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.

Investment Declines

September 4, 2016

The market seems awfully quiet leading into September, a month that is the most consistently negative for the past century. LPLResearch notes that it has been about 35 years since the market was this quiet for this long.  It has been 30 trading days (at the end of August) since the SP500 had strayed more than 1% from its 10 day average.  A year ago in August 2015 the market spent 17 trading days in this quiet zone then fell 6% in 3 days. In September 2014, the market acted like a sailing ship in the horse latitudes before sinking 6% over the following ten days.  We wish the market went up after these long quiet periods, but the trend is usually down.


Let’s look at a disturbing long term trend – a decline in private investment in housing (residential), as well as factories, equipment and office buildings (non-residential).  What is private?  Non-government, i.e. companies and individuals in the private market.

First, let’s look at private investment as a whole before we look at the parts.  As a percent of GDP, we are near post-WW2 lows.

“Oh, that was the housing bubble and financial crisis,” we might say.  Everytime we think we’ve got it figured out, that is the beginning of the journey of learning, some Zen master probably said at some time.  Be humble, little tree frog, or wax on, wax off.  Something like that.

Only this year has the economy surpassed the 2008 level of inflation adjusted private investment.  To get a sense of the damage done by the financial and housing crisis, the chart below is a rolling 5 year sum of investment and covers most of the post-WW2 period.  Look at the historic dip – not a pause, not a flattening, but a genuine crater in investment growth.  Here we can see the over-investment during the tech bubble of the late nineties when the 5 year sum climbed at a 60 degree angle, followed by the 45 degree climb as the housing bubble climaxed. Even scarier is the possibility that we may still be above the growth trend of the 70s, 80s and early 90s – that there is still a bit of correction left.

Housing Investment

Seven years after the official end of the recession, ten years after the height of the housing bubble, investment in residential housing is still near all time lows.  As a percent of the economy (GDP) it has been rising but from a great depth.

Slow household formation after the financial crisis, i.e. Johnny and Mary staying home or moving back in with Mom and Dad, has contributed to the slow recovery in housing investment.  The millennial generation, bigger in numbers than the aging Boomers, doesn’t have the same preference for owning their own home.  Census Bureau data shows that the home ownership rate in the under-35 crowd has declined from 39% in 2010 to 34% in 2016.  While it may be more noticeable in the millennial aged cohort, the data shows a decline in all age groups, and across incomes (page 10).   Competition for a dwindling stock of apartment rentals has caused a sharp rise in median rental rates across the country.

Why a dwindling number of rental units?  As home ownership rose in the 2000s, the investments in new apartment building began to decline in 2007, then fell abruptly during the crisis.  Only in 2011 did it finally start to rise up from its trough.  The drop in investment was so huge that just posting a number doesn’t do it justice.  Millennials are now being squeezed by a lack of rental housing stock.  Sharply rising home values in popular areas like Denver make it more difficult for millennials to shift preferences to home ownership.

The business Side

Now let’s look at investments in office buildings, equipment and factories.  These can be somewhat cyclical but the long term trend is down.  Since China was admitted to the WTO in 2001, the highs in the cycle have been trending lower.  During the 2000s Americans were not saving enough to fund business investment growth and our economy increasingly relied on foreign investment dollars.  Today we are on the decline in that investment cycle and we can expect further declines.

Does low inflation hurt investment?

It makes sense that a stable environment of low inflation should encourage business investment.  Low interest rates should encourage lending to business, etc.  This is the conventional narrative that has guided policy making at the Federal Reserve.  Stop an economist on the street and ask them if low interest rates encourage business investment and they will probably say yes. Here’s a quote from an economics course “If the expected rate of return [on the new investment] is greater than the real interest rate, the investment makes sense.”

