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Hard grind for US economy is only just beginning

Debt and job prescriptions can't avoid realistic growth projections for much longer

Hard grind for US economy is only just beginning
Image Credit: Illustration by Dana A. Shams/Gulf News
Gulf News

The continuing weakness in the labour market and the never-ending saga of the debt limit highlight the dual problems the US faces: low economic growth right now and an unsustainable amount of debt for the future. Unfortunately, both problems are probably more significant than policy discussions and official predictions about the US economy suggest.

The history of economies recovering from severe financial distress implies the unemployment rate will remain stuck at elevated levels for years, not quarters. And sluggish growth, in turn, will mean larger budget deficits.

Under a plausible hard-slog scenario, the fiscal gap would exceed $13 trillion (Dh47.74 trillion) over the next decade, without a change in government policies. That's at least $2.5 trillion more than the deficit with official economic assumptions — a difference that itself will probably be larger than any deficit reduction that comes from the debt-limit deal. So it's worth exploring the implications of slower growth in more detail.

One important way in which the official projections may turn out to be too optimistic involves unemployment. Consider the other advanced economies that have experienced similar financial implosions: Spain in 1977, Norway in 1987, Finland in 1991, Sweden in 1991 and Japan in 1992. The economists Carmen and Vincent Reinhart found that in all these countries the unemployment rate has still not fallen back to pre-crisis levels. The peak was reached from three to 10 years after the meltdown. And the median increase in the jobless rate across these countries in the decade following the implosion was, astonishingly, more than five percentage points.

Unemployment predictions

What do official projections in the US suggest? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which provides an objective set of economic and fiscal projections, offers an example. For the decade ahead, the CBO expects an average unemployment rate of 6 per cent — up only one percentage point from the average of about 5 per cent before the 2008 crisis. Sure, our labour markets are more flexible than those in most other countries, and that should help reduce the jobless rate relatively rapidly here. But given the experience of other countries that have endured similar financial collapses, that performance would still be extraordinary.

Declines in unemployment predicted by CBO, as well as the Federal Reserve and other government institutions, arise because these agencies continue to anticipate growth rapid enough to drive down the jobless rate significantly from its current 9.2 per cent level. As time goes by and the expected fast expansion in gross domestic product doesn't materialise, projections simply delay the robust growth for another year.

If we are in for sluggish growth over the next few years, the labour market won't be the only aspect of the economy that does worse than official projections; the budget deficit will be significantly bigger as well.

The CBO paints a surprisingly auspicious picture of the fiscal shortfall, averaging 3.4 per cent of GDP over the next decade and dipping to about 3 per cent by 2020. But this is misleading for two reasons. First, the CBO projections are based on the letter of the laws that Congress enacts rather than on what is likely to occur. For instance, if the law says a tax cut will expire, the CBO assumes it will actually do so, even if it has always been extended in the past. Second, the CBO assumes a recovery more robust than what other nations have experienced following financial crises.

The Washington-based Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a well-respected progressive research institute that studies budget issues, adjusts these CBO figures based on various assumptions about policy. For example, almost no one expects Congress to allow the Alternative Minimum Tax to hit tens of millions of Americans over the coming decade, yet that is what the official projections assume. The CBPP does not.

Deficit truth

It predicts a more realistic deficit for the next 10 years of 5.7 per cent of GDP under current policies, and hovering around 6 per cent toward the decade's end. The dollar amount of the cumulative deficit over the next decade is projected to exceed $11 trillion. CBPP adjustments, however, change only the policy assumptions embedded in the CBO figures, not the economic ones. And yet the deficit is very sensitive to economic growth. So I asked Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the CBPP and one of the nation's leading budget experts, to alter the economic assumptions to reflect a hard-slog scenario.

The CBO assumes economic growth will exceed 3 per cent per year from 2012 to 2016 before gradually declining to a bit more than 2 per cent in 2021. What if, instead, growth remains at 2 per cent to 2.5 per cent for the next decade? I asked Kogan to recalculate the budget numbers assuming a constant growth rate of 2.25 per cent per year, which seems a plausible hard-slog scenario. He found that the deficit then averages more than 7 per cent of GDP. By 2021, it is more than 8.5 per cent of GDP and increasing.

Under these modified growth assumptions, the cumulative deficit for the next decade is $13.7 trillion. In other words, the impact from sluggish growth on the budget shortfall over the same period exceeds $2.5 trillion — which is more than the roughly $2 trillion in deficit reduction that may wind up being agreed to as part of a deal to lift the debt ceiling.

If an extended period of slow growth is more likely than the official projections suggest, we're in for a much nastier mix of high unemployment in the near term and large budget gaps over the medium term. This is only more evidence that the right policy response is a combination of more aggressive action to bolster the job market now and much more deficit reduction enacted now to take effect in a few years.