Different Measures

July 31, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Inflation around the world is high but the primary contributors to rising prices vary by region. In the U.S., heightened demand has outpaced supply. In Europe, supply and rising costs have had the most influence on inflation. Price growth is outpacing wage growth, adding pressure to many household budgets. This week the first estimate of GDP growth in the second quarter was -0.9%, the second consecutive quarter of negative growth. Economists offered varying definitions of recession while politicians threw blame and accusations for the economic downturn. Only Japan and Germany have lower unemployment rates than the 3.6% rate in the U.S. (OECD, 2022). In the fall of 2019, Mr. Trump bragged when the rate was that low. Political messaging is founded on diversion, delusion and doubt. 

Let’s start with the inflation rate, a crucial factor in the calculation of real GDP, the headline GDP numbers that are highly publicized. The inflation rate is deducted from the quarterly growth in nominal GDP to arrive at an inflation-adjusted measure of output. The higher the inflation rate, the lower the real GDP growth rate. In the 38 developed countries that comprise the OECD, average inflation in the 2nd quarter was 9.6% and GDP quarterly growth was 0.2%, a flatline in growth. Stuck in a three decade economic malaise, only Japan had a reasonable inflation rate of 2.4%. Here are the inflation rates in a few selected countries: U.S. 9.1%, U.K. 8.2%, Germany 7.6%, Italy 8.0%, France 5.8%. The 19 countries of the Eurozone are averaging 8.9% inflation and GDP growth of 0.5%. Only 40% of OECD countries have growth greater than 1% and those countries have relatively small economies (OECD, 2022).

Gross National Product, GDP, is the most widely publicized measure of economic activity but there are alternative measures. GDP emphasizes production within a country’s borders regardless of ownership. If a Japanese firm owns an auto plant in Tennessee, that production is counted even though the profits are flowing to Japanese investors.

Gross Domestic Income, GDI, includes income from all American owned production around the world but would not include income to the Japanese owners of the Tennessee plant. Ford co-owns 50% of Changan Ford Automobile Corporation, Ltd. in China. GDI would include income from that production. U.S. companies have large investments around the world so GDI captures that global presence.

The two measures capture different aspects of a country’s economy. The graph below charts the quarterly growth in real, or inflation-adjusted GDP and GDI (BEA, 2022). Notice that GDI quarterly growth remained positive in the 1st quarter.  The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA, 2021) won’t release 2nd quarter data for Gross Domestic Income for another month. A third measure, Final Sales of Domestic Product, excludes inventory adjustments and it turned positive in the second quarter.

(BEA, 2022)

Major League Baseball uses high frame rate cameras to capture the second-by-second action on the field. With the advantage of multiple angles and slow motion, a review committee in NYC overturns almost 50% of disputed calls (AP, 2020). While the players and fans wait for that review, they argue the call.

In the U.S., the final arbiter of recessions is a recession dating committee at a private, non-partisan organization called the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER, 2022). The committee requires several months to gather enough data to determine the start of a recession. They announced the start of the 2001 recession at the end of that recession. In the FAQ accompanying the announcing the committee warned that two quarters of negative growth do not always count as a recession because the committee uses monthly data (NBER, 2001). Neither the Fed nor political parties can wait for all the information. The Fed makes monetary decisions in real time. An opposition political party uses even the hint of recession in an election year to sow doubt in the minds of voters.

On June 3, 1980, five months before the Presidential election, the NBER (1980) declared a probable start to a recession in January of that year. That announcement gave Republican challenger Ronald Reagan momentum against incumbent Jimmy Carter. In 1992, as unemployment continued to rise following the 1990 recession, challenger Bill Clinton suggested that we might be headed for another recession and called for a change in leadership. In their campaigns, John F. Kennedy (1960) and George Bush (2000) suggested that the economy might already be in a recession as the election neared. Both called for a change in leadership. This year Republicans will run on economic issues conveniently summarized with one word – inflation and recession. Democrats can highlight historically high employment gains and a low unemployment rate and will certainly run on individual rights.   

In baseball, the MLB central review office makes the final call on disputed calls. In national accounting, the recession dating committee at the NBER makes the determination of the start and end of recessions. In disputed decisions among lower courts, the Supreme Court makes the final determination and rule. In presidential elections, the electoral college makes the final call. We may not like the calls but we agree to live by them. Following the 2020 election, former President Trump and his allies broke that agreement and on January 6th tried to overturn the final call by violence. There’s a single word for that – coup.


