Krugman on The Summer Boom

Kash goes a long way towards explaining the summer boom in the previous post, and he makes a good case that it’s likely to be revised down toward a still-meaty 6%. Here’s Krugman’s take from today’s NYT:

…This time around growth has a much better foundation: final demand — demand excluding changes in inventories — actually grew even faster than G.D.P. So it’s unlikely that growth will drop off as sharply as it did back then.

But — you knew there would be a but — there are still some reasons to wonder whether the economy has really turned the corner.

First, while there was a significant pickup in business investment, the bulk of last quarter’s growth came from a huge surge in consumer spending, with a further boost from housing. These components of spending stayed strong even when the economy was weak, so there shouldn’t have been any pent-up demand. Yet housing grew at a 20 percent rate, while spending on consumer durables (that’s stuff like cars and TV sets) — which last year grew three times as fast as the economy — rose at an incredible 27 percent rate last quarter.

This can’t go on — in the long run, consumer spending can’t outpace the growth in consumer income. Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley has suggested, plausibly, that much of last quarter’s consumer splurge was “borrowed” from the future: consumers took advantage of low-interest financing, cash from home refinancing and tax rebate checks to accelerate purchases they would otherwise have made later. If he’s right, we’ll see below-normal purchases and slower growth in the months ahead.


Still, it’s possible that we really have reached a turning point. If so, does it validate the Bush economic program? Well, no.

Stimulating the economy in the short run is supposed to be easy, as long as you don’t worry about how much debt you run up in the process. As William Gale of the Brookings Institution puts it, “Almost any tax cut or spending increase would succeed in boosting a sluggish economy if the Federal Reserve Board follows an accommodative monetary policy. . . . The key question is, therefore, not whether the proposals provide any short-term stimulus, but whether they are the most effective way to provide stimulus.” Mr. Gale doesn’t think the Bush tax cuts meet that criterion, and neither do I.

To put it more bluntly: it would be quite a trick to run the biggest budget deficit in the history of the planet, and still end a presidential term with fewer jobs than when you started. And despite yesterday’s good news, that’s a trick President Bush still seems likely to pull off.