Saturday, 11 October 2014

Hopelessly over-optimistic....

Where do you think trend growth is for the US economy in the years ahead? Maybe that's not a question you ask yourself much but as another IMF World Economic Forecast is published and the great and good meet and greet each other in Washington, it's a question I would love to answer. After all, it's a key input into global growth, global interest rate trends and asset prices. And I fear the answer is  - slower than most economists appear to believe.
The picture below, shows how the consensus forecast for US real GDP growth collated by Bloomberg has shifted over time. The darker blue line on the left-hand side shows how the consensus forecast for 2011 growth was around 3% in early 2010, but fell sharply in mid-2011 as it become clear the eventual outcome would be somewhere between 1 1/2 and 2%. Back in early 2010, the consensus forecast for 2012 was even more optimistic, flirting with 3 1/2% but sadly, this too was gradually revised lower in 2011. And the 2013 forecast started life at just above 3% but ended below 2%. And the 2014 forecast, back in early 2012, was above 3% but we now know that too, is too optimistic. The pattern is obvious - a tale of dashed hope and disappointment. You won't be surprised to see that at this point the 2015 and 2016 forecasts are around 3%. And yes, in case you wondered, the IMF's forecast for  2015 is 3.1%.

A friend told me hat he thought this optimism was admirable and a feature of  human nature as opposed to evidence of massive failure by economic forecasters. And I caught an echo in this response to the England football teams 5-0 win over might San Marino from the Daily Telegraph.....

"For 21 second-half minutes at Wembley on Thursday night, the statisticians who follow the England team were left scrambling for the record books. The half-time introduction of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Jordan Henderson had swollen the number of Arsenal players on the pitch to five and it was soon confirmed that you had to go back to the days of Herbert Chapman in the 1930s for when the club were last responsible for half of England’s outfield all follows a definite trend in the composition of the previous two World Cup-winning squads. The Spanish in 2010 had seven players from Barcelona and five from Real Madrid while Germany’s triumphant squad from Brazil comprised seven from Bayern Munich and four from Borussia Dortmund". 

Now, I'm as patriotic as the next English football-watcher, but putting such a positive spin on a win against  a team from a country smaller than Islington with the help of 5 playrs from a club lying 8th in the Premiership is a bit too much, even for me... 

Anyway, back to the US economy....The good news for next year, is that the 2015 forecast is holding up better than in previous years. By this time in 2013, the 2014 forecast was slipping as the effects of a massive jump in bond yields (far greater than we have seen this summer) took its toll on emerging markets and then US housing. And we'll never know how much of the 2014 disappointment was due to the awful weather at the start of the year.

But away from where we should pitch the 2015 forecast, what the chart really prompts me to do is to question where 'trend' GDP growth is heading in the US. This tendency to forecast growth at 3% next year, the year after and for ever represents a very rose-tinted view of the US outlook. Economists will quickly assert that after a deep recession a few years of 'above-trend' growth can reasonably be expected but as the unemployment rate falls below 6%, that story has a shortening shelf-life. And the 3%-plus forecasts all assume trend growth is somewhere above 2%. Which may be much too optimistic. The next two charts both worry me in this regard.

This first one shows my preferred way of looking at the monthly jobs report - as the annual growth rate of non-farm payrolls. Employment growth is running at 1.9% per annum and has steady for the last three years. GDP growth meanwhile has been growing at a disappointing rate - disappointing for those who keep on thinking it should be above 3%, at any rate. The green line, on the right-hand axis, shows the difference, smoothed over three years and just under 1/2%. This is an over-simplification of productivity growth but does get away from the nonsense that I am currently reducing my productivity by 'working' outside 'work hours'. Since 1960 US GDP growth has averaged 3.1% and employment growth 1.8%. So this is a very disappointing period for GDP growth relative to a rather normal period for job creation. The general view of trend GDP growth being above 2% assumes that productivity will magically revert to the long-term average. And you can see that productivity is cyclical, because employers hoard workers in recessions and then are slow to hire - usually. But in this cycle productivity is weakening years after the recession, which makes alarm bells ring. 

Trend growth, in the longer run, is a function of where we think full employment is, what we think productivity is, and how fast the labour force is growing. The final chart shows the US labour force, growing gradually more slowly of late. The second line is the 3-year average growth rate, currently just under 1/2%. That line has been trending lower since the late 1970s. The US Bureau for Labor Statistics writes a about longer-term trends and at the end of last year they produced this piece whose opening summary reads... 

"Labor force projections to 2022: the labor force participation rate continues to fall: Because of the decreasing labor force participation rate of youths and the prime age group, the overall labor force participation rate is expected to decline. The participation rates of older workers are projected to increase, but remain significantly lower than those of the prime age group. A combination of a slower growth of the civilian noninstitutional population and falling participation rates will lower labor force growth to a projected 0.5 percent annually."

So labour force growth has averaged 0.5% in the last three years and the BLS thinks it will do so the next decade, give or take. The gap between employment growth and GDP has been 1.3% since 1960 but 0.5% since 2011. There's room for GDP to 'do better' as the remaining slack in the labour market is used up. After that, trend growth is probably between 1% on a bearish view that the recent past is a sign of the 'new normal' times to come, and 1.8% on the optimistic view that we will return to the long-run average. You're welcome to you own guess, but I reckon hoping that 'trend' US GDP growth is above 2% is wishful thinking. As is believing that beating San Marino tells us anything about England's chances of winning a major football tournament in the next decade or two. 

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