Photo by patricia serna on Unsplash

AP. (2020, July 21). MLB doubles camera angles for video reviews of umpires. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https://www.tampabay.com/sports/rays/2020/07/21/mlb-doubles-camera-angles-for-video-reviews-of-umpires/

BEA. (2022, June 29). Gross Domestic Income. Gross Domestic Income | U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https://www.bea.gov/data/income-saving/gross-domestic-income

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). (2022). Real gross domestic income [A261RX1Q020SBEA], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/A261RX1Q020SBEA, July 29, 2022.

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). (2022). Real Gross Domestic Product [GDPC1], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GDPC1, July 29, 2022.

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). (2022). Real Final Sales of Domestic Product [FINSLC1], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/FINSLC1, July 29, 2022.

NBER. (1980, June 3). Business cycle dating committee announcement June 3, 1980. NBER. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https://www.nber.org/news/business-cycle-dating-committee-announcement-june-3-1980

NBER. (2001). Business cycle dating committee announcement November 26, 2001. NBER. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https://www.nber.org/news/business-cycle-dating-committee-announcement-november-26-2001#:~:text=of%20this%20memo.-,FAQs,the%20recession%20in%20March%202001.

NBER. (2022). US business cycle expansions and contractions. NBER. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https://www.nber.org/research/data/us-business-cycle-expansions-and-contractions

OECD. (2021, May 25). OECD welcomes Costa Rica as its 38th member. OECD. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https://www.oecd.org/newsroom/oecd-welcomes-costa-rica-as-its-38th-member.htm

OECD (2022), Inflation (CPI) (indicator). doi: 10.1787/eee82e6e-en (Accessed on 29 July 2022)

OECD (2022), Quarterly GDP (indicator). doi: 10.1787/b86d1fc8-en (Accessed on 29 July 2022)

OECD (2022), Unemployment rate (indicator). doi: 10.1787/52570002-en (Accessed on 29 July 2022)

Thirty Year Horizon

April 10, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

In the period leading up to the financial crisis a speculative fever engaged many of the actors in the housing market. This included homebuyers, agents, mortgage brokers, investment firms and risk managers convinced that housing prices could only rise. Homebuyers, struck by FOMO fever, jumped into the home lottery, gambling on a quick flip for a profitable gain with little investment. The frenzy of this market is marked by an opposite phenomenon. Small investors with a portfolio of ten or fewer houses are outbidding conventional buyers with all cash offers. Investment capital is at war with consumption capital.

The Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve (2022) maintains a Home Ownership Affordability Monitor (HOAM) that ranks the affordability of a home at current prices and interest rates in cities and counties through the country. Readers can select the city, county they are interested in and they’ll see the affordability index. Hover over a county on the map and they’ll see the median home price, median household income and the share of income a house payment would be. The mortgage payment is based on the 3.6% interest rate of two months ago. After the recent rise in interest rates, you can add on at least $200 or more to the monthly payment.

A total housing cost of up to 30% of gross income is considered affordable according to the HOAM guidelines. A rule of thumb to calculate an affordable housing budget is to divide annual gross income by 40. For instance, $80,000 / 40 = $2000 per month. An index above 100 is affordable. The metro Denver area is in the 70s. With an index below 50, a typical household in the LA area would spend more than 50% of their gross income on housing. Some of the counties in the Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas area and most of the counties in the Atlanta, Georgia area are affordable and that helps explain a growing population in some southern states.

Few will be surprised to learn that housing prices in many cities are unaffordable. Since the housing crisis, not enough housing has been built and low interest rates have increased the pool of qualified buyers. The higher demand puts upward pressure on prices. Older homeowners on a reduced income may resist selling because they cannot find a suitable replacement – a paradox of rising home prices.

In the chart below I’ve added on the Fed’s 2% inflation target to real GDP growth as a benchmark for the 30-year mortgage rate. Rates have been low the past decade but GDP growth has been low as well.

The red line is real economic growth after inflation + 2%. In the last quarter of 2021, economic growth was just 5% above the same quarter of 2019. That two year growth rate is moderate but not strong. The one year growth rate of 5.5% is due to what economists call base effects. Because of the pandemic the 2020 base number was weak, making moderate growth look stronger than it is.

The Fed is expecting growth to average 2.75% this year and decline to 2.3% in 2023 (FRED Series GDPC1CTM). Add in the Fed’s 2% inflation target as I done and the 30 year rate should find a balance in the range of 4.5-5.0%. However, that rate will probably overshoot before finding an equilibrium. The war in Ukraine will make it more difficult for that balance to happen. Homebuyers should not expect 30-year rates to fall below 4% in the near term.


