Slow Growth

April 21, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Happy Passover and Happy Easter. Now that tax day is past, let’s raise our heads and look at long-term growth trends of real, or inflation-adjusted, GDP. For the past seventy years real GDP has averaged about 3% annual growth. In the chart below, I’ve charted the annual percent change in a ten-year average of GDP (GDP10, I’ll call it). As you can see on the right side of the graph, growth has been below average for the past decade.

In 2008, growth in the GDP10 crossed below 3%. Was this due to the Financial Crisis (GFC) and the housing bust? No. The GFC barely figured into the computation of the ten-year average. The housing market had been running hot and heavy for four to five years, but this longer-term view now puts the housing boom in a new perspective: it was like lipstick on an ugly pig. Without the housing boom, the economy had been faltering at below average growth since the 1990s tech boom.

The stock market responds to trends – the past – of past output (GDP) and the estimation of future output. Let’s add a series of SP500 prices adjusted to 2012 dollars (Note #1).

For three decades, from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, the real prices of the SP500 had no net change. The go-go years of the 1960s raised nominal, but not real, prices. Investors shied away from stocks, as high inflation in the 1970s hobbled the ability of companies to make real profit growth that rewarded an investor’s risk exposure. From the 2nd quarter of 1973 to the 2nd quarter of 1975, real private domestic investment lost 27% (Note #2). In less than a decade, investment fell again by a crushing 21% in the years 1979 through 1982.

In the mid-1980s, investors grew more confident that the Federal Reserve understood and could control inflation and interest rates. During the next decade, investors bid up real stock prices until they doubled. In 1996, then Fed chairman Alan Greenspan noted an “irrational exuberance” in stock prices (Note #3). The “land rush” of the dot-com boom was on and, within the next five years, prices would get a lot more exuberant.

The exuberance was well deserved. With the Fed’s steady hand on the tiller of money policy, the ten-year average of GDP growth rose steadily above its century-long average of 3%. A new age of prosperity had begun. In the 1920s, investment dollars flowed into the new radio and advertising industries. In the 1990s, money flowed into the internet industry. Construction workers quit their jobs to day trade stocks. Anything less than 25% revenue growth was the “old” economy. The fledgling Amazon was born in this age and has matured into the powerhouse of many an internet investor’s dream. Thousands of other companies flamed out. Billions of investment dollars were burned.

The peak of growth in the ten-year average of GDP output came in the 1st quarter of 2001. By that time, stock prices had already begun to ease. In the next two years, real stock prices fell almost 50%, but investment fell only 12% because it was shifting to another boom in residential housing. As new homes were built and house prices rose in the 2000s, long-term output growth began to climb again.

From the first quarter of 2006 to the 3rd quarter of 2009, investment fell by a third, the greatest loss of the post-war period. In the first quarter of 2008, growth in the GDP10 fell below 3%. In mid-2009, it fell below 2%. Ten years later, it is still below 2%.

The Federal Reserve has had difficulty hitting its target of 2% inflation with the limited tools of monetary policy. There simply isn’t enough long-term growth to put upward pressure on prices.  Despite the low growth, real stock prices are up 150% since the 2009 lows.  A prudent investor might ask – based on what?

The supply side believers in the Trump administration and Republican Party thought that tax cuts would spur growth. In the first term of the Obama administration, believers in Keynesian counter-cyclical stimulus thought government spending would kick growth into gear. Faced with continued slow growth, each side has doubled down on their position. We need more tax cuts and less regulation, say Republicans. No, we need more infrastructure spending, Democrats counter. Neither side will give up and, in a divided Congress, there is little likelihood of forging a compromise in the next two years. The stock market may be waiting for the cavalry to ride to the rescue but there is no sign of dust on the horizon.

Economists are just as dug in their ideological foxholes. The Phillips curve, the correlation between employment and inflation, has broken down. The correlation between the money supply and inflation has also broken down. High employment but slow output growth and low inflation. Larry Summers has called it secular stagnation, a nice label with only a vague understanding of the underlying mechanism. If an economist tells you they know what’s going on, shake their hand, congratulate them and move to the other side of the room. Economists are still arguing over the underlying causes of the stagflation of the 1970s.

A year ago, I suggested a cautious stance for older investors if they needed to tap their assets for income in the next five years. The Shiller CAPE ratio, a long-term evaluation of stock prices, is at the same level as 1929. At current prices in a low growth environment, stock returns may  struggle to average more than 5-6% annually over the next five years.



  1. Adjusted for inflation by the Federal Reserve’s preferred method, the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index (FRED series PCEPI). Prices do not include dividends
  2. Real Gross Private Domestic Investment – FRED Series GPDIC1.
  3. A video of the 1996 “irrational exuberance” speech

Good Times

January 28, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Since the passage of the tax bill about a month ago, the stock market has risen 8%. Some people are convinced that only those at the top own stocks. Any market gains go only to the rich, they say. In the most recent of an annual Gallup survey, 54% of households reported that they directly owned stocks and stock mutual funds (Gallup).  Before the financial crisis, 65% reported direct ownership of stocks.

Private and public pension plans, as well as variable annuity life insurance plans, invest a great deal in stocks. When indirect ownership is added to the mix, a whopping 80% of the stock market is owned by households (Business Insider ). The fortunes of the stock market affect most people, even those on the margins of our economy.

A quarter of companies in the SP500 have reported earnings this month. Annual earnings growth is 12% (FactSet ). In response to the new tax law, companies are bringing home their overseas cash profits and paying Federal taxes on the repatriated profits. Most are predicting strong profit growth for the coming year. Home Depot announced that they are paying bonuses to all their employees.

