The Pace of Growth

May 19, 2019

by Steve Stofka

We are living in an economy that is fundamentally different than the ones our parents and grandparents grew up in. Some of us want a return to those days. More goods were made in the U.S.A. Each family spent more on food, clothing, furniture and the other necessities of life but the money circulated in our economy, not among the workers of Asia. Union membership was stronger but there were crippling strikes that affected the daily lives of many families. In 2016, the current President promised a return to those days of stronger but more erratic growth. Almost half of voters bet on him to undo the changes of the past several decades. Let’s look at some data that forms the bedrock of consumer confidence.

GDP is the most frequently used measure of the nation’s economic activity. Another measure, Final Sales of Domestic Product excludes changes in business inventories. In the graph below is a chart of the annual change in Final Sales after adjusting for inflation (Note #1). Compare the right and left rectangles. The economy of post-WW2 America was more erratic than the economy of the past thirty-five years (Note #2).

The two paces of growth

In the first 35 years following WW2, growth averaged 3.6%. Since the Financial Crisis there have only been five quarters with growth above 3%. Let’s include the annual change in disposable personal income (Note #3). That’s our income after taxes. Much of the time, the two series move in lockstep and the volatility in each series is similar.

However, sometimes the change in personal income holds steady while the larger economy drops into recession. A moderate recession in 1970 is a good example of this pattern.

1982 was the worst recession since the 1930s Great Depression. Unemployment soared to more than 10% but personal incomes remained relatively steady during the downturn.

In the 1990, 2000 and 2008 recessions, personal incomes did not fall as much as the larger economy. Here’s the 2008 recession. While the economy declined almost 3%, personal income growth barely dipped below zero.

In the last 35 years, annual growth in Final Sales has averaged only 2.8%, far below the 3.6% average of the first 35-year period. After the recession, the growth of the larger economy stabilized but the change in personal incomes became very erratic. In the past eight years, income growth has been 2.5 times more volatile than economic growth (Note #4). Usually the two series have similar volatility. In the space of one year – 2013 – income growth fell from 5% to -2.5%, a spread of 7.5%. In the past sixty years, only the oil crisis and recession of 1974 had a greater swing in income growth during a year! (Note #5)

When income growth is erratic, people grow cautious about starting new businesses. Banks are reluctant to lend. Despite the rise in home prices in many cities, home equity loans – a popular source of start-up capital for small businesses – are about half of what they were at the end of the financial crisis (Note #6). The Census Bureau tracks several data series for new business applications. One of these tracks business start-ups which are planning to become job creators and pay wages. That number has been flat after falling during the Great Recession (Note #7).

Census Bureau – see Link in Notes

Businesses borrow to increase their capacity to meet expected demand. Since the beginning of 2016, banks have reported lackluster demand for loans from large and medium businesses as well as small firms (Note #8). For a few quarters in 2018, small firms showed stronger loan demand but that has turned negative this year. This indicates that business owners are not betting on growth. Here’s a survey of bank loan officers who report strong demand for loans from mid-size and larger firms. While few economists predicted the last two recessions, the lack of demand for business loans forecast the coming downturns.

There is an upside to slow growth – less chance of a recession. Periods of strong growth promote excess investment into one sector of the economy. In the early 2000s, the economy took several years to recover from the money poured into the internet sector. The Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and the recession of 2007-2009 was a reaction to over-investment and lax underwriting in the housing sector. On the other hand, weak growth can leave our economy vulnerable to a shock like the heightening of the trade war with China, or a military conflict with Iran.

Can a President, a party or the Federal Reserve undo several decades of slow to moderate growth? None of us want a return to the crippling inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s, but we may long for certain aspects of those yesteryears. An older gentleman from North Carolina called into C-Span’s Washington Journal and lamented the shuttering of the furniture and textile plants in that area many decades ago (Note #9). Many of those areas have still not recovered. Another caller commented that the Democratic Party long ago stopped caring about the jobs of rural folks in the south. Contrast those sentiments about the lack of opportunity in rural America with those who live in crowded urban corridors and struggle to keep up with the feverish pace and high costs of urban housing, insurance and other necessities.  Two different realities but a similar human struggle.