Photo by Laib Khaled on Unsplash

Federal Reserve. (2022). Home Ownership Affordability Monitor. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://www.atlantafed.org/center-for-housing-and-policy/data-and-tools/home-ownership-affordability-monitor

An Extinct Proposal

October 31, 2021

By Steve Stofka

In the past 70 years, America has escalated its health care spending from 5% of GDP to 18% of GDP. Stack up all the money Americans spend on housing, cars, fuel, utilities and food and its less than what we spend on health care. Despite all this spending we have the worst rates of infant mortality and preventable death among developed countries. If we exclude the growth of health care spending in the past few decades, the U.S. economy has been stuck in the same rut that has trapped Japan. In that time, China’s economy has erupted from $.5T to $15T and is now the second largest economy, just $7T less than the U.S. We have averaged 2.4% annual real growth in the past three decades, less than the 3% growth of the post WW2 period. How do we get out of the rut?

Thirty years ago, William Clinton emerged the winner of a three man race for the Presidency. Responding to public concern over rising health care costs, he proposed a universal health care plan that received a hostile reception. Republican groups mounted an effective advertising campaign against a “takeover” of health care by government. Republicans rode that momentum to win control of the House in 1994, ending forty years of continuous Democratic control.

In the fall of that year, two economists proposed a Major Risk Insurance Plan that they estimated would lower health care spending by 20% (Feldstein & Gruber, 1994). However, the market continued to adopt HMOs as the dominant model to reduce costs. Today, the US spends far more than other developed countries and has worse health outcomes. Martin Feldstein was President of the NBER, the nation’s premier economic research institute. Jonathan Gruber was a former researcher with the NBER, an MIT professor with a lot of expertise in the economics of health care. Both had a lot of influence, but their proposal did not win converts.

Their study was based on earlier work by Feldstein and a data sample of six thousand respondents collected in 1987 that provided insight into the choices and value that people place on health care. Feldstein and Gruber concluded that the government could insure people under 65 against major health risks for a mere $150 per person, about $300 in current dollars.

Under their proposal people would be insured for half of their annual medical expenses until they spent 10% of their after-tax income, their maximum OOP, or out-of-pocket expense. This would eliminate or reduce the wastefulness of people being over-insured. Those with small copayments or “first dollar coverage” use more health care because it costs them little to nothing except their time. Many younger workers with employer provided health insurance have far more insurance than they use. Thinking that insurance is a “free” benefit, workers don’t realize that they are paying the insurance premium in the form of lower wages.

The proposal aimed for greater efficiency, more patient involvement and wider coverage. Jonathan Gruber would become instrumental in developing Romneycare and Obamacare, nursing both plans through the political butchery and swollen egos that all major legislation endures. The 10% OOP is a progressive feature that empowers and enables the poorest people to access the full benefits of the health care system after spending a small amount. Those with higher incomes pay more into the system. Because everyone has some skin in the game, they use the system more judiciously. However, sensible proposals are not sensational. They don’t dance and sparkle.

The health care and insurance industry relies on misinformation and the inefficiency in the American system for its profits. The burden of that inefficiency has become a ball and chain on the American economy.  Each generation comes to maturity thinking that it will solve the persistent problems that have bedeviled earlier generations. Those who efficiently rake in the profits protect those inefficiencies. Any system that favors the powerful few resists change. In a sense of frustration, people turn to a populist leader who claims that they can fix it because they know how the system really works. We are drawn to our myth builders like moths to the light of a flame.


Photo by Derek Finch on Unsplash

Feldstein, M., & Gruber, J. (1994, September 01). A Major Risk Approach to Health Insurance Reform. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from https://www.nber.org/papers/w4852. A bio of Martin Feldstein https://scholar.harvard.edu/feldstein/biocv.

Finding the Right Wires

February 14, 2021

by Steve Stofka

Since WW2, households have traditionally held more debt than the federal government as a percent of GDP. I’ll call it %Debt. The biggest component of household debt is mortgages, and includes car loans, student loans, credit card debt, etc. A decade ago, Federal %Debt surpassed households, effectively allowing households to reduce their debt level and put it on the federal balance sheet.

Federal debt spiked during the pandemic while household debt levels have risen only 1.5%. For decades, deficit hawks have long warned that rising federal debt levels could cause an economic implosion that would make the Great Depression look tame by comparison. They may be right – finally.

There are two ways that the federal %Debt can go down. The first is to grow the economy; that’s the GDP in the denominator of Debt / GDP. The second way is to reduce the level of Debt, the numerator. It is unlikely that Congress is going to raise taxes enough to reduce the debt, so that leaves only one way to reduce %Debt – grow the economy faster than the growth in federal debt.

