The U.S. economy was supposed to be in bloom by late spring but it’s hardly growing at all. Expectations for second quarter growth aren’t much better than the measly 1.8 percent annualized rate of the first quarter.
That’s not nearly fast enough to reduce our ferociously-high level of unemployment. The Labor Department will tell us Friday whether the jobs situation improved in May, but there’s been no sign of a surge in hiring. Nor in wages. Average hourly earnings of production and non-supervisory employees – who make up 80 percent of non-government workers – dropped to $8.76 in April. Adjusted for inflation, that’s lower than they were in the depths of the recession.
Meanwhile, housing prices continue to fall. They’re now 33 percent below their 2006 peak. That’s a bigger drop than recorded in the Great Depression. Homes are the largest single asset of the American middle class, so as housing prices drop many Americans feel poorer. All of this is contributing to a general gloominess. Not surprisingly, consumer confidence is also down.
The recovery has stalled. It’s unlikely America will find itself back in recession but the possibility of a double dip can’t be dismissed.
The Problem of Demand
The problem isn’t on the supply side of the ledger. Corporate profits are still healthy. Big companies continue to sit on a cash hoard. Large and middle-sized companies can easily borrow more, at low rates.
The problem is on the demand side. American consumers, who constitute 70 percent of the total economy, can’t and won’t buy enough to get it moving. They justifiably worry they won’t be able to pay their bills or afford to send their children to college or to retire. Banks, with equal justification, are reluctant to lend to them. But as long as consumers hold back, companies remain reluctant to hire new workers or raise the wages of current ones, feeding the vicious cycle.
The timing is unfortunate. Foreign consumers won’t help much even if the dollar continues to slide. Europe’s debt crisis and embrace of austerity, Japan’s tragedy, and China’s fiscal tightening have reduced global demand. At the same time, the federal stimulus here has about run its course. The Federal Reserve is about to end its $600 billion of purchases of Treasury bills, designed to bring down long-term interest rates and make it easier for homeowners to refinance. Worse yet, state governments – starved for revenue and constitutionally barred from running deficits – continue to cut programs. Local governments are now in worse shape, laying off platoons of teachers and fire fighters.
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