The U.S. Economy's Dirty Little Secret
Here is the scariest secret in economics today: the U.S. has benefitted from the global slump. The U.S. economy hums along, even while UK protestors hurl milkshakes over Brexit, French president Macron hides from yellow-vested marchers, and Chinese tech firms fear being frozen out of foreign markets. This is not what the textbooks promise. Last year the U.S. economy grew 2.9 percent, 60 percent faster than the Euro area, giving President Trump more confidence in his confrontational style.
What ever happened to the tightly integrated world economy, where John Donne’s “no man is an island” maxim prevails? That is what the IMF and the World Bank have been preaching since World War II. Each Fall so many diplomats and financiers invade Washington to nod their heads in agreement that local limousine companies must borrow black cars from outlaying states to shuttle attendees around World Bank meetings.
The American economy is in a temporary, though potent, phase where weakness abroad lifts spirits here. It’s not about spite and malice. The key factor has been low interest rates, lower than anytime since the founding of the Federal Reserve in 1913 or even of the Bank of England in 1694. Today’s 10-year Treasury yields 2.30 percent. Last month Netflix issued junk bonds at just 5.4 percent. If a Rip van Winkle economist woke up and saw only those numbers he would assume that one-fifth of Americans were unemployed and standing in soup lines. Instead the jobless rate is the lowest since Neil Armstrong took his famous step.
The idea that the U.S. wins in a global slump might sound like the musing of a Marxist in the dingy corner of a faculty lounge scribbling beneath a poster of Che Guevara. But it is not a matter of ideology. World interest rates are scraping the floor because GDP outside of the U.S. is scraping bottom.
Persistently low interest rates and inflation bring multiple benefits here. Americans, who are finally seeing wage gains, are also seeing all sorts of bargains. A few days ago, I visited an Apple store where a “genius” at the repair counter told me that I could finance a new iPhone at zero percent. Car dealers are offering the same.
The stock market has soared because bank Certificate of Deposit (CD) yields look so puny. When I was a kid, my mother placed our family savings in a bank and received, not just a 6 percent return but also a Waring Blender! Today a 6-month bank CD might pay one-third of 1 whole percentage point. And my mother can no longer expect a blender or even a lollipop.
Low rates give U.S. businesses nearly free financing when they purchase equipment. As a result of this and new tax write-offs, machine manufacturing jobs jumped by 215,000 in 2018. Foreign investors realize that new equipment will make American companies more competitive.
But surely, the textbooks insist, a hobbled global economy pinches U.S. exports. That is true, especially combined with tariff battles and a strong dollar, which make U.S. goods appear more expensive. Note, however, that exports make up only 12 percent of the overall economy, and nearly one-third of those go to Canada and Mexico, whose economies have been doing okay. Moreover, many of the most valuable exports are “must-have” items (or oligopolistic ones) like Boeing jets, Qualcomm chips, Apple iPhones, or bacon. It is hard even for dejected Frenchmen to do without.
Policymakers outside the U.S. are worried, for they would rather the U.S. stumble along beside them and be forced to concoct cooperative ways to goose global growth. Instead President Trump needles rather than wheedles for trade deals.
No one knows when the needling will stop, of course. But this rare phase won’t end as long as inflation stays tucked away like Rip van Winkle.
(an edited version of this post appears at https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/american-growth-global-slump-interest-rates-by-todd-g-buchholz-2019-06)