To do that, consumers need to spend money because their spending makes up 70% of GDP. There are three ways to increase spending. The first is to increase incomes faster than economic growth but that has not been happening for several decades. The real growth in middle class incomes over the past 30 years is only 15%, or 1/2% per year average.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects that total incomes will increase by an average of $33B per year over the next decade if the minimum wage is raised to $15 over the next five years (CBO, 2021). That increase of 1.5% in GDP will not change the federal %Debt by much.

The second way to increase GDP is for consumers to take on more debt. A rise in housing prices has lifted the net worth of many households, who can tap into that equity to increase their spending. However, households are already choked with debt. The two largest generations, the Millennials and the Boomers are offsetting each other’s spending. Older Boomers are reducing spending as Millennials increase their purchases. The Millennials have been crushed by the financial crisis a decade ago and again with the Covid crisis. Many feel like they came along at the wrong time in history and are cautious. When consumers pay down debt, they spend less and that lowers GDP growth.

The third way is probably the trend of the future. The federal government will continue to pile debt on its balance sheet and shift income onto households in the hopes that consumers will spend money and grow the economy faster than the rise in federal debt. There is a concept called the multiplier and economists argue over its value. It is the total effect of spending in an economy when the government spends $1. That depends on consumer and business confidence, which depends on the amount of debt each sector holds. The IMF estimates that the multiplier is about 1.5, so that $1 of spending equals $1.50. If so, deficit spending might grow the economy faster than the federal debt grows.

I’ll return to a proposal I discarded earlier – increasing taxes, particularly on the top 10% who don’t spend as much of their incomes on consumer goods as the bottom 90%. Under the Budget Reconciliation rule in the Senate, the Democrats could pass tax legislation that undoes the 2017 tax cuts that the Republicans passed using that reconciliation process. In his campaign proposals, President Biden limited any tax increases to those making $400,000 or more, a small sliver of the population.

Income distribution is skewed toward the upper 5%, who will fight vigorously to keep what they have. They will complain – and they have a point – that they are already paying higher taxes in the form of lost income because interest rates are so low. Those with savings are being paid a paltry amount in interest but the low rates reduce the interest on the debt that the federal government pays each year. Boomers on fixed incomes are having to reduce their savings faster  to meet monthly expenses.

The structure of income distribution is weak. No, it’s not a problem with capitalism, as some like to claim. This is a problem with political policy which pre-dates capitalism. A small group of people in a nation take command of the distribution levers and direct more of the nation’s income to themselves. In the 1700s, the problem was thought to originate with monarchy and aristocracy. Democracy was going to cure the problem, but it didn’t. Communism was going to cure the problem and it didn’t. Socialism – the middle way between capitalism and communism – was going to solve the problem, but the EU demonstrates that socialism simply slows growth, increases structural unemployment, and does little to solve the persistent problem of distributional inequalities.

Governments worry about exogenous factors like Covid, war, or a dramatic shift in commodity prices. While those do produce crises, they do so because of endogenous factors – weaknesses in a nation’s political and economic system that award property rights in such a way as to exacerbate social tensions. The Great Depression and Financial Crisis were examples.

Since the Financial Crisis a decade ago, people in nations around the world have been raising their fists and their voices. The productivity gains that capitalism promoted had ameliorated the centuries old problem of political oligarchies, but no economic system can solve what is fundamentally a political problem.

Those who voted for former President Trump in 2016 did so thinking that he was a political outsider who could “drain the swamp,” i.e., bust up the political oligarchy that controls Washington. He became part of that oligarchy, feeding the monster, because it relied on his lack of political expertise.

Those who voted for President Biden hope that his decency and moderation will help craft legislation that unlooses the grip that the oligarchy has on our political process. Which wires do we pull to disconnect the oligarchy?


Photo by Victor Barrios on Unsplash

Congressional Budget Office (CBO). (2021, February 08). The budgetary effects of the raise the Wage act of 2021. Retrieved February 13, 2021, from https://www.cbo.gov/publication/56975

Tax Policy Center. (2020, May). What is reconciliation? Retrieved February 13, 2021, from https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/briefing-book/what-reconciliation

Remove Impeachment?

February 9, 2020

By Steve Stofka

Despite a strong labor market and a rising stock market, last year’s deficit was the largest in seven years (Tankersly, 2020). The tax cut package of 2017 has not delivered the promised economic growth. The first estimate of 2019 GDP annual growth was 2.3% (FRED, n.d.), the average during the past four years of the Obama administration. According to Mr. Trump, that growth rate was a “disaster” under Obama. Now it is a good growth rate. In his State of the Union address this week, President Trump said that “our economy is the best it has ever been” (CPR, 2020).

