June 24, 2003
by Irwin Stelzer
To show how much times have changed since the days when all talk was about how to keep the inflation genie bottled up, news that core consumer prices (excluding food and energy) jumped in May brought sighs of relief from investors and policymakers. No longer spooked by fears of inflation, they were worried that the deflation disease was about to spread from
It hasn’t. So, plans only half-jokingly mooted by Federal Reserve Board officials to ward off deflation by dropping newly printed dollars from helicopters have now been put on hold, although the possibility of a pre-emptive cut in interest rates later this week remains on the table.
Times have also changed in the area of fiscal policy. Chanting “We are all Keynesians now”, investors are cheering congressional approval of President Bush’s tax cuts. Recall the bidding: Bush asked for $725 billion in cuts over ten years. Congress gave him only $350 billion. Or so it seemed, until wiser heads pointed out that many of the cuts are due to expire in a few years--unless, of course, congress renews them. Which it inevitably will, bringing the total ten-year reduction to close to $1 trillion.
That should worry investors and businessmen familiar with the books and articles written by White House economists before joining the administration. When ensconced in their ivory towers, they contended that substantial deficits eventually stifle growth by forcing long-term interest rates up. That proposition is borne out by a new report by the Fed that finds that every one percentage point increase in the ratio of the federal deficit to the nation’s output of goods and services (GDP) will lead to a one-quarter of a point rise in long-term interest rates.
Since the federal budget has swung from a surplus of 1 percent of GDP to a deficit of 4 percent—a five percentage point swing—long-term rates should be 1.2 percent higher than they otherwise would be. And that’s on top of any increase that should occur as the economy recovers.
But why be churlish? That pain is down the road. Last week I suggested that all the American economy needs in order to return to a more satisfactory growth pattern is a cut in oil prices. I may have been wrong. The recovery may be gaining momentum with oil prices stuck at their present level.
Right now, and for the future period that matters in
Even pessimists now agree that things have stopped getting worse and are probably getting better. The National Association of Manufacturers, described by Business Week as “normally gloomy Gusses,” now thinks that “the economy is at a turning point,” and is predicting that growth will reach an annual rate of 3.9 percent in the second half of this year.
No wonder. Profits and cash flow are on the rise, with the U.S. Department of Commerce reporting that earnings of domestic companies rose 10 percent in the first quarter. And the reduction in the cost of capital, brought about by rising share prices and falling interest rates, probably means that the long drought in business investment is coming to an end.
Even the financial services sector may be in for better days. Securities firms have cut 80,000 jobs in the past two years, but nervous brokers and investment bankers are now taking heart from the fact that the market for initial public offerings (IPOs) is showing a bit of life, merger and acquisition activity is reviving, trading volumes and share prices are moving smartly up, and investors are pouring money into equity mutual funds (unit trusts) at the fastest pace in more than a year.
A sign that investors expect the uptick to continue is the $1.825 million paid for a seat on the New York Stock Exchange last week, 22 percent more than a seat went for in March. A slightly less reliable but equally cheery sign is the Wall Street Journal report that corporate customers have thrown 10 percent to 20 percent more parties in a Wall Street-area champagne bar during the past month, and that high-end brands are replacing the more austere bubbly popular in recent times.
Meanwhile, consumers continue to do their share, and more, to keep the economy on track, rolling up debt in the process. In part because the first round of tax cuts is now reflected in paychecks, real after-tax incomes have risen by 2.4 percent in the past twelve months. Also, in a few weeks the latest round of Bush tax cuts will begin to reach consumers’ wallets and pocketbooks.
Goldman Sachs’ economists estimate that this added cash might boost real GDP by 1¼ percentage points over the next twelve months, but they warn that this growth might not eventuate because “the skewed distributional impact”—read, most of the money goes to high earners—might “translate into a low propensity to spend the extra dollars.”
Perhaps. But one sure thing is that the housing market will continue to attract consumers’ dollars. The Mortgage Bankers Association reports that record-low mortgage rates (4.99 percent on the typical fixed-rate, thirty-year loan) are increasing requests for mortgages, and the government reports that housing starts rose by 6.1 percent last month.
Of course, every silver lining has a cloud, and right now it is the weak jobs market. Productivity improvements are permitting employers to expand output without hiring more workers, and to continue layoffs in several industries. Nevertheless, consumers keep spending, and polls show that they are more optimistic about the future than was the case in past recessions. Unless they turn suddenly gloomy, an unlikely prospect with the tax cuts boosting incomes, the economy seems headed for pretty good gains by year end.
An earlier version of this update appeared in The Sunday Times (
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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