreted as generally less GDP bang for the TCMDO buck, as the TCMDO/GDP ratio increases.  This is totally consistent with Art’s hypothesis.

I have more to say about the GDP -TCMDO relationship, but this post is getting long, so I’ll save it for a follow-up.

For now, I’ll close with a few questions.

1) Do you think we’re on to something?
2) What do you think of the methodology?
3) “Excessive debt” is suggestive, but non-specific.  How should this concept be quantized?
4) How should I go at exploring corollaries 1 and 2 mentioned after Graph 2?
5) Any thoughts on what was there about the 80′s that blew up the prior debt – GDP relationship?
6) Is there such a thing as productive vs non-productive debt, and how would they be characterized?

I look forward to your constructive comments.

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Why Spending/GDP is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Metric For Judging Obama’s Performance

A post like this really shouldn’t be necessary, but part of the right wing canard that Obama has been a profligate spender is based on spending as a percentage of GDP.

It looks like this – Graph 1.

Graph 1.  Fed Expenditures/GDP

Sure enough, by the end of Clinton’s term the ratio had fallen from Reagan’s high of 24% to a modern low of 19%.  But note that the 19% value wasn’t typical.  It was the end point of a decade-long decline.  And, yep, there’s Obama with an all-time-high approaching 26%.

What otherwise intelligent, and sometimes even famous people seem to ignore though, is that every ratio has not only a numerator but also that ol’ devil denominator.   Let’s have a look at both of them.  Graph 2 shows GDP and Expenditures since 1980, expressed in $ Billions.  I’ve also added a line representing 5* Expenditures, since 20% of GDP is a reasonable rough estimate for the post WW II era.

Graph 2.  Expenditures and GDP Compared

Actually, the 5x Expenditures line runs pretty consistently above the GDP line, telling us two things that we should have already known from looking at Graph 1.  First, Expenditures greater than 20% of GDP have been the norm since before 1980, and 2) Clinton’s final number is not representative of anything other than a single year.  Using it as a comparator is cherry-picking and fundamentally dishonest.

The 5x line also emphasizes that the majority of the spending increase under Obama unavoidably occurred during the officially designated recession.  The GDP line shows that, post recession, GDP growth has not recovered to the pre-recession trend line.  In fact, growth has established a new trend line with a lower slope.  This is unprecedented in the scope of FRED historical data.  My guess is that insufficient Federal spending has been a big drag on this recovery.  But it’s also true that GDP growth has been in secular decline since the Reagan administration.  Note that skewing the denominator down will automatically skew the ratio up.  This is what Bill Clinton calls “arithmetic.”

Slicing across this a different way, Graph 3 gives us year-over-year percentage growth in Expenditures and GDP, dating back to the Eisenhower administration.

Graph 3.  YoY % Change in Expenditures and GDP

A few simple observations:
- The spending increase during the recent recession was modest by any standard, and dwarfed by earlier surges.
- That increase, coupled with the most severe GDP decline since the other Great Depression gave our beloved ratio a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad double whammy.
- GDP growth during this recovery is only marginally better than it was during the 2001-2 low, and far below Clinton era levels.
- Clinton was the most consistently frugal president of the post WW II era – until now.
- Since the recession was declared over, B. Hoover Obama has been miserly.

One can legitimately argue that Obama’s approach to the economy has been excessively conservative.  Krugman has made this point repeatedly.  I often say that Clinton governed to the right of Eisenhower – who was a genuine deficit hawk – and that Obama is to the right of Clinton. That is intended to be slightly hyperbolic, but using this data as the benchmark, it’s dead on.

Any questions?

Cross posted at Retirement Blues

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A Different Look at GDP and Inflation

At Illusion of Prosperity, Stagflationary Mark posted this scatter-graph of quarterly GDP YoY growth and CPI data from Q1, 1948 through Q4, 2011.  Each point represents the differences from the medians of each data set for each of the variables, respectively.  This gives you a picture of time spent above and below what might be considered normal performance.

I wondered how this would look if each point were identified by presidential administration, and if this would suggest any particular narrative.  So I redid the graph, data from FRED, using mean instead of median as the determinant.  It is presented here as Graph 1, with each data point (256 total) color-coded by presidential party; red for Republicans, blue for Democrats.  The calendar quarter of each president’s inauguration is allotted to the previous administration.

I’ve labeled the quadrants as follows, and indicated the frequency of data points populating each quadrant.

Here are the Mean and Standard Deviation values.


