Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Bafflingly Weak Recovery

Menzie Chinn has a thorough post on all of the different ways that one can look at the performance of the US economy from a job-creation point of view during the current economic expansion. The whole thing is worth a read.

But I was particularly struck by the last chart that he presented, which was only tangentially related to the performance of the labor market. It shows real (inflation-adjusted) short term interest rates during the current business cycle compared to the last one. I've reproduced Menzie's picture below:

This picture does the best job I've seen of showing in one simple picture exactly how much monetary stimulus (i.e.: low, low, low interest rates for a long, long, long time) the US economy received during the period 2001-05.

This has at least two very interesting implications. First of all, isn't it plausible to think that such low interest rates for such a long period of time may have had secondary effects on the economy that previous (and much less intense) periods of low interest rates? I'm thinking, of course, of the argument that many have made that easy money for so many years may have indeed contributed significantly to asset price appreciation. I've remained more-or-less agnostic on that issue, but seeing a picture like this does make me wonder if we shouldn't expect that such radically low interest rates may have had unintended consequences of some sort or another on the US economy.

The second implication is that the mediocre performance of the US economy during the current expansion looks even worse than I thought when you consider that this expansion has enjoyed all the monetary stimulus that money could buy. We also had a healthy dose of classically Keynesian fiscal stimulus during 2001-04, of course, which makes the economy's lackluster performance even more striking.

So I can't help but come back to this question: why in the world didn't the US economy take off like a rocket in response to the double-barreled monetary and fiscal jolts administered in the first half of this decade? Are monetary and fiscal policies impotent in today's economy? Or would the performance of the US economy have been truly horrific without them?

I don't have the answer to that question. (Sorry to disappoint.) But this picture reminds me of what an important, profound, and still-unanswered question that is.


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