Growth during the three years of the Trump administration has averaged 2.5%, slightly above the tepid rate of growth under Obama. The growth standard is 3.0%, the average during the last fifty years of the 20th century.

How to make a tired nag of an economy look like a racehorse? The White House Council of Economic Advisors compared GDP growth during the Trump administration to growth projections of 2.0% made before the 2016 election (CEA, 2020). That comparison makes the growth rate look ½% higher than expectations. A component of GDP growth is government spending, whether that spending is borrowed or not. That additional growth has come at the expense of the Federal debt (CBO, 2020).

Like the Obama administration before, the Trump administration has bought itself GDP growth by borrowing money from the rest of the world and spending it. Without those annual deficits, GDP growth would have been negative for the past 15 years. The stock market has climbed 33% since the 2016 election because the money is flowing freely from Washington and the Federal Reserve. The amount of borrowed and printed money that the Federal government pumps into the economy creates additional profits for companies.

As predicted, President Trump was found not guilty by the Senate. Since the founding of the country, three Presidents have been tried for impeachment but not convicted. Let’s look at the Presidents who were not impeached even though they committed arguably impeachable offenses.

 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not impeached by a Democratic House for lying to Congress about the lend lease program to Britain in 1940. President Lyndon Johnson was not impeached by a Democratic House for lying to Congress about the Gulf of Tonkin attack in Vietnam in 1964 (Moise, 2019). President Ronald Reagan was not impeached by a Democratic House for his complicity in selling arms to Iran (Brown U., n.d.).

All of these were matters were of grave national importance to the American people. President Clinton was impeached by a Republican House for lying to them about his affair with a White House aide. Tawdry, yes. National importance? No.

Since no president has been convicted of impeachment, should we enact a Constitutional amendment to nullify impeachment? The arguments we have today about impeachment reflect the same arguments made by delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (Klarman, 2016). Some thought that state legislatures should initiate impeachment proceedings. The “New Jersey” plan proposed that a majority of state governors could remove a president. Some wanted to give the Congress power to remove a president at will, but others thought that would make the president subservient to Congress. Thinking that Congress might threaten impeachment as retribution for a presidential veto, some advocated against impeachment at all. Shouldn’t the voters decide, they argued? If the president were elected every two years, the voters could vote a president out of office at the next election. A Presidential term should last longer than two years was the counterargument. Most of the delegates agreed that impeachment was a check on a president and decided to include it in the Constitution.

What offenses should be subject to impeachment? The delegates disagreed on that as well. Some thought it should be for “malpractice or neglect of duty” but others thought the offenses needed to be more serious. “Treason, bribery, and corruption” was suggested, but “corruption” was not specific enough. “Maladministration” was proposed but was rejected. How about “other high crimes and misdemeanors against the State?” Well, that was more specific than “corruption” and “maladministration,” but not too specific as to straitjacket Congress. The final language inserted in the Constitution was “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” (Article II, Section 4). Today, we argue about that wording. Go figure.

When the Constitution was written, the delegates did not contemplate a political system with two parties. Within two decades, they realized their mistake and initiated the 12th Amendment to have the president and vice-president elected together from the same party.

Some Constitutional delegates worried that the impeachment process would become politicized. History has shown that they were right. Should we admit that a conviction of impeachment is practically impossible? We must either lower the threshold for conviction in the Senate from a super-majority of 67 Senators to a majority vote, or remove the idea of impeachment from the Constitution entirely. What do you think?



Brown U. Research. (n.d.) Understanding the Iran-Contra Affairs: The Beginning of the Affair. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/Research/Understanding_the_Iran_Contra_Affair/i-thebeginning.php

Colorado Public Radio (CPR). Transcript & Video: President Donald Trump’s 2020 State Of The Union. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.cpr.org/2020/02/04/transcript-video-president-trumps-2020-state-of-the-union/

Congressional Budget Office (CBO). (2020, January). Budget and Economic Data. Retrieved from https://www.cbo.gov/about/products/budget-economic-data#2 Note: 2019’s Federal deficit was 4.7% of GDP, 40% higher than the 3.3% deficit in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.

Council of Economic Advisors (CEA). (2020, January 30). United States GDP Growth Continues Exceeding Expectations. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/articles/united-states-gdp-growth-continues-exceeding-expectations/

Federal Reserve (FRED). (2020, January 30).  Real Gross Domestic Product (GDPC1). [Web page]. Retrieved from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GDP

Klarman, M. J. (2016). The framers coup: the making of the United States Constitution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (pp 235-237).