Graph 1  CPI and GDP, data from FRED

The GDP data has something close to a normal distribution, with approximate symmetry around the mean. The CPI data does not. For CPI, the highest frequency is 2 percentage points below the mean, and there is a long tail on the high side, so the distribution looks more like a Poisson type.

I’ve broken out presidential administrations, 3 or 4 to a graph, to avoid excessive clutter.  Graph 2 shows the administrations of Truman (light blue), Eisenhower (red), and Kennedy-Johnson (dark blue.)

Graph 2  CPI and GDP, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy-Johnson

Results during the Truman administration were erratic, with both inflation and deflation occurring, and GDP growth widely variable as the nation made post WW II adjustments, and several million G.I.’s reentered the work force.  Ike was an inflation hawk, and one of only two presidents to achieve below average inflation in every quarter of his administration.  (Take your guess now as to who the other might be.  All will be revealed in due time.)  Still, the road was bumpy, with GDP growth highly variable, and two rather severe recessions during his term.  The Kennedy-Johnson administration enjoyed superior economic performance and relatively low inflation, with only 6 quarters of below average GDP growth, and only five quarters of above average inflation during the entire 8 years.  This was one of only two administrations to avoid recession for an entire 8-year term.

Graph 3 shows the Nixon-Ford (orange), Carter (blue), and Reagan (red) administrations.

Graph 3  CPI and GDP, Nixon-Ford, Carter, Reagan

Here we find three increasingly extreme excursions into stagflationary territory, two under Nixon-Ford (remember Whip Inflation Now buttons?) and one under Carter. The first and mildest was in 1970, the second in 1974-5, and the last, in 1979-80 probably played a part in holding Carter to a single term.  Inflation far above average plagued both of those administrations.  Each spent time above and below average in GDP growth with term averages very close to the grand average.  However, Carter’s last two years were consistently below average, and coupled with high inflation, earning him his moribund reputation.  Early in Reagan’s first term, Volker finished slaying the inflation dragon.  But the cost was high in terms of depressed GDP growth, and during that time Reagan was extremely unpopular.  But, as the economy recovered, so did his reputation, and he is now remembered, for good or for ill, as one of America’s most beloved presidents.  The remainder of his presidency resided along at least one of the two average lines, including four consecutive quarters of exceptional GDP growth coupled with only slightly above average inflation, spanning 1983-4.

Graph 4 shows the Bush Sr. (orange), Clinton (light blue), Bush Jr.(red), and Obama (dark blue) administrations.

Graph 4  CPI and GDP, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama

During the Bush Sr. administration, 11 of 16 quarters had below average GDP growth, 10 quarters had above average inflation, 8 of these quarters had both.  Clinton’s term began and ended with below average GDP growth, but during his 8 years here were only 9 below average quarters.  Four of them occurred in sequence from Q2, 1995 to Q1, 1996, but the remainder of 1996 was quite strong, and Clinton was granted a second term. Clinton was both the other president who avoided having even a single quarter of above average inflation, and the other president who avoided having a recession during an entire 8-year term.  During the 8-year term of Bush Jr. there were only 4 quarters of only slightly above average GDP growth, occurring from 2003 to 2005.  There were 7 quarters of above average inflation, 3 of them just barely so in 2005-6, and the other 4 in 2007-8, just prior to the economic collapse.  The remainder of his term was in the mild doldrums region.  The collapse ushered in the Obama administration.  Within his first year, the economy was back into the mild doldrums area that has so far been typical of the current century. 

Here is one more graph, showing how each administration performed, as an average over its entire term.  Starting with Truman, the yellow line leads us to each successive administration, up to Obama.

Obama’s position suffers from the recession he inherited.  Whether he gets reelected or not, his average will move up each remaining quarter of his presidency.  If he gets a second term, we can expect more of the doldrums we have experienced over the last two years.

This clearly belies the Romney claim that Obama’s economic policies have failed.  His policies have moved us from near-depression to mere mediocrity.  That counts as some sort of success.

So, here is my narrative.  First off, one can argue that the president does not directly determine the economic fate of the country, and that is partly true.  The other part is that the president sets the policy and the tone, and that both of these things matter.

-  The only presidents to have achieved term averages in the prosperity quadrant were Democrats.
-  The only Republican to achieve above average real GDP growth was Reagan, and that was only by an increment.
-  The only president since Reagan to achieve higher GDP growth than his predecessor was Clinton, other than that, it’s been a downward spiral.
-   Carter had below average GDP growth by a slight margin, but he beat every Republican other than Reagan, and he didn’t trail him by much.
- The last 44 years have been characterized by secular decreases in both CPI inflation and GDP growth.
- They have also been characterized by Republican presidencies 64% of the time, decreasing regulation, lowered tax rates, safety net erosion, loss of labor union strength and participation, and the systematic undoing of of New Deal policies.