  1. Real Final Sales of Domestic Product FRED series A190RO1Q156NBEA
  2. Standard Deviation of first 35 years was 2.44. In the second 35-year period it was only 1.56.
  3. Real Disposable Personal Income FRED series DPIC96
  4. Since 2010, the standard deviation of economic growth has been .7 vs 1.75 for income growth.
  5. In the decade following WW2, people had similar large swings in income growth as the country and the Federal Reserve adjusted to an economy dominated by domestic consumption.
  6. Home Equity Loans FRED series RHEACBW027SBOG totaled $610 billion in the spring of 2009. It was $341 billion in the spring of 2019, ten years later
  7. Census Bureau data on new business start-ups
  8. Senior Loan Officer Surveys: Large and medium sized businesses FRED series DRSDCILM. Small businesses FRED series DRSDCIS.
  9. C-Span’s Washington Journal. C-Span also has a smartphone app.

Post-Election Bounce

January 1, 2017

Happy New Year!  How many days will it take before we remember to write the year correctly as 2017, not 2016? It is going to be an interesting year, I bet.  But let’s do a year end review.


The home ownership rate has fallen near the lows set in 1985 and the mid-1960s at about less than 64%. (Graph)  In 2004, the rate hit a high of 69%.  For the U.S., the sweet spot is probably around 2/3 or 66%.  Most other countries have higher rates of home ownership, including Cuba with a rate of 90%. (Wikipedia article)  Rents in some cities have been growing rapidly.  In the country as a whole, rents have increased almost 4%, about twice the growth in the CPI, the general rate of inflation for all goods and services. (Graph)


Real, or inflation-adjusted, weekly earnings of full time workers spiked up during the recession as employers laid off lower paid and less productive workers.  By late 2013, weekly earnings had fallen to 2006 levels and have risen since, finally surpassing that 2009 peak this year.

Core Work Force

Almost every month I look at the changes in the core work force of those aged 25-54 who are in their prime working years, who buy homes for the first time and have families.  These are the formative years when people build their careers, and form product preferences, making them a prime target for advertisers.  The economy depends on this age group.  They fund the benefit systems of Social Security and Medicare by paying taxes without collecting a benefit.  In short, an economy dependent on intergenerational transfers of money needs this core work force to be employed.

For two decades, from 1988 to 2008, the labor participation rate of this age group remained steady at 82% – 83%. (BLS graph) By the summer of 2015, it had fallen to 80%.  A few percent might not seem like much but each percent is about a million workers.  For the past year it has climbed up from that trough, regaining about half of what was lost since the Great Recession.

Consumer Confidence

A post-election bounce in consumer confidence has put it near the levels of 2001, near the end of the dot-com boom and just before 9-11. (Conference Board)  In 2012, the confidence index was almost half what it is today.

Business Sentiment

Small business sentiment has improved significantly since the November election (NFIB Survey).  Almost a quarter of businesses surveyed expect to add more employees, a jump of 2-1/2 times the 9% of businesses who responded positively in the October survey.  In October, 4% of companies expected sales growth in the coming year.  After the election, 20% responded positively.  This jump in sentiment indicates the degree of hope – and expectation – that business owners have built on the election of Donald Trump.

Hope leads to investment and business investment growth has turned negative (Graph). Recession often, but not always, accompanies negative growth. Since 1960, investment growth has turned negative eleven times.  Eight downturns preceded or accompanied recessions.  Let’s hope this renewed hope and some policy changes reverses sentiment.

On the other hand, those expectations may present a challenge to the incoming administration, which has promised some tax reform and regulatory relief. Small business owners will lobby for different reforms than the executives of large businesses.  Regulations of all types hamper small business but large businesses may welcome some regulation which acts as a barrier to entry into a particular market by smaller firms.

Publicly held firms will continue to lobby for repeal or reform of Sarbane Oxley reporting provisions.  For six years, the Obama administration has wanted to roll back these regulations but has been unable to come up with a compromise between the SEC, which regulates publicly traded companies, and Congress.  A Trump administration may finally reform a law that was rushed into place by George Bush and a Republican Congress in response to the Enron scandal.  That scandal grew in part from the Bush administration’s push to deregulate the energy market.

