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The Fiscal Stimulus & Market Turnaround: 5-Year Anniversary

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Commentators are taking note of the five-year anniversary of the fiscal stimulus that President Obama enacted during his first month in office.   Those who don’t like Obama are still asking “if the  fiscal stimulus was so great, why didn’t it work?”    What is the appropriate response?

Those who think that the spending increases and tax cuts were the right thing to do have given a number of responses, which sound a bit weak to me.  The first is that the stimulus wasn’t big enough.  The second was that the Great Recession would have been much worse in the absence of the stimulus, perhaps a replay of the Great Depression of the 1930s.  (The media are fond of this line of reasoning because it allows them to escape making a judgment.  They can just say “nobody knows what would have happened otherwise.”)    The third response is that the fiscal stimulus was short-lived, and in fact was reversed by the Congress by 2010.

I believe that each of these three statements is true.   But they sound weak because they look like attempts to explain away the absence of a visible positive impact.  Listening to these arguments,  one would think that no effect of the Obama stimulus could be seen by the naked eye in the U.S. economic statistics of 2009.    Nothing could be further from the truth.

Recall the timing.  Obama was sworn in on January 20, 2009. The economy and financial markets had been in freefall ever since the Lehman Brothers failure four months earlier (September 15).   The President quickly proposed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, got it through Congress despite strong Republican opposition, and signed it into law on February 17.   

If one judges by the economic statistics, the effect could not have been much more immediate, whether the crierion is job loss, GDP, or financial market indicators.   Look at the graphs below.  

The stock market, which had been falling steeply since September, hit bottom on March 9, 2009, and then started a 5-year upward trend.   The index shown in Figure 1 is the S&P 500.  The turnaround can’t be missed.  Wall Street should get ready to celebrate the anniversary on March 9.

Figure 1








Figure 1: Stock Market   
*Click on the chart for larger image

The much-maligned TARP and bank stress-tests also played important roles, unfreezing financial markets.  Bank interest rate spreads were back to pre-Lehman levels by February 2009 and back to pre-subprime-crisis levels by June.

What about the real economy?  That is what matters, after all.   Economic  output was in veritable freefall in the last quarter of 2008: a shattering 8.3 % p.a. rate of decline (BEA).  More specifically, the maximum rate of contraction came in December 2008, according to the monthly GDP estimates from the highly respected MacroAdvisers.   (For charts in the form of growth rates, see Figures 1 and 2 of my post on the 3-year anniversary.)  The free-fall stopped in the first quarter of 2009.   As the GDP graph below shows, economic activity was flat, scraping along the bottom until June, after which growth resumed.   The official end  of the recession thus came in June.   Visible to the naked eye.









Figure 2: Level of GDP, monthly(Dec.2006-Dec.2013)
estimated by Macroeconomic Advisers
*Click on the chart for larger image

The rate of job loss bottomed out in March 2009.  It is there for anyone to see.   The graph shows private sector employment changes.  Thus the turnaround does not count government jobs directly created by the fiscal stimulus.  Job creation turned positive after the end of the year.  Since then, though employment gains have been much too slow, they have on average exceeded the rate during the corresponding period under George W. Bush.

 Figure 2

Figure 3: Change in Private Sector Employment
*Click on the chart for larger image

Of course there are always a lot of things going on. One cannot say for sure what was the effect of the Obama stimulus. And one can debate why the pace of the expansion slowed after 2010. (My own prime culprit is the switch to fiscal austerity.)

But whether looking at indicators of economic activity, the labor market, or the financial markets, the idea that the fiscal stimulus of February 2009 had no apparent impact in the numbers is wrong.

[Comments can be posted at the Econbrowser version or in the always-lively debate at Economist’s View.]

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One Recession or Many? Double-Dip Downturns in Europe

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The recent release of a revised set of GDP statistics by Britain’s Office for National Statistics showed that growth had not quite, as previously thought, been negative for two consecutive quarters in the winter of 2011-12.  The point, as it was reported, was that a UK recession (a second dip after the Great Recession of 2008-09) was now erased from the history books — and that the Conservative government would take a bit of satisfaction from this fact.    But it should not.    

Similarly, in April of this year, Britain was reported to have narrowly escaped a second quarter of negative growth, and thereby escaped a triple dip recession.   But it could have saved itself the angst.

The right question is not whether there have been double or triple dips; the question is whether it has been the same one big recession all along.  As the British know all too well, their economy since the low-point of mid-2009 has not yet climbed even halfway out of the hole that it fell into in 2008:  GDP (Gross Domestic Product, which is aggregate national output) is still almost 4% below its previous peak, as the first graph shows.   If the criteria for determining recessions in European countries were similar to those used in the United States, the Great Recession would probably not have been declared over in 2009 in the first place.   

Recent reports that Ireland entered a new recession in early 2013 would also read differently if American criteria were applied.  Irish GDP since 2009 has not yet recovered more than half of the ground it lost between the peak of late-2007 and the bottom two years later.  Following US methods, the end would not yet have been declared to the initial big recession in Ireland.   As it is, a sequence of tentative mini-recoveries have been heralded, only to give way to “double-dips.” 

    Continue reading

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Did Obama Turn Around the Economy?

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With November’s election fast approaching, the Republican candidates seeking to challenge President Barack Obama claim that his policies have done nothing to support recovery from the recession that he inherited in January 2009. If anything, they claim, his fiscal stimulus made matters worse.  And, despite recent improvement, the level of unemployment indeed remains far too high.not blame George W. Bush for the recession that began two months after he took office in 2001. There hadn’t yet been time for bad policies to damage the economy.)

Obama’s Democratic defenders counter that his policies staved off a second Great Depression, and that the US economy has been steadily working its way out of a deep hole ever since.  Middle-ground observers, meanwhile, typically conclude that one cannot settle the debate, because one cannot know what would have happened otherwise.

