Look: I am eager to learn stuff I don't know--which requires actively courting and posting smart disagreement.

But as you will understand, I don't like to post things that mischaracterize and are aimed to mislead.

-- Brad Delong

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Everything that appears on this blog is the copyrighted property of somebody. Often, but not always, that somebody is me. For things that are not mine, I either have obtained permission, or claim fair use. Feel free to quote me, but attribute, please. My photos and poetry are dear to my heart, and may not be used without permission. Ditto, my other intellectual property, such as charts and graphs. I'm probably willing to share. Let's talk. Violators will be damned for all eternity to the circle of hell populated by Rosanne Barr, Mrs Miller [look her up], and trombonists who are unable play in tune. You cannot possibly imagine the agony. If you have a question, email me: jazzbumpa@gmail.com. I'll answer when I feel like it. Cheers!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Different Look At The Great Stagnation - Pt 2

For part 1, see here.


The golden age was a period of strong, but sometimes erratic, economic growth.  To illustrate this, consider the quarterly rate of change since 1947 in gross domestic product (GDP.)   GDP is an aggregate measure of all the goods and service produced in the country.  It’s not perfect, but it is a reasonable barometer of the state of the economy, and growth rates tell you where it is headed.  The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) provides relevant data in many forms.  Graph one is a data plot of quarterly percent change from the preceding period in real (inflation adjusted) GDP, seasonally adjusted at annual rates, from BEA. This plot is color-coded by presidential administration, blue for Democrats, and Red for Republicans.  As you can see, this number jumps around a lot, but less so in recent decades.  Also shown are the average values for all data from 1947 through 1980, 3.73%, in green, and the average from 1981 through the first quarter of 2011, 2.81%, in red.  Note that since 1981, average GDP growth has been almost a full percentage point lower than it was during the Golden Age.

Also shown is an 8 year moving average in yellow.  I chose an 8 year span for the moving average to smooth out over the length of a two-term presidency, but any long moving average will tell the same story. Until recently, the lowest dip in that (moving average) line bottoms out at 2.35% in 1982, and the highest bottoms out 2.71% in 1986, with no particular pattern across time.  The lowest bottom of all occurred in the recent Great Recession, bottoming out at 1.54% in the second quarter of 2009.  The dramatic change is in the tops. After a broad double peak from 1966 to 1969, topping out at 5.39% and 5.29%, the remaining peaks are between 3.99% and 4.07% - scarcely above the golden age total period average.  The other notable feature is the steady decline in quarterly data peaks throughout the G. W. Bush administration and the corresponding slide in the eight year average, culminating in the crash of 2007.

Figure 1

During the Great Stagnation, the reduced volatility in the quarterly GDP growth numbers appears in the graph as generally less severe bottoms, and even more dramatically as less expansive tops.  The degree of volatility can be precisely determined using the statistical technique of standard deviation.    The next graph shows how the standard deviation has changed since WW II.

 Figure 2

The blue curve is the standard deviation (Std Dev), based on the previous 34 quarters.  We’ll get to the red line later.  Sure enough, the Std Dev falls over time, as the blue best-fit trend line confirms, but it does not fall monotonically.

How can we account for this?  In the 50's, there was economic turmoil, as the economy restabilized during the first wave of the baby boom, and about 7 million soldiers reentered the work force following WWII - which came hard on the heels of the Great Depression.  This was a dynamic time, with wild growth peaks in 1950, '52, and '55, along with recessions in 1953, '58, and '59-60.  Then came the First Little Moderation  - a decade with steadier GDP growth and – most significantly, no recessions until late in 1969.   The 70's brought stagflation, the end of the Viet Nam war, and another series of wild gyrations in GDP growth - though, except for one spike in 1978, and the recession of 1980 - not as wild as the '50's. Reagan's high spending and deficits held recessions at bay after 1982, and volatility began to decline a few years later.   After a modest peak in late 1987, GDP growth declined as well, and the resulting recession contributed to denying George H.W. Bush a second term.  The Clinton administration gave us relative prosperity, along with the Second Little Moderation – another multi-year span without a recession.  Volatility remained steady at a low level throughout his two terms, before dropping further to an all-time low in 1999.  Despite this, his policies were too conservative to rekindle anything like a golden age. By 2000, the wheels were about to come off the Clinton boom anyway, but the grotesque economic policies of the George W. Bush  administration threw us farther over a deeper cliff than was necessary.  His profligate spending made Reagan look prudent, and gave us an anemic and declining series of GDP mini-peaks, culminating in the crash of 2007.  Barack Obama’s administration has not been able to foster significant growth and a robust recovery while dealing with a Congress dominated by blue dog Democrats and overtly obstructionist Republicans.  It’s particularly interesting that the recent Great Recession barely registers as a blip on the blue line.

