Elliot Eisenberg, Ph.D. GraphsandLaughs, LLC September 1, 2019
The Great Recession of 2008 is firmly in the rearview mirror, we are now enjoying the longest recovery in U.S. history, the unemployment rate is near a 50-year low, wage growth is pretty good, inflation is virtually non-existent, and the stock market is just a few percentage points off its all-time high. Yet, talk of recession is increasingly common. And it’s not surprising, given the weakening global economy, the decline in exports, the soft energy and transportation sectors, the ailing agricultural markets, and of course, the overarching U.S.-Sino trade/currency/tech war. That said, while the next recession may well not arrive till 2021, it is not entirely clear what will cause it.
In general, recessions are caused by one of three things. Often, central banks raise interest rates too much in an effort to slow the economy to reduce late cycle inflationary pressures. In the process, they either raise rates too much or keep them too high for too long, driving the economy into a recession. A second reason we have recessions is due to unforeseen shocks to the economy. It might be a war or a sudden rise in energy or food prices which reduces household spending power and can cause widespread obsolescence of capital equipment because the higher price of energy makes the equipment uneconomical. A third cause, and one that has recently been the culprit is financial excesses (think bubbles) that result from overexuberance on the part of markets that lead to mispricing of assets and finally a financial crisis.
The 1973 recession was caused by a quadrupling of oil prices by OPEC. Overnight, oil went from $3/bbl to $12/bbl. Moreover, the supply of oil was severely restricted, which led to gasoline rationing and long lines at gas stations. This caused consumer spending to plummet and factories to close, crushing the economy. The recessions of 1979 and 1982 were deliberately engineered by the Fed and its then-chairman, Paul Volker. The only way to squeeze inflation, which was north of 13% at the time, out of the economy was to induce a recession. In 2001, it was the tech bubble, and in 2008 the recession was caused by the housing bubble.
But the 1990 recession was different; it had no singular cause. On one hand, it was a result of a commercial real estate bust partly caused by the S&L crisis, which in turn led to a severe drop in construction activity. But there was also a major rise in energy prices, due to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which hurt consumer confidence and spending. In addition, there was the post-Cold War drawdown in defense spending, which led to a rise in unemployment. While none of these events in isolation would have precipitated a recession, collectively they did. Fortunately, it was short and shallow, but the recovery was slow and jobless.
As for what’s to come, I suspect the next recession will be caused by a confluence of factors. The trade war is already hurting GDP growth. Add to that a global slowdown, a decline in energy prices, a weakening transportation sector, feeble manufacturing activity, Brexit and other European problems, an largely impotent monetary policy as rates are already very low. If all this leads to one or two negative monthly job reports which, in turn, leads to weakening consumer confidence and spending, you probably have the beginnings of a recession. Regrettably, getting out of the next recession may take longer than usual because fiscal policy is already a spent force as we are already running historically very large deficits. And that means a much-reduced willingness on the part of Congress to cut taxes and boost spending.
The good news, the coming recession is not likely to be very deep as there are no obvious bubbles that must be punctured. And lastly, with a bit of luck, this recovery can keep on going for another few years; it is entirely possible.
There is currently widespread frustration with the performance of the global economy. Traditional policy approaches are not delivering the economic results they have in the past. In the U.S., millennials are poorer, have lower incomes, marry less often, and have fewer children than the generations before them. In Europe, the rise of previously fringe parties is unmistakable as voters express their frustrations with the status quo at the ballot box. All this has led to the rise of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), a set of ideas that reflect a significant and unfortunate break with previous orthodoxy.
During the late 1970s, a similar economic malaise gave rise to supply-side economics popularized by Arthur Laffer. It began with the age-old observation that taxes had important incentive effects and that, in conceivable circumstances, tax cuts could raise revenue. That said, from these two well-understood underpinnings, it grew into the ludicrous idea that tax cuts would always pay for themselves. In the 1980 presidential primaries, future President George H.W. Bush called this idea “voodoo economics” and in the following decades this doctrine did substantial damage to the U.S. economy and has largely short-circuited meaningful debate about taxes.
Now comes MMT, which, like supply-side economics, makes a good observation — that fiscal policy needs to be rethought in an era of low real interest rates — but then stretches it into a ludicrous claim that massive deficit spending on job guarantees can be financed by central banks without any burden on the economy. At a moment of deep economic and political frustration, some fringe wing of the out-of-power party is again offering the proverbial economic free lunch as a politically attractive way out of a fiscal bind. Regrettably, MMT is flawed at many levels.
First, it promises that by printing money the government can finance deficits at zero cost. Not true! The government in fact pays interest on money it creates as it becomes reserves held by commercial banks and the Fed pays interest on reserves. Second, contrary to MMT, governments cannot simply print money to pay bills and avoid default. Looking back at developing nations that have employed MMT demonstrates that beyond a certain point printing money leads to hyperinflation. Third, MMT conveniently assumes an economy that does not trade with other nations. Regrettably, money printing will result in a collapsing exchange rate that will in turn boost inflation, raise long-term interest rates, encourage capital flight, and reduce real wages.
And it is not only in emerging markets where MMT has played out badly. France in the early to mid-1980s and West Germany in the late 1980s employed what now would be called MMT but both nations had to reverse course. Separately, the U.K. and Italy both had to be bailed out by the IMF in the mid-1970s because of an excessive reliance on inflationary finance. Supply-side economics was an unreasonable extension of valid ideas. To that end, few support a return to the very high marginal tax rates that prevailed before the tax reform of the 1980s. Similarly, in an era of very low inflation, and of real interest rates of close to zero, we can and should carefully reconsider our traditional views of federal borrowing; they need at a minimum a careful and thoughtful rethink. That said, when something sounds too good to be true — as was the case with supply-side economics and is the case with MMT — it’s important to make this clear to improve debate and hopefully prevent us from making another costly and unnecessary economic policy mistake.