Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during President Reagan’s first term. He was Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal. He has held numerous academic appointments, including the William E. Simon Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, and Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
The media has headlined good economic news: fourth quarter GDP growth of 5.7 percent (“the recession is over”), Jan. retail sales up, productivity up in 4th quarter, the dollar is gaining strength. Is any of it true? What does it mean?
The 5.7 percent growth figure is a guesstimate made in advance of the release of the U.S. trade deficit statistic. It assumed that the U.S. trade deficit would show an improvement. When the trade deficit was released a few days later, it showed a deterioration, knocking the 5.7 percent growth figure down to 4.6 percent. Much of the remaining GDP growth consists of inventory accumulation.
More than a fourth of the reported gain in Jan. retail sales is due to higher gasoline and food prices. Questionable seasonal adjustments account for the rest.
Productivity was up, because labor costs fell 4.4 percent in the fourth quarter, the fourth successive decline. Initial claims for jobless benefits rose. Productivity increases that do not translate into wage gains cannot drive the consumer economy.
Housing is still under pressure, and commercial real estate is about to become a big problem.
The dollar’s gains are not due to inherent strengths. The dollar is gaining because government deficits in Greece and other EU countries are causing the dollar carry trade to unwind. America’s low interest rates made it profitable for investors and speculators to borrow dollars and use them to buy overseas bonds paying higher interest, such as Greek, Spanish and Portuguese bonds denominated in euros. The deficit troubles in these countries have caused investors and speculators to sell the bonds and convert the euros back into dollars in order to pay off their dollar loans. This unwinding temporarily raises the demand for dollars and boosts the dollar’s exchange value.
The problems of the American economy are too great to be reached by traditional policies. Large numbers of middle class American jobs have been moved offshore: manufacturing, industrial and professional service jobs. When the jobs are moved offshore, consumer incomes and U.S. GDP go with them. So many jobs have been moved abroad that there has been no growth in U.S. real incomes in the 21st century, except for the incomes of the super rich who collect multi-million dollar bonuses for moving U.S. jobs offshore.
Without growth in consumer incomes, the economy can go nowhere. Washington policymakers substituted debt growth for income growth. Instead of growing richer, consumers grew more indebted. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan accomplished this with his low interest rate policy, which drove up housing prices, producing home equity that consumers could tap and spend by refinancing their homes.