The second half GDP growth rate is expected to be less than 2 percent.
Palm Coast, FL – August 25, 2011 – The economy is barely crawling along. A recent sizable downward revision to GDP figures showed that the current economic activity – adding up all income generation from producing autos to providing hair cuts – is still below the recent past cyclical peak achieved in late 2007 even though the country added over 10 million additional people in the workable age of 16-and-over. In short, it seems like “Progress in America” has stopped.
The latest data on the manufacturing sector is also not good. After having registered 22 straight months of expansion, the ISM index – which surveys managers in the manufacturing industry – posted a reading of 50.9 in July. The index had been in the 55 to 60 range in the first half of this year. Note that any index below 50 is considered as reflecting a contraction in the industry. The component on new orders showed contraction, though actual current production and employment showed slight expansion. Why the contraction after almost two years of expansion? One likely reason was the constant discussion about the debt ceiling in July which no doubt caused many business decision-makers to halt purchase orders. Consequently, a long-term resolution to debt debate is critical to restart up the manufacturing sector. Large companies are sitting on a pile of cash. They only need clarity and business confidence to start investing again.
The Federal Reserve, though having ended its Quantitative Easing (“QE2”) cannot be any more accommodative. It will no longer buy bonds with freshly printed money; rather, it will only repurchase bonds that are maturing in the Fed portfolio. Money simply cannot be printed in massive quantities for an extended period of time without raising the spectre of inflation. Consumer price inflation has already notched up by 3.4 percent from one year ago, while many Social Security check recipients did not get any cost-of-living adjustment last year. They have to wait until 2012 before the COLA gets appropriately readjusted. Many workers, however, do not have automatic COLAs. Average hourly earnings rose 1.9 percent in from June 2010 to June 2011.
Such a slow wage growth assures slow consumer spending growth in the near term. With government spending expected to contract, for better or worse, and housing starts still struggling to gain traction, economic growth will be below the trend growth line. The second half GDP growth rate is expected to be less than 2 percent.
Slow economic growth also means a continuing worsening situation in budget deficit and national debt figures. History shows that one of the biggest sources of federal government revenue has been more people working and so more people paying taxes. The current unemployment rate of 9 percent is just too high.
Aside from the lack of enthusiasm among large companies, one major reason for the economic struggle is that small businesses – the entrepreneurial heart of America – cannot find funds either to establish themselves or to keep going. (It should also be said here that many real estate firms are actually small businesses.) Because of the small nature of such companies, these entrepreneurs cannot issue bonds like IBM or Disney. Banks also have been extra tough on any borrowers without an established name. Small businesses, therefore, typically have relied on their owners’ savings and housing equity for the funds to test out new business ideas.
But housing equity – that is, housing asset value minus mortgage liability – has greatly shrunk in the painful aftermath of the housing market crash. Currently, the aggregate of homeowners’ real estate equity is at $6.1 trillion versus $13 trillion in 2006 according to Flow of Funds data from the Federal Reserve. The Census Bureau reports that there are 74 million homeowners. So on average, the average equity per homeowner in 2011 is $82,000, down from the $170,000 in 2006. Other Federal Reserve data from its Survey of Consumer Finances show that the median homeowner net worth is $190,000. This larger net worth figure is due to homeowners having other assets in addition to housing equity (stocks, cash, etc.). In comparison, the median net worth of a renter household is $4,000. The only good news at the moment is that further declines appear to be largely over. Price measurements from NAR, Case-Shiller, Core Logic, and the Federal Housing Finance Agency have all noted a slight uptick in home prices in recent months.
In order to truly give a push to the U.S. economy to get it on a sustainable robust growth path, small businesses need funds to establish themselves and to maintain operations. A home price recovery will be critical to that process in the upcoming years. Any obstacle to such a home price recovery will, therefore, hamper economic growth and job creation. As policymakers continue their discussions on future federal budgets, they need to be well aware that any trimming of housing-related programs – such as the mortgage interest deduction – will hurt home values and consequently derail many small business start-ups.