Which brings us to the red line in Fig 2: relative standard deviation (RSD), determined by dividing the standard deviation by the average of the same 34 data points, here multiplied by 3.5 to put it on the same scale as Std Dev.  Part of the reason that the Std Dev became smaller over time is that the numbers used to calculate it were smaller. To this extent that this is operating, the Great Moderation is a meaningless data artifact.  However, if this were strictly true, the best fit line for RSD would be exactly horizontal.  It’s not, but it does have a smaller slope than does the best fit line for Std Dev, so the idea is not totally without merit.  Let’s have a closer look.

By the end of the first Little Moderation, RSD dropped to a level below that of most of the Great Moderation.  It then rose slightly, was stable from ’71 to ’73, and took a big jump with the recession of ’74.  After slipping over the rest of the decade, RSD shot to an all time high during the recessions of ’80 and ’82.  The big drop occurred between ’87 and ’90, and the low level was maintained until the Great Recession.

Volatility is the intensity of variability.  Big changes in short time spans register as volatility, causing Std Dev and RSD to increase.  As figure 1 shows, the biggest variations come from recessions and quick, strong recoveries.   There were three recessions in the 50’s so RSD never had a chance to decline.  The 60’s and the 90’s were both recession-free, so RSD could decline in the one case, and stay low in the other.  The recessions of the 70’s were deep, but the recoveries were strong, so volatility climbed.  The back-to-back recessions of ’80 and ’82, with sharp recoveries in ’81 and ’83 took RSD to an all-time high.  The Great Recession propelled RSD back up to a level not seen since the 80’s.  Simply, all of the volatility jumps can be explained in terms of recessions.  Avoid recessions, and Std. Dev. will be low.

How, then, do we explain the two Bush administrations, with their recessions in 1990 and 2001, but no jump in volatility?  In each case the fall into recession was not sudden – it followed several months of low or declining GDP growth.  Similarly, in each case, the climb back out of recession was slow, faltering, and failed to generate even a single quarter where GDP growth topped 7%.  In contrast, from WWII until 1983, top recovery quarters typically exceeded 10%.

What this indicates is that the Great Moderation really is a data artifact – though not quite in the way I expected.  Reduced GDP growth numbers play a part, but the real key is understanding how recessions contribute to observed Std Dev.  Recession-free times have low Std Dev values, and tepid recoveries from recessions that occur in a low growth context will also have low values.  While the Great Moderation is real, the standard explanation is inadequate, and comes from failing to look at the data with a critical eye.


This was intended to be a chapter in a multi-author book project.  The project fell through for reasons not related to the project itself.


The Arthurian said...

Great analysis Jazz. For me it requires a re-read, but it must have been a very satisfying post to write!

I have a question on a minor point. Perhaps I'm trimming too much, but you wrote above: "... the George W. Bush administration threw us farther over a deeper cliff than was necessary. His profligate spending made Reagan look prudent..."

Yet on mine today you wrote: "we need fiscal stimulus now."

On the face of it, his profligate spending *WAS* fiscal stimulus. No?

The lack of distribution, I suppose is the "grotesque" part.

Jazzbumpa said...

Art -

All spending is NOT created equal. While the economy was expanding, albeit slowly, deficit spending was not called for. This is pure Keynes.