Moïse Edwin E. (2019). Tonkin Gulf and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, (Preface). Sample retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=0UEnAnvQ978C&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=gulf+of+tonkin+vietnam+war

Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash

Tankersley, J. (2020, January 13). Budget Deficit Topped $1 Trillion in 2019. NY Times. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/13/business/budget-deficit-1-trillion-trump.html

Growth Periods

July 28, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Did you know that housing costs double every twenty years? The predictability surprised me. Both rents and home prices double. Based on the last forty years of data the average annual increase is about 3-1/2% (Note #1).

House prices can only get ahead of earnings for so long before a correction occurs. Take a look at the chart below. Yes, low interest rates reduce mortgage payments so people can afford more home. That’s what we said in the 2000s. This trend does not look sustainable to me.

I was doing some work on potential GDP and wondered which president since World War 2 has enjoyed the longest and strongest run of real (inflation-adjusted) GDP above potential. Potential GDP is estimated as a nation’s output at full employment.

I won’t start with the #1 award because that would be no fun. Nixon came in fourth place with a run of strong economic growth from 1971 – 1973. The oil embargo that followed the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 sent this country into a hard tailspin that ended that growth spurt.

Ronald Reagan comes in third with a cumulative total of 24.5% growth above potential GDP. The expansion began in the third quarter of 1983 and ran through the second quarter of 1986. These strong growth periods seem to last two to three years.

Second place goes to President Truman with a short (less than two years), sharp 25.2% gain that ended with the beginning of the Korean War.

And the award goes to…the envelope please…Jimmy Carter. Wha!!? Yep, Jimmy Carter. The growth streak began in 1976, the year Carter was elected, and ended in 1979 when Iran overthrew their Shah, oil production sank, and oil prices doubled. At its end, the expansion had totaled 25.5% above potential GDP. In less than two years, the nation soured on Carter and put Reagan in office.

What about other Presidential administrations? We might remember the late 1990s as a heady time of skyrocketing stock prices during the second Clinton administration. The output above potential was only 11.5% but is the longest period of strong growth, lasting almost four years, from the first quarter of 1996 through the last quarter of 1999.

George Bush’s growth streak was only slightly higher at 12.8% but is the second longest growth period, beginning in the third quarter of 2003 and ending in the last quarter of 2006. A year later began the Great Recession that lasted more than 1-1/2 years.

Barack Obama’s presidency began with the nation deep in a financial crisis. By the time he took office fourteen months after the recession began, the economy had shed 5 million jobs, 3.6% of the employed. Employment was more than 6 million jobs below trend. The economy did not start growing above potential until the first quarter of 2010. The growth period ended in the third quarter of 2012, but employment did not regain its 2007 pre-recession level until May of 2014, 6-1/2 years after the recession began. It is the weakest strong growth period of the post-WW2 economy.

President Trump’s streak of strong growth began in the last few months of Obama’s term and is still ongoing with a cumulative gain of 7.5%. Unlike other growth periods, this one is marked by steadily accelerating growth above potential.

I’ve charted the cumulative growth above potential and the period length for each president.

As the economy shifted away from manufacturing in the 1980s, the days of 20-plus percent growth ended. Manufacturing is more cyclic than the whole economy. The manufacturing sector contributes to strong growth in recovery and pronounced weakness at the end of the business cycle each decade. In the 1980s, economists and policy makers in both government and the Federal Reserve welcomed this shift away from manufacturing. They dubbed it the Great Moderation and it ended twenty years later with the Great Recession.

President Trump is on a mission to begin another “Great” period – the resurgence of manufacturing in America. It is a monumental task because manufacturing depends on a supply chain that is presently located in Asia. In 2013, Apple tried to manufacture and assemble its high-end computer, the Mac Pro, in Texas. Production faltered on the availability of a tiny screw (Note #2). Six years later, the Trump administration is levying 25% tariffs on Apple products to encourage them to manufacture computers again in Texas.

The widespread use of tariffs usually leads to fewer imports. As other countries retaliate, exports decrease. Slowing global growth poses additional challenges to repatriating manufacturing to this country. If Trump can realize his passion, we may again return to those days of heady growth and more severe business cycle corrections.



  1. The Case-Shiller home price index (HPI) for home prices. The Consumer Price Index’s rent of a primary residence.
  2. A NY Times account of Apple’s last attempt to manufacture in the U.S.A.

Interest Rate Ceiling

June 23, 2019

by Steve Stofka

After the Federal Reserve meeting this week, traders are betting on a cut in interest rates in July and the market hit all-time highs. Is a cut in interest rates warranted at this time? Such an action is usually taken in response to weak employment numbers, a decline in retail sales or sluggish GDP growth. Let’s review just how good the economy is.

