[Marxism] U.S. economy may sputter for years

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 19 07:37:31 MST 2009


U.S. economy may sputter for years
Unemployment could be worse than now by the time President-elect Barack 
Obama's first term ends.
By Peter G. Gosselin

January 19, 2009

Reporting from Washington — Transfixed by the daily spectacle of dismal 
economic news and wild Wall Street swings, few Americans have looked up 
to see what a wide array of economists say lies beyond the immediate crisis.

And with good reason: The picture isn't pretty.

The sleek racing machine that was the U.S. economy is unlikely to return 
any time soon despite the huge repair efforts now underway. Instead, it 
probably will continue to sputter and threaten to stall for years to come.

The prospects are so gloomy, according to a recent study, that 
unemployment may be slightly higher by the time President-elect Barack 
Obama's first term ends.

The damage done by plunging house and stock prices, the failure of other 
major economies to be independent sources of growth and hidden 
weaknesses in America's past performance have crippled nearly every 
actor in the nation's economic drama.

None -- save perhaps the government -- retains the power to push the 
economy back to speeds it regularly achieved during much of the last 
generation, economists say.

The result: An economy that once averaged 3% or better annual growth 
would be lucky to grow 2% a year during the entirety of the new 
president's term.

"That is going to feel like stagnation" to most people, said John 
Lonski, chief economist at Moody's Investors Service.

"We're in a post-bubble global recession, and post-bubble recessions are 
lethal for growth," Stephen S. Roach, chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, 
said from Beijing. "It will be a long time before the world experiences 
anything more than anemic recovery."

Obama and his economic aides seem to understand the painful prospects 
they face.

Obama misses no chance to temper hopes for a quick and complete 
comeback. A recently released study by Christina Romer, his nominee to 
chair the Council of Economic Advisors, and Vice President-elect Joe 
Biden's chief economist, Jared Bernstein, concluded that, even with an 
$825-billion stimulus package, the unemployment rate at the end of 
Obama's first term would be one-half to one full percentage point above 
where it was before the start of the recession.

That would mean as many as 1.5 million additional jobless workers. And 
some independent economists say that number could be much higher.

What most worries analysts is not a cataclysm such as the Great 
Depression but the sort of economic morass into which Japan fell after 
its stock and real estate markets burst in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Daily life for most Japanese citizens wasn't terrible. There were few 
company shutdowns or mass layoffs. Indeed, the Japanese came to call 
their economic condition the "golden recession," said Simon Johnson, a 
senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

The problem was that the country simply didn't grow -- and that, 
economists worry, is what could happen in the U.S. and around the world.

"Four years from now, I suspect that we'll be pretty much where we are 
today," Johnson said. The question he predicts people will then ask: 
"Why can't we get growth going again?"

Four factors -- like the cylinders of an engine -- power an economy: 
consumers, investors, the government and a favorable balance of trade 
with other countries. And for many years, the most important of these 
has been the American consumer. U.S. households long have accounted for 
the lion's share of economic activity not only here but also in much of 
the rest of the world.

Although U.S. consumers constitute only about 4.5% of the global 
population, they bought more than $10 trillion worth of goods and 
services last year. By contrast, said Roach of Morgan Stanley Asia, 
Chinese and Indian consumers, who together account for 40% of global 
population, bought only $3 trillion worth.

In the last decade, a new generation of financial engineering -- complex 
deals involving home equity loans, subprime mortgages and other devices 
that provided easier access to credit -- seemed to make it safe for 
Americans to save less and consume more. That further expanded their 
share of global economic activity and made them even more indispensable 
here and abroad.

U.S. consumer spending shot up from a little over 73% of the economy to 
nearly 77% from 2001 to 2007, according to government statistics.

Initially, the expansion was heralded as evidence of economic vitality. 
But by now, it has become apparent that the growth was largely a 
debt-driven bubble -- and a double bubble at that, in housing and in 
personal consumption.

As the elaborate superstructure of easy credit began to pop rivets, 
consumers found themselves caught dangerously short. They have reacted 
by drastically cutting back on purchases, particularly those that are 

Retail sales in the last three months of 2008 plunged 7.7% compared with 
a year earlier, the government said last week, making it the worst sales 
quarter in more than 40 years.

At almost any other time, economists would write off such a drop as 
sharp but short-lived and predict that Americans would return to their 
spendthrift ways as soon as the economy began to recover. But many 
veteran forecasters say this time is different.

"Decades of borrowing have finally caught up with consumers; they 
realize there is no more easy money left," said Allen Sinai, chief 
economist of Decision Economics Inc. "This is going to scar this 
generation of consumers the way the Great Depression did our fathers' 
and grandfathers'."

For the first year of the current crisis, which began in the summer of 
2007, there was hope that a replacement for U.S. consumers and a new 
source of economic strength had been found in the rest of the world's 
economies, especially such giant and newly industrializing nations as 
China and India.

Economists pored over figures suggesting these economies were continuing 
to boom even as the U.S. tottered on the financial brink. There was much 
talk about other countries having "decoupled" from America and begun 
their own, internally fueled expansions.

But by last fall, the hope had faded. The economies of most of the world 
are either slowing sharply or actually shrinking. Asian powerhouses such 
as China are doing so because of a bust in exports to the U.S.

Worse yet, much of the Asian boom appears to have sprung from a sort of 
financial engineering that served as a matched set to that in the U.S. 
By keeping their currencies undervalued, they kept export prices low and 
encouraged others -- especially Americans -- to keep buying.

China and other Asian economies "were driven by export bubbles, which, 
in turn, were a play on the U.S. consumption bubble," Roach said. With 
the bubbles on both sides now burst, the U.S. and Asia are dragging each 
other down, he said.

If renewed consumption isn't going to revive the U.S. economy, and a 
growing world able to buy more U.S. exports has vanished, one of the few 
options for recovery that's left is business investment.

But investment, especially in high technology, was barely growing even 
during the boom years of this decade. With the economic crisis, it has 

Lonski, the Moody's economist, used government statistics to examine 
business investment in such high-tech items as computer and 
telecommunications equipment.

What he found was that in most previous cycles, companies quickly 
resumed investing after the economy moved from bust to boom, pushing 
computer and telecom orders back above their pre-bust highs. But not in 
this decade.

Between the last recession in 2001 and the current one, high-tech 
investment has barely crawled upward. That has left telecom and computer 
orders still down nearly 50% from their previous highs.

"This shows that technological progress was lagging" during the decade's 
good years, Lonski said. It seems unlikely the pattern should improve 
now that times are bad.

That leaves only government to power the renewed growth. Every Economics 
1 textbook introduces the economy with the same simple equation. It 
reads: consumption + investment + net exports + government spending = 
gross domestic product or output.

It's an equation that the new president and his top economic aides know 
well. With the first three elements negative or contracting quickly, the 
new administration sees few alternatives but to sharply expand the 
fourth factor -- government spending.

It's not a surefire solution. But the hope is that something eventually 
catches and the nation's economic engine begins turning over again on 
its own.

peter.gosselin at latimes.com

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