Makes sense but what if it is partially wrong? Is it possible that low interest rates could, in some cases, discourage investment?  This is the opposite of the conventional narrative but let’s walk this path for a bit.  We often think of interest rates as a dependent variable, a response to something indicating a demand for money.  What if it is also an independent variable, a cause affecting the demand for money? Yep, it’s one of those interdependent cyclic things that might make you want to meditate on the universality of love and being, but stay with me 🙂

Interest rates can be a heuristic for investors, a signal of the demand for money, a weather vane of the underlying strength of the economy as seen by the top economists in the country, the folks at the Federal Reserve.  Low rates could be seen as a cautionary warning to investors.  If the economy were really getting stronger, would interest rates remain low?  Of course not, an investor might reason.  They would rise in response to stronger demand for money.  But they are not rising so better to be cautious, the investor reasons.  The dog chases its tail.

Do low interest rates cause reckless borrowing?

Are low interest rates prompting companies to borrow excessively?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, they are borrowing more but the growth trajectory, the rate of growth, is about the same as it has been since 1990.  As we can see in the chart below, each recession is a pause in the growth of corporate debt.  After each recession, the level rises again on approximately the same slope.  The “pause” in this last recession lasted a whopping four years, during which corporate debt declined as much as $600 billion, or about 5.6%.

The problem is what they are borrowing it for.  Companies typically buy back their own shares at their hghest, not lowest value.  By lowering the number of shares outstanding, buybacks raise the earnings per share even if there is no real growth in earnings.  Instead of buying low, selling high, companies tend to buy high, sell low. FactSet gathers and crunches a lot of market data.  Their mid-year analysis of share buybacks shows that total dollars spent on buybacks is approaching the highs of 2007.  Investment in real growth, in productive plants, equipment and office buildings, has declined the past three quarters but share buybacks, the appearance of growth, have increased.

A simple example

How could low inflation hurt investment?  If predicted inflation is rather low, about 2%, sales growth will not get that extra kick from inflation. Let’s say that a company’s sales are $1000 and the owners have an extra $50 to invest.  They are considering a plan to invest $50 and borrow $50 from the bank to expand in the hopes of making more sales.

First they consider the return by not expanding.  They put their $50 in the bank and make 2% interest or $1.  At 2% inflation, $1000 sales grows to $1020.  Let’s say that the company has a 30% gross margin, which gives an extra $6 profit on the extra $20 in sales.  The combined extra return to the owners is $7, a $6 profit and $1 in interest income.

Then they consider a second scenario.  Let’s say that the interest rate on the borrowed money is 6%, or 4% above the inflation rate of 2%.  As in the first scenario, they assume that the savings rate, or opportunity cost, of the invested $50 is about 2%.  The owners can expect an extra $4 imputed and actual cost on that combined $100 of investment.  If inflation is averaging 2% per year, then they can expect sales of $1020 even if there is no real sales growth.  Again, they use a 30% gross margin to arrive at an extra profit to them of $6, the same as the first scenario. If the extra investment does not produce any real sales growth, then the owners will net an extra profit of about $2, much less than the scenario of no expansion.  To make the same extra profit as in the first scenario, the owners need to generate an extra $11 in profit.  Minus the $4 in costs, the extra profit will be $7, the same as the first scenario.  Note that the owners are now trying to break even with the extra profits of not expanding.  To do that they must have sales of about $1037, or almost 2% real sales growth in addition to the 2% inflation growth.

Now, let’s consider a higher inflation rate of 4%.  Let’s imagine that the cost to borrow money is 8%, or 4% higher than inflation, as before, so that the cost of borrowing the $50 for a year is $4. As before, we’ll assume that the savings rate, or opportunity cost, of the $50 from the owner’ pockets is the same as inflation, or 4%, so that the imputed cost of the owners’ investment is $2.  Borrowed and imputed cost of the extra $100 invested in the company is now $6. If there is no real sales growth, total sales will now be $1040, or $40 more.  A 30% margin gives a gross profit of $12, leaving the owners with about $6 extra profit on investment.

Note that a doubling of the inflation rate in this scenario has produced a tripling of extra profit even with no real sales growth. Still the extra profits are less than not expanding at all.  They must still have a real increase in sales, but it is very small.

