Dr. Robert Shiller–Why the Weak Recovery?

Popular Economics Weekly

Nobelist Robert Shiller, winner of the Nobel for his research in Behavioral Economics, or the psychology that drives economic behavior, has come up with the latest reason this economic recovery has been so weak to date. GDP growth has averaged just 2 percent since the end of the Great Recession.

It has to do with what Lord JM Keynes called ‘animal spirits”, or the psychological fact that fear breeds more fear, so that it can grip a whole country, as it did during our Great Depression, and perhaps is doing so again.

“The same could be said today, seven years after the 2008 global financial crisis, about the world economy’s many remaining weak spots,” said Dr. Shiller. “Fear causes individuals to restrain their spending and firms to withhold investments; as a result, the economy weakens, confirming their fear and leading them to restrain spending further. The downturn deepens, and a vicious circle of despair takes hold. Though the 2008 financial crisis has passed, we remain stuck in the emotional cycle that it set in motion.”

In fact, over the last two decades, like that of many other developed nations, US growth rates have been decreasing. In the 50’s and 60’s the average growth rate was above 4 percent, in the 70’s and 80’s dropped to around 3 percent. In the last ten years, the average rate has been below 2 percent. But it is much more due to the fact household incomes have declined for most Americans after inflation, and so now spend more than they save to even maintain their current standard of living.

Doctor Shiller’s answer is to restart our vision of going to the moon and beyond; that is, using public spending on national projects that both inspire our body politic and restore our leadership in the sciences.

“Government-funded space-exploration programs around the world have been profound inspirations,” says Dr. Shiller. “Of course, it was scientists, not government bureaucrats, who led the charge. But such programs, whether publicly funded or not, have been psychologically transforming. People see in them a vision for a greater future. And with inspiration comes a decline in fear, which now, as in Roosevelt’s time, is the main obstacle to economic progress.”

But he doesn’t go into what may be behind the fear—what economists now call consumer confidence or sentiment. We measure confidence in particular to gauge just how Main Streeters feel about their future economic prospects for jobs and financial security. And the main determinate of their current still low confidence level has to be the fact that most Americans have not seen any change in their financial conditions for decades.

The result is record economic inequality that is plaguing growth as it did in 1929, the real cause of the Great Depression. The result of that inequality is money not flowing to where it can be spent productively and so do the most good—to consumers or government that will spend and/or invest in productive enterprises, rather than put it into tax shelters for their heirs, as most of the wealthiest seem to be doing today.

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Graph: Business Insider

This is evidenced by the personal savings rates of the different income brackets. For instance, the wealthiest 1 percent now save more than 50 percent of their income, whereas the poorest 20 percent save none.

What do they do with their savings? Mostly hoard it. According to the new Billionaire Census from Wealth-X and UBS, the world’s billionaires are holding an average of $600 million in cash each—greater than the gross domestic product of Dominica. That marks a jump of $60 million from a year ago and translates into billionaires’ holding an average of 19 percent of their net worth in cash.

“The apparent safety of cash, reinforced by the painful psychological experience of the 2008-09 global financial crisis and the subsequent troubles within the European Monetary Union, likely reinforces the tendency to favor this cautious allocation strategy,” said Simon Smiles, chief investment officer for Ultra High Net Worth at UBS Wealth Management.

And House Republicans are once again proposing repeal of the inheritance tax, now for the $5million in inherited wealth and above set that still have to pay it. The Center for Budget Policies and Priorities tells us the effect of this loss in taxes:

· Cost $269 billion in reduced revenues over 2016 to 2025, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), adding $320 billion to deficits when counting additional interest on the national debt.

· Do nothing for 99.8 percent of estates. Only the estates of the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans — roughly 2 out of every 1,000 people who die — owe any estate tax. This is because of the tax’s high exemption amount, which has jumped from $650,000 in 2001 to $5.43 million per person (effectively $10.86 million for a couple) in 2015. Repeal would bestow a tax windfall averaging over $3 million apiece, or more than a typical college graduate earns in a lifetime, on the roughly 5,400 wealthy estates that will owe the tax in 2016.[2] The 318 estates worth at least $50 million (some of which are worth hundreds of millions of dollars) would receive tax windfalls averaging more than $20 million each.

· Exacerbate wealth inequality, which has grown significantly in recent decades. In 2012, the wealthiest 1 percent of American families held about 42 percent of total wealth, new data show.[3] Large inheritances play a significant role in the concentration of wealth; inheritances account for about 40 percent of all household wealth and are extremely concentrated at the top. Repealing the estate tax would exacerbate wealth inequality by benefiting only the heirs of the country’s wealthiest estates, who also tend to have very high incomes.[4]

It’s sad that we even need to have this argument on whether such inequality is a bad thing, given Dr. Shiller’s worries that we are re-experiencing what happened during the Great Depression.

Harlan Green © 2015

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly, The Huffington Post, and PeaceCorpsWorldwide.org.
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