What I conclude is that New Deal (dare I say Keynesian?) policies were successful in generating real prosperity, and free market policies have been far less successful.  Over time, Reaganomic trickle-down, free market policies have given us first, the Great Stagnation, and ultimately the worst economic crisis in 80 years.  These policies were, by no coincidence at all, quite similar to those in effect when the Great Depression of the 30′s happened – and also all the other earlier depressions that are no longer very prominent in people’s memories.

As I said, policy matters – and it matters profoundly.

With that in mind, here is my question to the Fed:  Since the average of CPI inflation since WW II is 3.7%, and there is ample evidence that we can have very reasonable economic performance with inflation in that range, why have you set an inflation target that is effectively half of that level, while ignoring high unemployment -  the other half of your alleged dual mandate?

Of course, I’m being rhetorical.  It’s because they are bankers, and inflation favors creditors borrowers, not lenders.  The fact is they don’t care one whit about unemployment.


It matters.

Cross-posted at Retirement Blues.

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Euro Area GDP Report: Not Pretty

by Rebecca Wilder

Euro Area GDP Report: Not Pretty

Today Eurostat released the second estimate of Q4 2011 Gross Domestic Product. Real Euro area (EA) GDP declined 0.3% over the quarter (-1.3% on an annualized basis). In this release Eurostat provides a breakdown across region, spending categories, and industry, and is much more detailed than the preliminary flash estimate. It’s not pretty.
The expenditure side was very weak. Household and government consumption declined 0.4% and 0.2%, respectively, while gross capital formation tumbled 0.7%. Inventory depletion accounted for much of the reduction in investment and fixed investment deteriorated to a lesser degree. Exports fell 0.4%, while imports dropped a full 1.2%; therefore, net exports contributed +0.3% to overall GDP growth. The only positive contribution to GDP growth was imports – this type of technical growth is not sustainable.

As the chart below illustrates, exports has been a major driver of growth during this recovery. However, export demand is dropping off at the margin, and more weakness is expected. The level of new export orders (a component of the Markit PMI) fell for eight consecutive months through February.

So it it’s up to domestic demand to spur further recovery. I also have my doubts there, given that fiscal austerity pushed the unemployment rate to a historical high of 10.7% in January (rather vertically, I might add).

A second part of the EA GDP report was the disturbing minority of countries that posted positive growth: just three out of thirteen. French growth clearly added balance to the average, given its large weight in the index. However, there are plenty of things that can go wrong there with higher energy costs, the rising unemployment rate, and minimal business confidence.

Going forward, it’s either up or down again for the EA. With the tight fiscal and now tightening monetary policy, the economy surely faces a lot of headwinds – down again would be my bet.

originally published at The Wilder View…Economonitors

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Welfare, I’m not hurting from it and neither are you.

A good friend and I got into an email debate. He sent me the latest message regarding how wonderful it is that Florida is going to be drug testing welfare recipients. I responded that I’ll consider the policy when we start testing all the CEO’s who get welfare for their sector of the economy, the lawyers, judges and all country club members.
I also noted welfare is not the problem He noted it’s not “the” problem, but it is “a” problem and he knows this from talking to people. I know of welfare too. I have served on two nonprofit boards, one for substance abuse and the other The Providence Center. My family adopted a family when I was in junior high. We had foster children. I was a day counselor for 2 weeks in the summer of ’73 for 7 to 12 year olds from 3 of the most horrible housing developments in the city of Providence. We had the “Institute” literally right around the corner from where I lived.  My daughter is doing a year with NeighborWorks America
Welfare is not the problem. But, my friend is a very smart person and an engineer, so I needed some numbers. Using this site I checked out what the ratio of spending on Family and Children and Housing is to our GDP. I used GDP and not the overall budget because hey, we all worked to earn that money and it might as well be used for something that is heart warming.  The following numbers are total national spending (Fed, State, Local).

The year 1962 is the first year that there is spending listed for both Family and Children and Housing. Prior to that only Housing is listed as having spending. For 1962, the combined total ratio was 0.0027. That is 0.27% of our GDP was spend on families, children and housing. I started with 1970 and went forward using the endings of the presidential terms starting with 1980.
1970: 0.0035
1980: 0.0092
1988: 0.0093
1992: 0.0134
2000: 0.0092
2008: 0.0097
2010: 0.0141
First of all, these are miniscule percentages of our GDP. Second, it sure looks to me like the best way to solve the “welfare problem” is to solve the economic problem.
Of course, this means nothing if we don’t have other government spending patterns to compare too. I mean, how do we know if welfare is “out of control” if we can’t compare it to other spending? The same data set has two other categories: General Government and Other Spending. You can click on each to see the sub categories. But, just so you know General Government consists of Executive and Legislative organ, Financial and General services. Other does not include: Pensions, Education, Health, Defense, Protection, Transportation or interest. Other is just that: Other. Here is how the numbers look.
This is how the numbers flow as log function.


