US GDP Growth: How much is possible?

27-10-2017

Vin DeLucia and Michele Matzinger

US GDP Growth: How much is possible?

JGalione/ iStock

While 3 percent GDP growth in the US is possible but difficult to sustain, the talked-about higher numbers are not likely to eventuate, say Vin DeLucia and Michele Matzinger of NEAM.

President Trump and several of his cabinet members and advisors have stated that real US gross domestic product (GDP) growth of over 3 percent, and even 4 to 5 percent, is achievable. NEAM believes 3 percent growth is certainly possible but would be difficult to sustain without some very significant catalysts. We believe the 4 to 5 percent growth numbers bandied about during the campaign are mathematically infeasible when all relevant facts are taken into account.

To begin with, GDP growth can be reasonably approximated by summing the growth in the labour force and the growth in worker productivity. Historically, a ~1+ percent growth rate in our labour force, combined with productivity growth of ~2+ percent, have combined to create a real growth rate for the US economy (until fairly recently) of ~3.0 to 3.5 percent (Figure 1). This simple ‘rule of thumb’ has squared quite well with reported GDP growth since 1950, with few exceptions (Figure 2). In both of the decades in which the relationship deviated, economic shocks were involved (the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s and the ‘Great’ recession of 2008/2009) and resulted in extreme bear markets in equities. In any case, over long periods of time GDP growth equates directly to growth in the size and efficiency of the US labour pool.

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Past immigration policies, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the Women’s Rights movement of the 1970s all contributed to increasing the size of the US labour pool over the last several decades. Meanwhile, technological advancement in the post-war period along with the information technology revolution of the 1990s were among the key drivers providing tremendous fuel for productivity growth. The decade beginning in 2010 has unfolded far differently from the historical precedents of GDP growth, leading many to wonder why achieving previous levels of real GDP growth has become so elusive.

Known knowns

Let’s begin with what we know. Our labour force is growing more slowly than it has historically and it is aging. In addition, major social changes—including those noted above—brought tens of millions of new workers into the labour pool. The changes were transformational but unfortunately not repeatable. Additionally, and somewhat ironically, today’s posture toward immigration is shifting us in a direction that will make it even more difficult to achieve the faster growth that the current administration has promised.

With regard to productivity, the remarkable deceleration since the last crisis has bewildered economists. Productivity actually surged during and immediately following the recession in 2008/2009. At a time when layoffs were pervasive, many attributed the spike in productivity to the fear of losing one’s job in a very difficult environment or to the Darwinian notion that employers fired their least productive workers first. Whatever the catalyst for the surge, it proved unsustainable as annual productivity growth has averaged less than 1 percent since 2010.

Two things seem very likely to us. First, the very low interest rate environment in the US and abroad has made financial engineering versus long-term investment a relatively easy choice for many companies (Figure 3). This may very well be a contributing factor to diminished productivity. Second, since wage increases have been fairly tepid post the financial crisis, companies have likely concluded that paying a bit more for labour as opposed to making large investments in new equipment makes the most sense, given the current backdrop.

“Today’s posture toward immigration is shifting us in a direction that will make it even more difficult to achieve the faster growth that the current administration has promised.” President Trump, as did all the presidential candidates, made faster growth a rallying cry during his campaign. The reality, however, of achieving that growth is more difficult than just giving it lip service. With an aging population, a heavy debt load and an annual budget that is 60 percent non-discretionary spending (over 75 percent if one includes defence spending), we face a very stiff headwind. Tax cuts, infrastructure spending and other fiscal measures are certainly the right type of medicine, but those remedies are limited by a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 100 percent. Even if those stimulative measures find their way into law to some degree, they ultimately need to directly influence the workforce, or productivity, or both. There is some evidence to suggest that the participation rate of parts of the labour force has begun to move higher, indicating that workers who have been sidelined for some time are once again seeking jobs (Figure 4). If this continues and we get some degree of fiscal stimulus to either add jobs or bolster productivity (in the case of increased capital spending on new more efficient equipment, software, etc), then we’d conclude that 3 percent growth is certainly achievable at least for some period of time.

As for growth of 4 percent or higher, that is simply not realistic. Such a growth rate has scarcely existed for any extended period since the Vietnam War. Given demographic changes, debt loads and the lack of any obvious catalysts, there is no reason to believe that such high growth rates are plausible in an economy as mature as ours, absent an event or series of events that changes the demand side of the economic equation.

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Key takeaways

  • GDP growth can be reasonably approximated by summing together the growth in the labour force and the growth in worker productivity.
  • Aging demographics, a heavy debt load and financial engineering have been (and will continue to be) impediments to GDP growth. Fiscal stimulus, which either adds jobs or bolsters productivity, could enable 3 percent growth but the sustainability of that rate is questionable.
  • Consequently, we believe interest rate movements will remain benign in the short to intermediate term. As such, we continue to maintain a benchmark duration posture with a flattening curve bias.

Vin DeLucia is chief investment officer at NEAM. He can be contacted at: vin.delucia@neamgroup.com
Michele Matzinger is head of equities & senior equity manager. She can be contacted at: michele.matzinger@neamgroup.com


© 2017 New England Asset Management, Inc
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