We are nearing the end of the second-longest growth cycle since the Clinton era’s 10-year 1991-2001 boom years; because once again a huge amount of debt has accumulated that ultimately has to be paid for. Are we dangerously close to the end of this growth cycle, as the Fed tightens credit after years of easy money and consumers then cut back on their spending that powers some 70 percent of GDP growth?
The Clinton era ended with four years’ of budget surpluses, thanks to higher taxes, and caps on government expenditures that included lower defense spending as the USSR disintegrated and the Cold War wound down; a virtuous cycle that paid down the public debt substantially for future generations.
Then GW Bush was elected and he immediately pushed through huge tax cuts, while declaring war on Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. This meant massive budget deficits as they hadn’t put aside any monies to pay for those tax cuts and ongoing wars. To make a long story shorter, the massive borrowing that resulted to finance that debt resulted in the busted housing bubble and Great Recession.
Which of these endings will we see with the current business cycle, the second-longest since the Clinton era? How will this cycle end with the current wild swings in stock and bond values? Does such uncertainty signal an oncoming recession, as more investors lose faith in the financial markets?
A simplified description of business cycles is economies begin a new cycle with big boosts in borrowing to stimulate additional demand with easier credit after a prior downturn (e.g., 2001 dot-com recession), and end with too much borrowed money in circulation that overextends business activity and ultimately begins the next downturn in business activity (e.g., Great Recession).
And when the day of reckoning comes that requires some of the debt to be paid down—it can be because foreigners flee our credit markets, or record credit defaults as happened with the busted housing bubble—credit is tightened, interest rates rise, and demand declines so that economic growth begins to contract causing millions of job losses.
The US economy is again dangerously over indebted, so much so that Congress cannot find the monies to fund some of the $2.2T in deferred infrastructure maintenance and replacement that would boost growth and create more good jobs. Republicans have instead focused on cutting back health care spending and taxes of businesses that say they don’t plan to spend very much of the savings on increased wages and future investments that would grow more jobs.
“In short,” says New York Times Nobel columnist Paul Krugman, “the effects of the Trump tax cut are already looking like the effects of the Brownback tax cut in Kansas, the Bush tax cut and every other much-hyped tax cut of the past three decades: big talk, big promises, but no results aside from a swollen budget deficit.”
So once again we are approaching that budget precipice of December 2007, which was the beginning of the Great Recession—too much debt with no additional tax revenues to pay for it. The Trump tax windfall has gone to those that invest and spend the least—corporations, their CEOs, stockholders, Wall Street, as I’ve said—while the Federal Reserve will continue to restrict credit to consumers by raising short term borrowing rates.
When do we reach the end of this boom cycle and begin another recession? One indicator is the narrowing difference between short and long term interest rates—the so-called declining Treasury yield curve. Long term rates are still at post-WWII lows, so the gap has narrowed, meaning commercial lenders cannot make much of a profit on what they lend longer term, which also restricts available credit.
Another sign is the very low personal savings rate of consumers today—some 3.4 percent of disposable income (because they must borrow to keep spending). Fourth quarter GDP growth surged to 2.9 percent because consumers went on a spending spree. But Q1 GDP’s advance estimate was lowered to a 2.3 percent growth rate because consumers were tapped out. And most of the tax cuts benefit just 10 percent of skilled professionals and stock holders, according to initial estimates—so this won’t benefit most consumers.
That means government expenditures on public works and other forms of public assistance that directly boost economic growth is needed to mitigate the effects of the next recession, as it did during the Great Depression. The lesson, as always, is our tax dollars should primarily be used for the public good, not to increase the private wealth of wealthy donors and their special interests.
Harlan Green © 2018
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