So a stable higher inflation rate and interest rate encourages business investment.  The key word here is stable.  We could keep doing this calculation with higher and higher rates producing more net profits to the owners but….  As inflation gets higher, it becomes less stable, less predictable and this unpredictability actually hurts business investment.

The Federal Reserve has set a target inflation rate of 2%.  I think it is too low and the lackluster growth of the economy seems to bear that out. Since the 1970s, prominent economists (Taylor and Tobin, for example) have suggested alternative targets that the Federal Reserve could use to replace the “dual mandate” set by the Congress in 1977.

A prominent alternative is a growth target in nominal GDP, called NGDP,  There are several variations but the one most favored has been level targeting, the calculation of GDP targets over the following five years or so based on an agreed growth rate.  The Fed would then take action to offset deviations from those targets. Two prominent economists, Robert Hall and Greg Mankiw, wrote a paper in 1993 explaining these alternative targets and the policy tools that the Federal Reserve could employ to help reach those targets.  During the period called the “Great Moderation,” from 1985-2007 national income grew at a rate just a bit more than 5%.

Hall and Mankiw noted (pg. 5) that the consensus among macroeconomists at that time was in favor of a targeting of nominal national income because it was a transparent measure, a clear, simple target.  The authors commented (pg. 4): “A rule like ‘Keep employment stable in the short run but prevent inflation in the long run’ [the current rule, by the way] has proven to be hopelessly vague; a central bank can rationalize almost any policy position with that rule.”

So the idea of nominal income or production targeting is familiar to economists and policymakers for several decades but has never been adopted. We can only assume, as the Nobel winner James Buchanan posited, that there is a very good reason for that.  When an obscure policy remains in place, it does so for a reason.  Enough policymakers want the obscurity that the policy provides.  I’m reminded of a letter John Adams wrote to Jefferson lamenting some of the vague language used in the Constitution which both of them had helped to craft.  Adams noted that the vagueness was necessary to reach consensus at the Constitutional Convention.  Efforts to achieve more precision in language or attempts to add specific detail were sometimes met with hardened disagreement.  The “general Welfare” wording of the tax and spending clause, Section 8, was one example.  Some argued that the lack of precision would give future generations of lawmakers some flexibility in determining what, in fact, was the general welfare of the United States.

 Whatever the Fed is doing now is only partially working and a different approach might be in order.  The use of the Labor Market Conditions Index, a broad composite of over twenty employment indicators, in guiding monetary policy shows that the Fed is reaching for a broader set of guidelines.  As Hall and Mankiw indicated, nominal targeting might give the Fed that broad guide, one that is less influenced by the needs and whims of elected politiciams.

Investment decline and the stock market

Let me finish on a somber note.  The year over year growth rate in the SP500 and private investment have both gone negative this year, for the first time since the end of the recession in 2009. The SP500 data is copyrighted so here’s a link to that chart. Pay attention.


If you would like to read more on the relationship of investment to savings, check out this 2006 NBER paper.


Happy Labor Day and put a shrimp on the barbie as a toast to the summer passing!

Business Cycles

June 16th, 2013

The manufacturing sector accounts for less than 20% of the economy but is probably the major cause of business cycles in the economy.  In the 1990s, the growing development of technology and business services in the U.S., together with what was called “just in time” inventory management, led some economists to declare an end to the business cycle. Cue the loud guffaws.

May’s monthly report on industrial production released Friday showed no monthly gain, after a decline of .4% in April.  The year over year change in the index was just under 2%.  In a separate report from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) released a week ago, the Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) index for May fell into contraction, its lowest reading since June 2009, when the recession was ending.

New Orders and Production components of this index saw sizeable decreases.  Computer and electronic businesses reported a slowdown that they attributed to the sequester spending cuts enacted a few months ago.

The latest data for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft from the U.S. Dept of Commerce showed an uptick after a period of decline in the latter half of 2012; however, there is a month lag in this data set.