There is a good case to be made that government policies – while not strong enough to return the economy rapidly to health — did indeed halt an accelerating economic decline.    By “government policies,” I mean not just the fiscal stimulus the new president steered through Congress when he took office, but also the Obama version of TARP, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s aggressive monetary stimulus.   All three policy initiatives remain extremely unpopular with Republicans, and ambiguous among swing voters.

But the middle-ground observers are of course right that one cannot prove what would have happened otherwise.   It is also true that it is rare for a government’s policies to have a major impact on the economy immediately.  These things usually take time.  One cannot infer the merit of a new president’s policies from the path of the economy during his first few months in office.  (For example, I did

But here is the remarkable thing: whether one listens to the Republicans, the Democrats, or the middle-ground observers, one gets the impression that the economic statistics show no discernible improvement around the time that Obama took office. In fact, the reality could hardly be more different.

This is especially true if one looks at revised economic statistics, which show the US economy to have been in far worse shape in January 2009 than was reported at the time. In January 2009, the annualized growth rate in the second half of 2008 was officially estimated to have been negative 2.2%; but current figures reveal it to have been a horrendous negative 6.3%. This is the main reason why the level of economic activity in 2009 and 2010 was so much lower than had been forecast, which in turn explains why unemployment was so much higher.

Figure 1 shows the quarterly economic growth rate. The maximum rate of contraction — a veritable freefall in the economy — came in the last quarter of 2008 (the quarterly GDP data come from the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the U.S. Commerce Department).   More specifically, it came in December, according to the monthly GDP estimates from the highly respected MacroAdvisers.   (See monthly income figures in the form of growth rates in Figure 2 or levels of GDP in Figure 3.)  This was the month before Obama was inaugurated.  The situation miraculously began to improve as soon as Obama’s term began! 

quarterly growth in GDPmonthly growth in GDP.jpg

 Monthly level in GDP.jpg

(click here for larger graphs)

The full force of the fiscal stimulus package began to go into effect in the second quarter of 2009.    The NBER officially designates the end of the recession as having come in June of that year.  GDP growth turned positive in the third quarter.

US economic growth slowed down again in late 2010 and early 2011, as one can see in Figure 1.  The timing coincides with the beginning of withdrawal of the Obama fiscal stimulus. Indeed, the government has been the one sector to experience contraction in income and employment over the most recent five quarters.  The private economy has been expanding.

Other economic indicators, such as interest-rate spreads and the rate of job loss, also turned around in early 2009. Labor-market recovery normally lags behind that of GDP – hence the “jobless recoveries” of recent decades. But the graph of monthly job losses and gains reveals that here, too, the end of the freefall came precisely when Obama was inaugurated.  The last two charts show the same “V” shaped pattern in the monthly job change figures that are released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as the GDP growth figures that are released by the BEA.  The rate of job growth over the last two years, inadequate as it is, actually exceeds the rate of job growth during the Bush Administration, even if one counts only the period before the big recession hit in December 2007.

Again, these graphs do not demonstrate that Obama’s policies yielded an immediate payoff. In addition to the lags in policies’ effects, many other factors influence the economy every month, making it difficult to disentangle the true causes underlying particular outcomes.

What is the right way to assess whether the fiscal stimulus enacted in January 2009 had a positive impact?   Start with common sense. When the government spends $800 billion on such things as highway construction, teachers and policemen who were about to be laid off, and so on, it has an effect. Workers who would otherwise not have a job now have one. Furthermore, they may spend some of their income on goods and services produced by other people, creating a multiplier effect.

Those who claim that this spending does not boost income and employment (or that it even hurts), apparently believe that as soon as a teacher is laid off, a new job is created somewhere else in the economy, or even that the same teacher finds a new job right away. Neither can be true, not with unemployment so high and the average spell of unemployment much longer than usual.

They also think that the government deficit drives up inflation and interest rates, thereby crowding out other spending by consumers and firms. But interest rates are rock bottom, even lower than they were in January 2009, while core inflation is running at its lowest levels since the early 1960’s. The conditions of the last four years – high unemployment, depressed output, low inflation, and low interest rates – are precisely those for which traditional “Keynesian” remedies were designed.

Economists’ more sophisticated forecasting models also show that the fiscal stimulus had an important positive effect, for much the same reasons as the common-sense approach.   The non-partisan US Congressional Budget Office reports that the 2009 spending increase and tax cuts gave a positive boost to the economy, and indeed had the extra multiplier effects of the traditional Keynesian models. Allowing for a wide range of uncertainty [to allow for different economists’ views], the CBO estimates that the stimulus added 1.5 percent to 3.5 percent to the level of GDP by the fourth quarter, relative to where it otherwise would have been.  The boost to 2010 GDP, when the peak effect of the stimulus kicked in, was roughly twice as great.

To be sure, of the many theoretical models produced by eminent macroeconomists at prestigious universities, some say that fiscal stimulus has no positive effect on the economy, even under recent economic conditions.  (The theoretical innovations underlyng the models have even won Nobel Prizes for the innovators, and not without justice.)  But these models are not sufficiently realistic to meet the market test:  they are not used by private businessmen for whom getting good forecasts matters to their planning and in turn to the success of their businesses.

Of course, econometric models do not much interest the public at large. A turnaround needs to be visible to the naked eye to impress voters. Given this, one can only wonder why basic charts, such as the 2008-2009 “V” shape in growth, have not been used – and reused – to make the case.

job gain and loss private.jpgjob gain and loss private.jpg

(Click here for larger versions of all 5 graphs.)
[Appears also at Fair Observer,with a nice presentation of the charts.
A shorter version appeared as an op-ed at Project Syndicate, which has the copyright.]
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