Since the tax law was signed, the dollar has dropped 5% against the euro. This will make U.S. exports cheaper and more attractive to overseas markets. A euro of profit earned in the Eurozone market was worth $1.07 a year ago when Donald Trump took the oath of office. That same euro is now worth $1.24. Half of the profits of SP500 companies come from overseas, and investors are betting that the dollar will not strengthen substantially in the coming year, despite Trump’s insistence that he likes a strong dollar.

The first estimate of GDP growth, announced Friday, was 2.6%, down from the above 3% performance of the 2nd and 3rd quarters but much better than the 2% and lower rate of growth during 2015 and 2016. The growth of business investment has accelerated over the past four quarters and is nearing 7%.


Consumer spending grew by 3.8% in the final quarter of 2017, and confidence is near twenty-year highs. Accelerating business investment and a rising stock market help those on the margins of the economy. Unemployment is low. As companies struggle to find employees, they turn to those that they might have turned away a few years ago.

My checker at Target last week had a slight speech defect.  A few years earlier, Target management might have put this person on some duty that did not have such frequent contact with the public, if they hired such a person at all.  Unless there is a specific outreach program, many companies are reluctant to hire those with impediments when there are many able-bodied candidates to choose from.  I was glad to see this twenty-something man employed.

At my local Home Depot a few weeks ago, a guy in a motorized wheelchair helped me locate an item. I got my question answered. Good for him, good for me, good for Home Depot.

A rising tide lifts all boats.  Every day the ever-upward stock market convinces scores of people that they are really smart investors. Many who buy “on the dip” are rewarded as they take advantage of a short term price decline. Some who timidly stayed in cash become convinced that they were too conservative.  They may listen to the market gains enjoyed by their co-workers, family and friends, and feel left out.  How to catch up?  They could take out a home equity loan and use the cash to buy stocks, some leveraged ETFs, or maybe some bitcoin.  Some of those have been on a tear lately.  Hmmmm…

Here’s the thing about a rising tide. A lot of ideas make sense while riding a good tide.


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!

Sugar Daddy

June 7, 2015

Older readers may remember Bizarro Superman, the mirror image of Superman, who did things backwards, or in reverse.  That’s the world we live in today; good news is bad, and vice versa.  The employment news was doubly good.  Job gains were stronger than expected at 280,000 but more importantly the unemployment rate went up a smidge, and for the right reasons.  As people become more confident in the job market, they re-enter the labor force, actively looking for work.  Discouraged job applicants have fallen 20% in the past twelve months.  The civilian labor force, the sum of employed and the unemployed, has grown.

Is good news good or bad?  If only the news would wear a hat, white or black, so we could tell. In Friday’s trading, investors bet on the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate increase.  September of this year or the beginning of 2016? When will Sugar Daddy, the Fed, take away the punch bowl of easy money?

The core work force, those aged 25 – 54 who drive the economy, continues to show growth greater than 1%.

Although hourly wage growth for all private employees has been modest at 2.3% annual growth, weekly earnings for production and non-supervisory employees have risen 30%, or 2.7% per year in the past decade, a period which has included the worst downturn since the 1930s depression.  This more positive outlook on wage growth does not fit well with some political narratives.

The decade from 1995 – 2005 had 36% gains, or 3.1% annual growth, only slightly above the gains of the past decade and yet this period included the go-go years of the dot-com bubble and the housing boom. Inflation was higher in that decade, and in inflation adjusted dollars, the earlier period was only slightly stronger than this past decade.  In short, we are doing suprisingly well considering the negative impacts of the financial crisis.



Every month I update the Constant Weighted Purchasing Index, a composite of the Purchasing Manager’s monthly index published by the Institute for Supply Management.  This month’s reading was similar to last month’s, continuing a trough in the strong growth region of this index.


Heaven On Earth

Last week I asked the question: Why can’t a government with a fiat money system simply give everyone a lot of money and create a heaven on earth?  The standard answer is that it would cause inflation.  For several millennia, when a government injects money into an economy, inflation soon follows as the supply of purchasing power increases without a concurrent increase in the supply of goods and services.  In the 18th century philosophers David Hume (On Money) and Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations) noted the phenomenon.  Peter Bernstein’s Power of Gold recounts ancient examples of kings and governments debasing metal monies and the inflation that ensued.

In the seven years since the recession began in late 2007, the government has borrowed and spent $27,000 per person and there has not been the slightest hint of inflation. Why? There are several reasons.  If a government borrows money from the private sector, there is no net injection of money into the system, no printing of money. A Federal Reserve FAQ on printing money is careful to note that “printing money” is the permanent financing of a government’s debt by a central bank.  Whatever people want to call it, when the Federal Reserve buys government debt, new money is injected into the system.  Since 2007, the Fed has injected almost $4 trillion (Balance Sheet), or about $12,000 per person, of new money without an uptick in inflation.  How is this possible?

There are two types of spending – today and tomorrow.  Spending for today is consumption.  Spending for tomorrow is investment.  Both types of spending drive demand for goods and services.  The paucity of private investment since 2007 is at levels not seen since the years immediately following World War 2.

Although government investment is a relatively small percentage of GDP, that has also fallen to historically low levels.

The sum of private and government investment as a percentage of GDP is shockingly low.

If we use 2007 investment levels as a base, the accumulated lack of investment is far more than the $4 trillion that the Fed has pumped into the economy.

The Fed’s injection of money into the system is primarily spent on government consumption, or today spending, which is helping to offset the lack of investment spending.  As investment spending rises, the Fed has been able to stop adding to its portfolio, although this “tomorrow” spending is still so low that the Fed can not begin to lighten its portfolio of government debt.

Advocates – economist Paul Krugman for one – of greater government investment spending, even if it borrowed money, hope to offset the lack of private confidence in the future.  Previous government stimulus spending did have little effect on overall economic growth simply because it did little more than offset the lack of long term confidence by those in the private sector.