The sentiment among small businesses improved somewhat, as shown by the monthly National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) survey.  The overall index of 94 indicates rather tepid expectations of growth by small business owners.  Plans for capital spending to expand business are still at recession levels.

A business builds inventory in anticipation of sales growth.  Since the beginning of this year the net number of small businesses expanding inventory has finally turned positive.

  In a 2003 paper, economist Rolando Pelaez tested an alternative model of the Purchasing Managers Index that would better predict business cycles, specifically the swings in GDP growth.  Assigning varying constant weights to several key components of the overall PMI index, his Constant Weighted Index (CWI) model is more responsive to changes in business conditions and expectations.  In early 2008, the PMI showed mild contraction but Pelaez’ CWI model began a nose dive. It would be many months before the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) would mark the start of a recession in December 2007 but the CWI had already given the indication.  In May of 2009, the CWI reversed course, crossing above the PMI to indicate the end of the contractionary phase of the recession.  It would be much later that the BEA would mark the recession’s end as June 2009.

The CWI index is rather erratic.  We lose a bit of its ability to lead the PMI when we smooth it with a three month moving average but the trend and turning points are more apparent in a graph.

Before the 2001 recession the CWI index led the PMI index down.

OK, great, you say but what does this have to do with my portfolio?  Smoothing introduces a small lag in the CWI but it is a leading, or sometimes co-incident indicator of where the stock market is headed over the next few months.

Let’s look at the last six years.  In December 2007, the smoothed CWI crossed below the PMI, which was at a neutral reading of about 50.  The stock market had faltered for a few months but as 2008 began, the CWI indicated just how weak the underlying economy was.  The NBER would eventually call the start of the recession in December 2007.  In June 2009, the CWI crossed back above the PMI.  Coincidentally, the NBER would later call this the end of the recession.

The period 2000 – 2004 was a seesaw of broken expectations, making it a difficult one to predict because it was, well, unpredictable.  I did not show this example first because this period is a difficult one for many indicators.  Before 9-11, we were already in a weak recession.  Although the official end was declared in November 2001, the effects were long lasting, a preview of what this last recession would be. In 2002, we seemed to be pulling out of the doldrums but the prospect of an Iraq invasion and a general climate of caution, if not fear, prompted concerns of a double dip recession.

An investor who bought and sold when the smoothed CWI crossed above or below 50 would have had some whipsaws but would have come out about even instead of losing 15% over the five year period.

The present day reading of both the CWI and PMI are at the neutral reading of 50.  Given the rather lackluster growth of the manufacturing sector, the robust rise of the stock market since last November indicates just how much the market is riding on expectations and predications of the future decisions of the Federal Reserve regarding future bond purchases and interest rates. Over the past thirteen years, when the year over year percent change in the stock market hits about 22%, the percentage of growth in the index declines.

So what is a normal run of the mill investor to do?  The CWI, a predictor of business cycles, is not published anywhere that I could find. This and many other indicators are used by the whiz kids at investment firms, pension funds, by financial advisors and traders, to anticipate business conditions as well as the movements of the markets.  But look again at the SP500 chart above and remember that it is the composite of millions of geniuses and not so geniuses trying to anticipate the market.  As I have mentioned in previous blogs, when that percentage change drops below zero, it is time for the prudent investor to consider some portfolio adjustments.  Since 1980, the average year over year percent change in the SP500 is 9.7%, using a monthly average of the SP500 index. Despite the recent 20% gains, the average year over year percent gain during the past ten years is only 4.9%.  If we look back to the beginning of the year 2000, the average is only 3.1%.  Those rather meager gains look robust when compared to the NASDAQ index, which is still 25% below its January 2000 high.  Think of that – thirteen years and still 25% down. The Japanese market index, the Nikkei 225, is at the same level as it was in early 1985, almost thirty years ago.  Both of these examples remind us that we need to pay some  attention or pay someone to do it for us.