Unemployment is at 50-year lows. The percent of people unemployed more than fifteen weeks is near the lows of the late 1990s. At almost 18 million vehicles, auto sales are near all-time highs. Real retail sales continue to grow more than 1% annually. In the first quarter of this year, real GDP growth was over 3%. Ongoing tariffs may cause real GDP to decline one percent but a growth rate above 2% is above average for this recovery after the financial crisis.

Corporate profits have been strong. In fact, that may account for the volatility of the past two decades. The chart below is after tax corporate profits (CP) as a percent of GDP. The multi-decade norm is in the range of 5-8% but the past twenty years have been above that trend except for the plunge in profits and GDP during the GFC.

Companies have paid part of those extra profits as dividends to shareholders who tend to be cautious pension funds or older, wealthier and more cautious individuals.  Some profits have been used to buy back shares and boost the return to existing shareholders.

Despite the above average profits, investors still have a strong thirst for lower yielding government debt. Why? The Federal Reserve has kept interest rates below a market equilibrium, which is currently about 3.8%, far above the current 2.4% federal funds rate (Note #1). As with any price ceiling, the below-market price creates a shortage. In this case, the shortage is in the capital investors want to supply to governments to meet the demand for capital. Consequently, investors have been searching for alternative substitutes or near-substitutes. That distortion is being reflected in stock market prices.

Despite a strong economy and corporate profits, the SP500 has gained less than 5% from its peak high in February 2018 after the passage of the 2017 tax cuts. Including dividends, the SP500 has gained just 5.7% in 16 months. If we turn the clock back a few weeks to the end of May, the total return of the SP500 during the past fifteen months was a big, flat zero. Those gains of the past sixteen months have come in the past three weeks on the hope and the hint of rate cuts.

An intermediate bond ETF like Vanguard’s BIV has returned 5.2% in the same period. On a scale of increasing risk 1-5, with 1 being a safe investment, BIV is rated a 2. The SP500 is rated a 4. Investors buying the broad stock market have not been rewarded for the additional risk they are taking.  How long will this situation persist? For as long as the Fed keeps a price ceiling on interest rates.


Notes: A popular model of equilibrium interest rates is the Taylor rule proposed in 1993 by John B. Taylor, a member of the Council of Economic Advisors under three presidents. The Atlanta Fed has a utility that calculates the current rate and allows the reader to change the parameters. Click on the graph icon, accept the default parameters and the utility graphs the equilibrium rate and the historical Fed funds rate.

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.

Making Stuff

May 5, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This week I’ll review several decades of trends in productivity. How much output do we get out of labor, land, and capital inputs? Capital can include new equipment, computers, buildings, etc. In the graph below, the blue line is real GDP (output) per person. The red line is disposable (after-tax) income per person. That’s the labor share of that output after taxes.

As you can see, labor is the majority input. In the following graph is the share of real GDP going to disposable income.  In the past two decades, labor has been getting a larger share.

That might look good but it’s not. Since 2000, the economy has shifted toward service industries where labor does not produce as much GDP per hour. The chart below shows the efficiency of labor, or how much GDP is being produced by labor.

If labor were being underpaid, the amount of GDP produced per dollar of disposable income would be higher, not lower. On average, service jobs do not have as much leverage as manufacturing jobs.

A century ago, agricultural jobs were inefficient in comparison to manufacturing jobs. The share of labor to total output was high. In the past seventy years, the agricultural industry has transformed. Today’s farms resemble large outdoor manufacturing plants without walls and productivity continues to grow. In the past five years, steep price declines in the prices of many agricultural products have put extraordinary pressures on today’s smaller farmers. The increased productivity of larger farms has allowed them to maintain real net farm income at the same level as twenty years ago (Note #1). Here’s a graph from the USDA.

Although agriculture related industries contribute more than 5% of the nation’s GDP, farm output is only 1% of the nation’s total output. The productivity gains in agriculture have not been shared by the rest of the economy. Labor productivity has plunged from 2.8% annual growth in the years 2000-2007 to 1.3% in the past eleven years (Note #2).  Here’s an earlier report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with a chart that illustrates the trends (Note #3). The report notes “Sluggish productivity growth has implications for worker compensation. As stated earlier, real hourly compensation growth depends upon gains in labor productivity.”

Productivity growth in this past decade is comparable to the two years of deep recession, high unemployment and sky-high interest rates in the early 1980s. The report notes “although both hours and output grew at below-average rates during this cycle [2008 through 2016], the fact that output grew notably slower than its historical average is what yields the historically low labor productivity growth.” Today we have low unemployment and very low interest rates – the exact opposite of that earlier period. Why do the two periods have similar productivity gains? It’s a head scratcher.

