Start Up: Economy Limps Along
The U.S. economy seemed to be doing well overall after the recession of 2001. Growth had been normal, unemployment had stayed low, and inflation seemed to be under control. The economy began to unravel at the end of 2007—total output fell in the fourth quarter and again in the first quarter of 2008. It recovered—barely—in the second quarter. Then things went sour…very sour. The economies of the United States and those of much of the world were rocked by the worst financial crisis in nearly 80 years.
A good deal of the U.S. economy’s momentum when things were going well had been fueled by rising house prices. Between 1995 and 2007, housing prices in the United States more than doubled. As house prices rose, consumers who owned houses felt wealthier and increased their consumption purchases. That helped fuel economic growth. The boom in housing prices had been encouraged by policies of the nation’s monetary authority, the Federal Reserve, which had shifted to an expansionary monetary policy that held short-term interest rates below the inflation rate. Another development, subprime mortgages—mortgage loans to buyers whose credit or income would not ordinarily qualify for mortgage loans—helped bring on the ultimate collapse. When they were first developed, subprime mortgage loans seemed a hugely profitable investment for banks and a good deal for home buyers. Financial institutions developed a wide range of instruments based on “mortgage-backed securities.” As long as house prices kept rising, the system worked and was profitable for virtually all players in the mortgage market. Many firms undertook investments in mortgage-backed securities that assumed house prices would keep rising. Large investment banks bet heavily that house prices would continue rising. Powerful members of Congress pressured two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation), to be even more aggressive in encouraging banks to make mortgage loans to low-income families. The pressure came from the executive branch of government as well—under both Democratic and Republican administrations. In 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (under Bill Clinton, a Democrat) required that 12% of mortgages purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac be for households with incomes less than 60% of the median income in their region. That target was increased to 20% in 2000, 22% in 2005 (then under George W. Bush, a Republican), and was to have increased to 28% in 2008.Russell Roberts, “How Government Stoked the Mania,” Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2008, p. A21. But that final target would not be reached, as both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were seized by the government in 2008. To top things off, a loosening in bank and investment bank regulations gave financial institutions greater leeway in going overboard with purchases of mortgage-backed securities. As house prices began falling in 2007, a system based on the assumption they would continue rising began to unravel very fast. The investment bank Bear Stearns and insurance company American International Group (AIG) required massive infusions of federal money to keep them afloat. In September of 2008, firm after firm with assets tied to mortgage-backed securities began to fail. In some cases, the government rescued them; in other cases, such as Lehman Brothers, they were allowed to fail.
The financial crisis had dramatic and immediate effects on the economy. The economy’s total output fell at an annual rate of 3.7% in the third quarter of 2008 and 8.9% in the fourth quarter of 2008. Consumers, having weathered higher gasoline prices and higher food prices for most of the year, reduced their consumption expenditures as the value of their houses and the stocks they held plunged—consumption fell at an annual rate of 3.8% in the third quarter and 5.1% in the fourth quarter. As cold fear gripped financial markets and expectations of further slowdown ensued, firms cut down on investment spending, which includes spending on plant and equipment used in production. While this nonresidential investment component of output fell at an annual rate of 0.8%, the residential component fell even faster as housing investment sank at an annual rate of 23.9%. Government purchases and net exports rose, but not enough to offset reductions in consumption and private investment. As output shrank, unemployment rose sharply. Through the first nine months of 2008 there was concern that price levels in the United States and in most of the world economies were rising rapidly, but toward the end of the year the concern shifted to whether or not the price level might fall.
This recession, which officially began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, was brutal: At 18 months in length, it was the longest U.S. recession since World War II. The nation’s output fell by more than 5%. The unemployment rate rose dramatically, hitting 10% in October 2009 and remaining above 9% throughout 2010. To many people in 2010 and 2011, it certainly did not feel as if the “Great Recession,” as many had begun to refer to it, had really ended. The unemployment rate had come down some but still remained elevated. Housing prices still seemed to be falling or, at best, crawling along a floor. There was, though, a little good news at the end of 2011: real GDP had increased at an annual rate of 3.0% in the fourth quarter, the largest quarterly increase that year. For the entire year, however, real GDP had risen by just 1.7%.
Even the relatively good news in the fourth quarter came with a sour note: most of the increase in GDP had come as firms had increased their inventories, and economists warned that growth was likely to slow in 2012 as firms began cutting back on those expanded inventories. Sure enough, real GDP increased at an annual rate of just 1.9% in the first quarter of 2012, according to the Commerce Department.
An important question, of course, is why the recovery has been so slow. Since the recovery began in June 2009, this has been the slowest recovery since World War II. Several factors have contributed to the slow pace of expansion.
First, the financial crisis that developed in 2008, as mentioned, was particularly severe. Financial crises shake confidence and limit investment. Uncertainty was also created by increased government regulation of economic activity and by the possibility of increased taxes.
Furthermore, the impact of massive government debts—propelled by government deficits going into the recession, the fall in revenue due to the recession, and massive government stimulus programs in response to the recession—added to a general uncertainty about what future policies might be required. Domestic political battles may have contributed to this uncertainty as well. External factors, such as economic crises in Europe and the rising price of oil, also threatened the economy.
Output, employment, and the price level are the key variables in the study of macroeconomics, which is the analysis of aggregate values of economic variables. What determines a country’s output, and why does output in some economies expand while in others it contracts? Why do some economies grow faster than others? What causes prices throughout an economy to fluctuate, and how do such fluctuations affect people? What causes employment and unemployment? Why does a country’s unemployment rate fluctuate? Why do different countries have different unemployment rates?
We would pronounce an economy “healthy” if its annual output of goods and services were growing at a rate it can sustain, its price level stable, and its unemployment rate low. What would constitute “good” numbers for each of these variables depends on time and place, but those are the outcomes that most people would agree are desirable for the aggregate economy. When the economy deviates from what is considered good performance, there are often calls for the government to “do something” to improve performance. How government policies affect economic performance is a major topic of macroeconomics. When the financial and economic crises struck throughout the world in 2008, there was massive intervention from world central banks and from governments throughout the world in an effort to stimulate their economies.
This chapter provides a preliminary sketch of the most important macroeconomic issues: growth of total output and the business cycle, changes in the price level, and unemployment. Grappling with these issues will be important to you not only in your exploration of macroeconomics but throughout your life.