America flirts with a fate like Japan’s

The stalling of the US recovery raises big, scary questions

The stalling of the US recovery raises big, scary questions. After a recession, this economy usually gets people back to work quickly. Not this time. Progress is so slow, the issue is not so much when America will return to full employment but what “full employment” will mean by the time it does.

The administration thinks the pace of recovery will pick up soon. Last week President Barack Obama called the pause a “bump in the road”. Others think the slowdown will persist and might get worse, fears that cannot be dismissed. One alarming possibility is that the traits the US has relied on to drive growth in the past – labour market flexibility, rapid productivity growth – might have become toxic. If the US is unlucky, traits seen as distinctive strengths are now weaknesses, and a “lost decade” of stagnation, like Japan’s in the 1990s, might lie ahead.

The mainstream view is more optimistic and goes as follows. The recovery in the first half of the year was weak but special or temporary factors were to blame: bad weather, the timing of defence expenditures, the phasing out of fiscal support, the Japanese earthquake, the oil-price surge, worries over Europe’s debt, and so on. Together these could have cut 1.5 percentage points from growth in the first half of this year, yielding a feeble 2 per cent – too slow to put a dent in unemployment.

Some of those factors should fade in the second half, letting the growth rate recover to between 3 and 4 per cent. That would be disappointing with so much ground to make up – though unemployment would be falling, albeit slowly. Even optimists acknowledge it will take a while for consumers to cut debt to comfortable levels, for the housing market to stabilise, and for other aftershocks of the Great Recession to be worked out. But, in the end, the economy will bounce back and close the gap between actual and potential output.

Strong productivity growth, reflecting the US economy’s famous ability to cut jobs promptly, is central in all this. Potential output is growing even as actual output and employment stutter. This hurts now, the optimists acknowledge, but when conditions improve workers will be rehired. A low-friction labour market is fast to hire as well as to fire, and American companies will take up the slack quickly once conditions allow. In the end, US labour-market exceptionalism will deliver new jobs and strong growth as in the past.

But will it? Two things might work differently this time. First, since the recession was unusually deep and the recovery unusually slow, the US is experiencing unheard-of long-term unemployment rates. The housing slump and its associated plague of negative equity aggravate this by making it harder for the unemployed to move to find work. Long-term joblessness erodes skills and employability. Structural unemployment is surely inching closer to European levels. America has not been here before.

As Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf recently pointed out, after a recession such as this you can make a case for welcoming low productivity growth if it keeps more people in work. Better to spread the pain around through short-time working, he argued, than cut jobs. In a new paper, Robert Gordon of Northwestern University makes essentially the same point. He shows that in the past quarter-century the US labour market has become markedly more exceptional – more organised around the “disposable worker”. Management thinking and declining unions have driven friction ever lower, while employment subsidies and regulation have made Europe’s labour markets stickier. The Great Recession and its surge of long-term unemployment are a severe test of what was once seen as a distinctive US economic strength.

The second danger also works through productivity, but arises from the role played by debt in this cycle. Under circumstances such as today’s, with households striving to cut debt and interest rates at zero, economies can behave in strange ways. In a paper last year, Paul Krugman of Princeton and The New York Times, and Gauti Eggertsson of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York drew attention to the possibility of a “paradox of toil”, akin to the paradox of thrift (whereby if everyone tries to save more, the economy shrinks and so does aggregate saving). The logic of the paradox of toil is simple. Suppose the supply of labour increases, or productivity rises. Initially, prices would tend to fall. If nominal interest rates are stuck at zero, the real interest rate and burden of debt both rise. This leads overleveraged consumers to cut spending still more. Demand is not just slow to respond: the economy shrinks.

It is a peculiar world where higher productivity reduces output; and willingness to accept wage cuts worsens unemployment (which Mr Krugman and Mr Eggertsson call the “paradox of flexibility”). The idea that easy hiring and firing might permanently raise long-term unemployment is less bizarre, but still not something the US has needed to worry about in the past.

A gradually improving recovery would put things right side up. US strengths would be strengths again. But a prolonged slowdown, with consumers still not on top of their debts, might be self-reinforcing. Some would say this has already begun, hence the pause. The optimists say no, not yet – and they had better be right.

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