Simple answers? No, but hats off to Donald Trump who has called attention to the need for a greater shift to manufacturing in the U.S. economy. He and then Wisconsin governor Scott Walker negotiated with FoxConn Chairman Terry Gou to get a huge factory built in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin to manufacture LCD displays, but progress has slowed. An article this week in the Wall St. Journal exposed the tensions that erupt among residents of an area which has made a major commitment to economic growth (Note #4).

If we don’t shift toward more manufacturing, American economic growth will slow to match that of the Eurozone. Along with that will come negative interest rates from the central bank and little or no interest on CDs and savings accounts. We already had a taste of that for several years after the recession. No thanks. Low interest rates are a hidden tax on savers. They lower the amount of interest the government pays at the expense of individuals who are saving for education or retirement. Interest income not received is a reduction in disposable income and has the same effect as a tax. Low interest rates encourage an unhealthy growth in corporate debt and drive up both stock and housing prices.



  1. USDA summary of agricultural industry
  2. BLS report on multi-factor productivity
  3. BLS report on declining labor productivity
  4. FoxConn LCD factory (March article – no paywall). Also, a recent article from WSJ (paywall) – Foxconn Tore Up a Small Town to Build a Big Factory—Then Retreated

Marching Forward

April 28, 2019

by Steve Stofka

When former President Obama took the oath of office, the economy was in the worst shape since the Great Depression 75 years earlier. Tax receipts plunged and benefit claims soared. Millions of homes and thousands of businesses fell into the black hole created by the Financial Crisis. In sixteen years of the Bush and Obama presidencies, the country added $16 trillion to the public federal debt, more than tripling the sum at the time Clinton left office in early 2001.

Although growth has remained slow since the financial crisis (see my blog last week), the economy has not gone into recession. Despite the fears of some, a recession in the next year does not look likely. The chart below charts the annual percent change in real GDP (green) against a ratio called the M1 money multiplier, the red line (Note #1). Notice that when the change in GDP dips below the money multiplier for two quarters we have been in recession.

The money multiplier seems to act like a growth boundary. While some economy watchers have warned of an impending recession, GDP growth has been above 2.5% for more than a year and is rising. In 2018, real disposable personal income grew nearly 3%. This is not the weak economic growth of 2011 or the winter of 2015/16 when concerns of recession were well founded.

The number of people voluntarily quitting their job is near the 1999 and 2006 highs. Employees are either transferring to other jobs or they feel confident that they can quickly get another job. An even more important sign is that this metric has shown no decline since the low point in August 2009.

In 2013, the Social Security disability fund was in crisis and predicted to run out of money within a decade. As the economy has improved, disability claims have plunged to all-time lows and the Social Security administration recently extended the life of the fund until 2052 (Note #2).

Approximately 1 in 6 (62 million) Americans receive Social Security benefits and that number is expected to grow to 78 million in a decade. However, the ratio of workers to the entire population is near all time highs. The number of Millennials (1982-1996) has surpassed the number of Boomers. This year the population of iGen, those born after 1996, will surpass the Millennial generation (Note #3). Just as a lot of seniors are leaving the work force, a lot of younger workers are entering. The ratio of worker to non-worker may reach 1 to 1. 45 years ago, one worker supported two non-workers.

As the presidential cycle gets into gear, we will hear claims that there are not enough workers to pay promised benefits. Those claims are based on the Civilian Employment Participation Rate, which is the ratio of workers to adults. While the number of seniors is growing, the number of children has been declining. To grasp the total public burden on each worker, we want to look at the ratio of workers to the total population. As I noted before, that is at an all time high and that is a positive.

Raising a child is expensive. The average cost of public education per child is almost $12K (Note #4).  Public costs for housing, food and medical care can push average per child public cost to over $20K annually.

Let’s compare to public costs for seniors. The average person on Social Security receives $15,600 in benefits (Note #5). In 2018, the Medicare program cost an average of $10,000 per retiree (Note #6). The public cost for seniors is not a great deal more than those for children.

As a society, we can do this.



  1. The M1 money multiplier is the ratio of cash and checking accounts to the amount of reserves held at the Federal Reserve.
  2. SSDI solvency now extended to 2052. Here’s a highlight presentation of the trustee’s report.
  3. Generation Z will surpass the numbers of Millennials in 2019. Report
  4. Public education costs per pupil
  5. Social Security costs
  6. Medicare program cost $583 billion. There are approximately 60 million on the program. CMS