Call me stupid, but it looks to me like what we spend on welfare is not much more than what the government is spending on just doing the government thingy, unless of course people can’t get a job. Interestingly enough, the share of GDP spent on welfare in 1992 and 2010 is the same. In fact, at the peak of unemployment of the 2001 recession which was 2003, we spent just 0.0098 on welfare.
Here is another comparison. In 2009 we spent $167 billion on Family/Children and Housing. That year, we also spent $161 billion in the Other category of “Economic Affairs”. I don’t know what that is, but if it has anything to do with what we are experiencing I don’t think we got our money’s worth. This item went from -7.0 in 1997 to 7.8 in 2002 to 17.5 in 2005 to 1.3 in 2007 back to 17.7 in 2008. It landed at -79.7 in 2010. Hummmmmmmmm. I think Glen Beck would like this category. You know, who’s been playing with the money in the cookie jar? In fact, why did we not know that a cookie jar exists?
It doesn’t make me feel good to think that we spend about as much on the top office operations of this country as we spend on helping people. Think about it. What percentage of the “welfare problem” do
you believe is a problem? You know those drug addled lazy moochers who are preventing all us moral and hardworking folks from living the good life of our congress persons. Be careful now. This is a trick question. See, it won’t take much of a “problem” subtracted from what we spend to find ourselves spending less to take care of families and their children than we spend on the top office operations in this nation. That’s just plain being cheap. Down right, out and out cheap SOB’s even if we leave in all of the “problem”.

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GDP Revisions

This is just a short post to illustrate the magnitude of GDP revisions. I downloaded quarterly GDP data from BEA in June 2011. I went back to BEA this morning to update the file. Forgetting about GDP revisions, I thought I’d be adding 2 or three more quarters of data, but discovered that all the numbers since Q2 2003 had been revised. Prior values are unchanged. Plotted below is the difference between the June, 2011 numbers and what I found this morning.

The depth of the trough in Q3 2009 was $194 Billion worse than we thought just a few months ago. I was surprised to see the revisions go back a full 9 years.

Tyler Cowan got one thing right. We are poorer than we think we are.

Cross-posted at Retirement Blues

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Retail enthusiasm?

Barry Ritholz keeps us abreast of retail spending:

Last month, I published a post on the nonsense that is Black Friday sales (No, Black Friday Sales Were Not Up 16% (not even 6%). That evolved into a Washington Post article, Did Black Friday save the season? Beware the retail hype.

Today, we learn that many breathless forecasts from NRF to ShopperTrak were so much hot air and empty hype: Sales were flat to up only modestly. Total U.S. retail sales in November gained only 0.2%, following a 0.6% October. Even that month was revised downwards.

Retailers themselves may pay the price for their massive discounting: Not only might their quarterly earnings be affected by the margin pressure, but they continually train investors shoppers to hunt for discounts. Retail therapy and sport shopping are being replaced by extreme couponing and sites like Living Social and Groupon.

See also:
Retail Sales in U.S. Climbed Less Than Forecast (Bloomberg)

U.S. retail sales rise slightly in November (Marketwatch)

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Stylized Facts

  1. Net Exports goes negative in 1973 and never recovers. One word: oil. Even the USD depreciation after the Plaza Accord (the one Martin Feldstein likes to pretend was inevitably going to happen then) can’t quite get it back to being positive. And once outsourcing industry to China hits full stride…

  2. Private Investment peaks in 2006. Dating the start of the current recession from December of 2007 still strikes me as being six months late.
  3. Consumption goes up fairly steadily from 1981, encompassing 8% more of total GDP—around a 12% increase over less than thirty years. Coincidentally, the Reagan Revolution moves taxes more heavily onto consumers at the same time. (Note that only about half of the appreciation in consumption is reflected in the change in Net Exports.)
  4. Government spending declines starting around 1991, when the Real George (H.W.) Bush breaks his “no nude Texans” pledge. The era of Big Government remains over until George “Dad’s Rolodex Got Me Another Job I Can Screw Up” (W.) Bush desperately needed people to be employed:

Those are my top-of-the-head ones. What are yours?

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