My pal Joe Weisenthal over at Business Insider just wrote a piece – in response to a post I wrote earlier today — with the delightfully provocative and contrarian headline, “Why The Obama Recovery Has Been Much More Impressive Than Reagan’s.”
Nope, I’m not making this up. See for yourself.
Let’s be perfectly clear, the Reagan Recovery (RR) has been far stronger than the Obama Recovery (OR). I think that is beyond dispute, really.
– In the first 10 quarters of the OR, GDP is up a total of 6 per cent. During the first 10 quarters of the RR, GDP rose 15 per cent. Point for Reagan.
– In the first 10 quarters of the OR, the economy created 790,00 jobs. During the first 10 quarters of the RR, the economy created 7.5 million jobs Point for Reagan, especially given the U.S. workforce is a third bigger today than it was in the early 1980s.
– In the first 10 quarters of the OR, real disposable personal income rose at an annual average pace of 0.8 per cent. During the first 10 quarters of the RR, real disposable personal income rose at annual average pace of 5.4 per cent. Point for Reagan. Game. Set. Match.
But Brother Weisenthal is making a subtler, more subjective point. He is arguing that, for a number of reasons, the Obama Recovery is more impressive than the Reagan Recovery. Not stronger, more impressive because Obama was dealt a worse hand. Among Weisenthal’s points:
1. “There are at least some economists who argue that post-financial crisis economies experience unusually slow growth for years and years.”
Me: Indeed, there are. But there are also some who disagree. A Federal Reserve study released last November found the following:
Whether a recession is associated with a banking or financial crisis does not have a statistically significant effect on the pace of growth following recession troughs. … Banking and financial crises are associated with more severe recessions – deeper in the case of emerging market economies and longer in the case of the advanced economies – but do not appear to impose additional restraint to recoveries beyond the depth and duration.
2. “The problem is that Pethokoukis is … defining housing bust purely in terms of housing construction, while ignoring the real elephant in the room: The collapse in home prices, and the knock-on effects it has had on the economy.”
Me: I don’t disagree that the “knock on effect” such as loss of wealth may well be a drag on growth. That Fed study makes the same point: … “recoveries from recessions associated with severe housing downturns are found to be slower.” Well, there is a difference between slow and virtually non-existent, right? Again, the Reagan Recovery 10-quarter growth rate was 6 per cent vs. 4.6 per cent for the average post-WWII recovery vs. 2.4 per cent for the Obama Recovery. And
And the impact of a deleveraging and a reverse wealth effect are not as clear as Weisenthal contends. Note that personal consumption as increased for 10 straight quarters and the savings rate remains extraordinarily low. But I think this chart, from the NY Times, raises big questions about the deleveraging argument:
Where is the deleveraging? It looks like debt has shifted from private to public. Let me quote a Michael Pento piece from BI, of all places: “Although it is certainly true that after decades of overly speculative borrowing, individuals and corporations are paying down debt, rebuilding their savings, and generally repairing their respective balance sheets. But these activities cannot be faulted for our economic malaise. In fact, as a country, we haven’t deleveraged at ALL. All the moves made by the private sector have been vastly outpaced by the federal government’s efforts to add leverage to the economy.”
3. If you really want an apples-to-apples comparison, it’s hard to fathom why Reagan doesn’t have to answer for a recession happening so soon on his watch, and why he only gets measured on those two years. What’s mor … the 1984-1988 period was pretty average, so we’re really just talking about two years of really impressive morning-in-America growth.
Me: I think Paul Volcker cranking interest rates through the roof might have had a role in the recession as he attempted to squeeze out the inflation of the 1970s. The 1981-82 recession was the culmination of really 16 years of economic mismanagement. One sign of this: The Dow industrials fell by two-thirds when adjusted for inflation from 1966-1982. (From 1983-1988, the S&P composite notched a real return of 13 per cent a year.) The entire previous decade marked by tremendous economic volatility, high unemployment,high inflation. Reagan inherited a mess.
As for GDP growth, it averaged 4.4 per cent from 1983-1988 vs. roughly 3.3 per cent since WWII. So I am pretty sure growth was markedly above average. A recent IMF forecast, by the way, predicts sub-3 per cent US GDP growth through 2016.
4. “We could of course go on, and point to several other factors in Obama’s favour, such as the fact that tax rates had already been lowered quite a bit heading into his presidency, taking away one easy form of stimulus, or the fact that a major trading partner, Europe, has been in crisis virtually the whole time of Obama’s Presidency, or the fact that Obama faced a Congress who threatened to cause the U.S. to default, or the fact that interest rates were ultra-low already, again taking away one form of stimulus from Obama.”
Me: Gosh, I wonder what U.S. GDP growth would have been in the 1980s had China been the second largest economy in the world growing at 10 per cent a year, boosting global growth. Instead, it was the stagnating Soviet Union in the number two spot. In the 1980s, one-third of the planet lived under communism sapping all that human vitality and creativity (and trade) out of the world economy. And I am not sure about JW’s point about taxes and interest rates. Is he saying that Obama has a much more constructive tax and rate environment and still couldn’t get the economy cooking?
Bottom line: People were amazingly pessimistic heading into the 1980s after the economically tumultuous 1970s. America seemed to be in decline both economically and militarily. And corporate America was desperately in need of restructuring. (Thanks, Bain!) Obama inherited a much healthier non-financial private sector.
This is what the American people had just gone through, by the way (via MeasuringWorth):
Imagine going back in time and showing these economic statistics from the next 25 years:
Growth up, stocks up, inflation down. Oh, and the Soviet Union gone. Safer, Stronger. Better. Instead of the Soylent Green future of diminished expectations people were predicting in the 1970s, we got something more like the shiny, growthy one shown in Back to the Future II.
Obama has some big shoes to fill.