The profligacy was trillions of $$$ on discretionary wars. The grotesque part was lowering taxes at the same time. This could only lead to serious deficits. The lack of distribution, though aided and abetted by tax policy, arises for other reasons - union busting, deregulation, globalization, rentier activities.

Now, with high unemployment, and an aggregate demand shortfall, we are in a liquidity trap at the ZIB.

The time for Govt borrowing is when the spending is necessary, and interest rates are at historic lows. The failure to do this, both here and in Europe is mind-boggling.


The Arthurian said...


The profligacy was trillions of $$$ on discretionary wars. The grotesque part was lowering taxes at the same time. This could only lead to serious deficits.

Keynes was not very fussy about what the spending was for. He did have preferences, but if his preferences were stumbling-blocks he would overlook them:
Pyramid-building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth, if the education of our statesmen on the principles of the classical economics stands in the way of anything better.

He acknowledged that war was the one activity that could typically generate the required volume of spending.

And he thought that such spending, when needed, financed by deficits, was better than limiting spending to avoid the deficits.

By your summary of his policies, George W. Bush was a Keynesian.

Jazzbumpa said...

Art -

You have either misread or misunderstood Keynes. Evidently you believe, despite my link in the first comment, that all deficits are Keynesian. Refer to the beginning of the paragraph you quoted.

This is distressingly common. In fact, you're playing in Ron Paul's cat box.


And he thought that such spending, when needed, financed by deficits, was better than limiting spending to avoid the deficits. (Emphasis added.)

What does "when needed" mean? (Hint: deficits brought about by discretionary wars and unneeded tax cuts for the already under-taxed ultra-rich do not count.) It means where we are now, as I also indicated in my first comment.

By my summary of his policies, Bush was no more a Keynesian than I am a tea-bagger.


The Arthurian said...

Let me repeat my quote from Keynes:
Pyramid-building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth, if the education of our statesmen on the principles of the classical economics stands in the way of anything better.

In other words, if the powers-that-be are unable to do better, even spending for war will boost economic growth. Do I misunderstand the quote?

re: the accidental keynesians post. Kimel writes "A government that runs a deficit when real private sector spending is rising ... is most definitely not operating under Keynesian principles."

Fair enough. But the graph shows the 1960s as Keynesian. There were "no recessions until late in 1969" as you say. So by Kimel's graph, the federal budget must have been balanced all through the 1960s. It was not. The graph appears to be incorrect.

And as for deficit spending when needed... Keynes obviously thought it was needed in his day, just as you obviously think it is needed in this day. But prepending adjectives to wars and tax cuts is not an explanation.

Deficits are deficits. Wartime spending financed by deficits is a policy that meets the requirements Keynes set forth. Why has the policy not worked?

Perhaps we needed a bigger war?

Jazzbumpa said...

Art -

Keynes' day spanned a lot of territory. Deficits were required during the GD. We have similar circumstances now.

You don't misunderstand the quote. You are ignoring the context. Let's focus on "when needed": high unemployment, an aggregate demand shortfall, in a liquidity trap at the ZIRB. The 30's, and now.

Yuo have good questions about the 60's. Mike is a reputable guy, and I took his graph on faith.

I wanted to go back and check Mike's post that I quoted, but The Presimetrics blog is down. It does look inconsistent. I'm stumped.

But that is sidebar to the Bush discussion. He was definitely non-Keynesian, except in '01-2, and that was by accident.

Bush policies didn't work because the economy was expanding from '03 on, and the deficits were unprecedented. Also, something has changed. Rentiers have captured an increasing percentage of national wealth, so the spending - quite deliberately in my estimation - wound up in their pockets, not the economy.

True, Keynes seemed to think what the spending was used for didn't matter much. But direct transfers of wealth into the pockets of the mot wealthy is a rather different process.


Jazzbumpa said...

Art -

I checked with Mike. His original Presimetrics post was reposted here at AB.


S/D data is from BEA table 3.2 and shows surpluses through most of the 90's.

I have no idea why BEA and FRED (via OMB) disagree.


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