Greg Ip

Articles by The Economist’s U.S. Economics Editor

Archive for May 2012

The economy: Upswing

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Many states key to November’s election are doing better; whether the president can exploit that is another matter

Jun 2nd 2012 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

[Greg Ip] ON MAY 24th Barack Obama launched a blistering attack on Mitt Romney’s business background from the state fairgrounds in Iowa. A week later Mr Romney returned the favour from a furniture warehouse in Las Vegas, Nevada. The choice of venues was hardly random. Both are in “swing” states that will help determine the outcome of this November’s election. With the economy at the top of voters’ concerns, how the recovery is seen to be faring in such states could have an outsize influence on the result.

Superficially, Iowa and Nevada are opposites. Iowa’s big manufacturing sector lost one in eight of its jobs between 2007 and 2010, yet the state had no housing bubble and its unemployment rate remains among the lowest in the country. Tourism-dependent Nevada was the state worst hit by the housing bust and still struggles under the country’s highest jobless rate.

But together with 11 other states usually considered electoral toss-ups (see table), they are, by some metrics, doing better than the nation is. Read the rest of this entry »


Written by gregip

May 31, 2012 at 1:38 pm

America’s potential GDP: Remembering when the future kept getting bigger

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May 24th 2012, 17:17 by G.I. | WASHINGTON

HOW big can the American economy grow? This week’s Free exchange column tackles the critical question of America’s potential: the maximum output it can sustain given its endowments of capital, labour and technology.

The article notes that economic growth since the recession ended three years ago has averaged 2.5% a year. That is roughly the trend rate of an economy already at full employment. Given that America is still in a deep post-recession hole, such a rate should not be enough to reduce unemployment, and should have left so much spare capacity that inflation ought to have fallen sharply. Instead, unemployment has dropped nearly two percentage points in that time and underlying inflation, after dipping below 1%, is above 2%.

While various idiosyncratic factors can explain this behaviour, it could also be a sign that the crisis has significantly eroded potential GDP, and the output gap is much smaller than generally realised. (This is a topic on which I’ve blogged before, herehere and here.) Since 2005 the Congressional Budget Office has revised down its estimate of potential GDP in the year 2012 by 5%.

Doing this exercise for the late 1990s, a completely different picture emerges. As the accompanying chart shows, in 1997, the CBO estimated potential in early 2001 would be $8.3 trillion (in constant 1996 dollars). By 2001, it had revised that up a whopping 12%, to $9.3 trillion, a figure that looks more reasonable given what we now know GDP actually did.

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Written by gregip

May 25, 2012 at 9:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Free Exchange: Humbler Horizons

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America’s economy is growing at an unimpressive rate. It may not be able to go much faster

May 26th 2012 | from the print edition

[Greg Ip] WHEN the American economy emerged from recession three years ago, forecasters fell into two broad camps. Optimists reckoned brisk growth would quickly return the economy to its long-term potential level of output, the maximum sustainable GDP that could be achieved with the capital and labour on hand. That would pull down unemployment and prop up inflation. Pessimists, however, predicted sluggish growth, persistently high unemployment and inflation that would slip ever lower as a result of unused capacity in the economy.

What has actually happened since then has been a mixture of the two. Unemployment and inflation have moved in the directions that optimists expected. Since peaking at 10% in late 2009, the jobless rate has now fallen by nearly two percentage points. Core inflation, which excludes food and energy, dipped below 1% in 2010 but is now above 2%. Yet economic growth has averaged 2.5%, a rate more typical of the economy at full employment rather than when recovering from a deep bust.

Economists advance several explanations for this dichotomy. The drop in unemployment may simply be mechanical, a snapback after employers fired workers too indiscriminately during the recession. Inflation has been underpinned by the indirect effects of higher commodity prices, rising rents and the influence of stable inflation expectations on prices and wages. Optimists say that GDP may be revised up later.

But there is another, more troubling possibility: the crisis may have permanently dented America’s productive capacity. If so, the “output gap” between the economy’s current level of production and its potential level is much smaller than expected. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by gregip

May 25, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Fiscal policy: Cliff-diving

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The election will determine whether a nasty dose of austerity can be avoided

May 5th 2012 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

[Greg  Ip] AMERICANS have watched austerity sweep Europe with a certain Schadenfreude. But eight months from now they may get a dose of the same medicine. The political compromises that have produced much of America’s deficit of 8% of GDP are programmed to go into reverse at the end of the year, two months after the election. A stimulus package consisting of a payroll-tax cut, investment tax credit and enhanced unemployment insurance expires then, as do George W. Bush’s tax cuts (which have already been extended by two years from their original end-date of 2010). At the same time an automatic, across-the-board cut in domestic and defence spending, called a “sequester”, takes effect, cutting about $100 billion from government spending next year.

The economic impact of this fiscal cliff is a matter of some debate. The Congressional Budget Office reckons that the combined effects of the sequester and the expiring tax cuts would add up to 3.6% of GDP in fiscal 2013. But David Greenlaw of Morgan Stanley, which puts the total effect at almost $700 billion at an annual rate, argues that the calendar-year impact is much larger, at around 5%. Others think the effect would be smaller, noting that some people will not experience the full tax hit until they file their returns in 2014.

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Written by gregip

May 5, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

America’s labour force and the economy: The missing five million

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May 4th 2012, 20:55 by G.I. | WASHINGTON, D.C.

THERE’S a short term and a long-term story in today’s job numbers. The stock market did not like the short-term story, and fell sharply as a result. But the short-term news is not as bad as it looks, while the long-term news is actually quite disturbing.

Let me explain. The sharp deceleration in employment growth in the last two months probably does not point to a sudden slowing in economic growth but rather tells us that the more brisk pace of growth earlier this year was unsustainable because much of it was due to warm weather. A useful gauge is the number of people not working because of weather. Morgan Stanley says this tally was unusually low during the winter, but in April it returned to normal levels. This suggests the weather payback effect is largely over. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by gregip

May 4, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Posted in Blog posts