Voters Veer From Side To Side

We have stumbled from an all Republican government in 2002 to an all Democratic government in 2008 and now come full circle again to an all Republican government. Once in power, neither party can resist using economic policy to pick winners and losers.  Every few years the voters throw out the guys in charge and bring the other guys in, hoping that the party that has been out of power will be chastened somewhat.  Within a few months of taking power, each party digs up their old bones and begins to gnaw on them again.  Tax reform, prison reform, justice and fairness for all, climate change, more regulation, less regulation – these bones are well chewed.

Still we keep trying.  The priests and prophets of long ago kingdoms could not govern.  Neither could the kings and queens of empires.  So we have tried government of the people, by the people and for the people and it has been the bloodiest two centuries in human history.  Still we keep hoping.

The Presidential Test

Most presidents are tested in their first year in office.  Kennedy had to grapple with the Soviet threat and Cuba almost as soon as he took office.   Johnson struggled with urban violence, social upheaval and the war in Vietnam.

Nixon confronted a newly resurgent Viet Cong army when he first took office.  His second term began with the Arab oil embargo.  Ford dealt with the aftermath of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation under the threat of impeachment.

Jimmy Carter began his term with the challenges of high inflation and unemployment, and an energy crisis to boot.  Ronald Reagan wrestled with sky-high interest rates and a back to back recession in his early years.  His successor, H.W. Bush, met a Soviet Union near the end of its 70 year history as Gorbachev loosened the reins of Soviet control of eastern European countries and the Berlin Wall collapsed.

After an unsuccessful attempt to reform health care in his first year of office, Clinton suffered in the off year election of 1994.  G. W. Bush had perhaps the worst first year of any modern President – the tragedy of 9-11.  Obama entered office under a full blown global financial crisis.

Despite Putin’s bargaining rhetoric regarding President-elect Donald Trump, every President has to learn the lesson anew – Russia is not our friend.  Trump will have to learn  the same lesson.  China’s territorial claims in the South China sea may prompt an international incident.  N. Korea could launch a missle at S. Korea and start a small war.  Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Israel’s settlements, Palestinian independence – the crises may come from any of these tinderboxes.  We wish the new President well as he hops into the fire.

Things That Spring

April 14th, 2013

Across the land, springtime wakens the trees and flowers, birds chirp and squirrels chatter.  From the buildings where the humans live comes the wailing and gnashing of teeth as many procrastinators spend this last weekend before the tax deadline in a spring ritual of angst.  The lost W-2 form is finally found beneath the Netflix DVD that has lain casually on the bookcase, waiting to be watched.  The 1099DIV form is found beneath a birthday card that was never sent.

Lay aside your problems; let’s climb inside the hot air balloon and look at the big picture.  A few weeks ago, economic growth for the fourth quarter of 2012 was revised marginally higher into positive territory, but dropping from the annualized growth rate of 3.1% in the 3rd quarter of 2012.  Let’s look at GDP from a per person basis since WW2.  Until the recession hit in late 2007, economic growth had consistently outpaced population growth.  Then POOF! went the economy and blew away a big gap in GDP.

Let’s zoom in on the past ten years to see the effect.  On a per person basis, the gap is $5,000 of spending that simply didn’t get spent.

Call it the GDP dust bowl of the 2000s, similar to the dust bowl of the 1930s when the wind blew the top soil from the prairie of the Oklahoma panhandle and forced many families from their farms.  In this case, the wind blew away a lot of jobs and chunks of home equity.

Policy makers in Washington want to close that $5000 per person gap.  If they could write a law forcing everyone to spend that $5000, they would.  Instead, they keep giving away money in unemployment benefits, food stamps, disability benefits, crop subsidies – all to keep people from not spending even less and making the problem worse.

Retail sales account for about 1/3rd of the total economy.  Including automobile sales and parts, consumers are still below twenty year averages.

This past Friday, the monthly report on retail sales showed little change from the past month.  When we look at per person real retail and food sales and take out automotive sales we get a feel for core sales, those that we make on a frequent basis.  Once again, we see the same gap that we saw in GDP.  Since mid-2009, this core consumer spending has grown 2.3% annually, above the 1.8% annual growth trend from 1992 through 2006, but it still down $2000 a year from what we would have spent if we had stayed on the same trend line before this past recession hit.

