The economy 美国经济
Excuses, excuses 全是借口
A litany of special factors exposes the recovery’s fragility
Jun 2nd 2011 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition
RECOVERIES from financial crises are usually subdued, but America’s is starting to look comatose. On May 26th the government said GDP grew by an annualised 1.8% in the first quarter, identical to its preliminary estimate. Economists had hoped for an upward revision. Worse, as signs of weakness accumulate, forecasters have trimmed estimates for the current quarter from around 3.5% they were projecting a month ago to 2.7% or less now.
Last December an agreement between Barack Obama and the Republicans to extend George Bush’s tax cuts and enact new ones led to forecasts of 3% to 4% growth this year. But the new consensus rate of 2.6%, for a recovery now two years old, is barely above America’s long-term potential and scarcely enough to bring unemployment down. To be sure, the post-crisis imperative for banks and households to reduce their debt meant a V-shaped rebound was never on the cards. Even so, this is a terrible performance.
Economists have found themselves repeatedly making excuses. First it was the snowstorms. Then it was Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster which crimped the supply of parts to car assembly plants in America. Then, as the snow melted, floods ravaged Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, and tornadoes battered Alabama and Missouri. America has suffered five incidents of extreme weather this year, each inflicting at least $1 billion in damage.
The most important special factor has been petrol. Prices jumped from $3 per gallon at the end of December to $3.90 in early May. That has siphoned off much of the purchasing power that consumers should have extracted from December’s tax agreement and subsequent gains in employment. Total consumer spending rose at just a 6.7% annual rate in the three months to the end of April, but most of that increase was eaten up by inflation. Real spending grew by a paltry 2.2%.
Still, Wall Street expects the economy to perk up in coming months as those special factors begin to fade. Petrol prices have slipped in the past three weeks as monetary policy has tightened in emerging markets. Employment seems still to be rising, albeit at a slower rate. (May figures were to be released after The Economist went to press.) And rebuilding after the floods and tornadoes may deliver a fillip in the second half of the year.
Yet if one-offs can so easily depress growth, that only underlines how fragile the economy’s underpinnings are. More evidence of that fragility came in the GDP report’s sharp downward revisions to households’ real after-tax incomes in late 2010 and early 2011. It now appears that consumers have maintained their sluggish pace of spending only by saving less. Since GDP measured by income should equal GDP measured by spending, the poor income data suggest the GDP figures may have to be revised down.
To make matters worse, house prices in March fell to a new post-crisis low. Betsy Graseck of Morgan Stanley reckons they’ll fall another 10% to 12% over the next year. That is only one of many reasons she says banks are cautious about lending: they are also facing tougher scrutiny of their underwriting by regulators and buyers of their mortgages.
Both Mr Obama and the Republicans are casting about for cheap ways to boost the economy. On May 26th the White House announced it had found several hundred rules it could eliminate or scale back. The same day, Republicans released a collection of mostly sensible ideas such as passing free-trade agreements and clearing the patent office’s backlog. But their main plank is that the federal government slash spending. “Families are tightening their belts and sticking to a budget—and Washington should too,” said Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader in the House. Maybe so, but spending less when households are in no shape to pick up the slack seems a sure-fire way to keep an anaemic recovery off-colour.