To make it a bit clearer, let’s look again at that chart and compare the 15 year annual growth rate from 1992 to the longer 21 year growth rate.  It has fallen from 1.8% to 1.1% annual growth.

GDP measures spending; let’s look at Gross Domestic Income, or GDI.  A fundamental principles of economics is that it takes money to spend money.  A six year old asks a parent “Why can’t we just go out and get more money?” to which the parent replies “Whaddya think money grows on trees?!”  End of Chapter One in the Parent’s Guide to Economics.

When we compare the country’s income to spending, we find that a dip in income below production precedes recessions.

After the 2008 – 2009 crash and recovery in national income and spending, both are limping along.

A few weeks ago came the monthly New Orders, an indication of business confidence.  As regular readers know, I have been watching this declining trend since September of last year, when the percent change in New Orders was negative.  The recent rise has been a welcome sign of growing confidence but new orders fell 2.7% in February and now hover around the zero growth line. 

On a quarterly basis, the year over year (y-o-y) percent change is still firmly in negative territory, meaning that businesses are not putting up more money to invest in new equipment.  Why?  Because they are still not sure about consumer spending. The six month run up in the SP500 stock index might lead a casual observer to think that the economy and companies are gearing up.  New Orders indicates that there is much more caution out there than the stock index would indicate.

This past Friday, business’ caution to commit to new investment was only reinforced when the latest Consumer Sentiment index was released.  After climbing the past few months, confidence is sinking again.  Maybe it’s the extra 2% coming out of paychecks since January 1st.  Whatever it is, it doesn’t inspire many business owners to put a lot of money into expanding their production.

When the stock market is trading on hope, it looks six months ahead.  The recent run up is hoping for double digit profit growth in the second half of this year.  When the market trades on fear, it looks ahead about 2 seconds, faster than the normal investor can or should react.  Let me get out my broken record for another spin, cue the needle and play that same old song “Diversify.”

P.S. For those of you who are more active investors, check the latest post from Economic Pic in my blog link list on the right.  It shows the past 40 year returns for a strategy of selling the SP500 index in May and buying the long term government / credit index.  The iShares ETF that tracks this index is ITLB.  A comparable ETF from Vanguard is BLV.

Capital and Consumer Spending

If I hit my thumb with a hammer, maybe it won’t hurt this time.  Not likely.  Last week I noted a warning sign in non-defense new orders for capital goods, excluding aircraft.  As I noted previously, aircraft orders are volatile; they may be up 30% one month and down 30% a few months later because orders for planes are placed in rather large blocks with the actual delivery of the aircraft occurring over many months.

A few days ago the most recent durable goods report came out for September, showing a continued decline in the year-over-year gains for new orders.  Declines like this have preceded the past two recessions.

We like to think that this time may be different. Our imagination is capable of soaring the heights of creativity in art and science.  In the economics of our personal lives, it can lead to fanciful thinking.  Fanciful notions led many to buy houses with little money down at the height of the housing boom, thinking that somehow they would refinance when mortgage payments escalated after a certain period.  Magical thinking induced many to increase their credit balances far beyond their means to pay, thinking that they could pay down their credit balances by refinancing their homes.  No matter how much homes went up in value, housing prices would continue to rise.  Then they didn’t.

The chart below shows the housing inflation.  Recessions in the latter part of the past century had caused housing starts to decline to 400,000 before recovering.  In the 2001 recession, easy money and loose standards for mortgage securitization curbed the natural decline.  The bill eventually came due in 2008.

Single family homes create jobs; the market has shown life recently but is still very weak.

The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence index rose 9 points to 70 in September and is about the same level as this past February, when confidence started sliding to a summer low point of 60.   The new consumer survey is due to be released next week and analysts are predicting another increase of 3 to 4 points. Consumers are feeling upbeat but the decline in new orders shows that businesses continue to be cautious as the prospect of rising taxes and budget cuts next year dampens any optimistic planning.  The slowdown in Europe and Asia contributes to the gloomy reading of Moody’s Business Confidence survey.  Rising consumer confidence before the critical Christmas shopping season may alleviate the pessimism of businesses if consumers actually open up their wallets and spend but retailers have not been building inventory ahead of the shopping season.

While these two forces tug at each other, a prudent investor might exercise some caution.