The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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July 20, 2011

Is consumer spending the problem?

In answer to the question posed in the title to this post, The New York Times's David Leonhardt says absolutely:

"There is no shortage of explanations for the economy's maddening inability to leave behind the Great Recession and start adding large numbers of jobs…

"But the real culprit—or at least the main one—has been hiding in plain sight. We are living through a tremendous bust. It isn't simply a housing bust. It's a fizzling of the great consumer bubble that was decades in the making…

"If you're looking for one overarching explanation for the still-terrible job market, it is this great consumer bust."

Tempting story, but is the explanation for "the still-terrible job market" that simple?

First, some perspective on the pace of the current recovery. Though we have grown used to thinking of the rebound from the most recent recession as being spectacularly substandard, that impression (which I share) is driven more by the depth of the downturn than the actual speed of the recovery. The following chart traces the path of real gross domestic product (GDP) from the trough of the last three recessions:

In the first two years following the 1990–91 and 2001 recessions, output grew by about 6 percent. Assuming that GDP grew at annual rate of 1.5 percent in the second quarter just ended—a not-unreasonable guess at this point—the economy will have expanded by about 5.3 percent since the end of the last recession in July 2009. That's not a difference that jumps off the page at me.

Directly to the point of consumption spending, it is certainly true that consumer spending has expanded at a slower pace in the expansion to this point than was the case at the same point in the recoveries following the previous two recessions. From the end of the recession in the second quarter of 2009 through the first quarter of this year (we won't have the first official look at this year's second quarter until next week), personal consumption expenditures grew in real terms by just under 4 percent. That growth compares to 4.8 percent in the first seven quarters following the end of the 2001 recession and 5.9 percent in the first seven quarters following the end of the 1990–91 recession.

That difference in the growth of consumption across the early quarters of recovery after the 1990–91 and 2001 recessions with little discernible difference in GDP growth across those episodes illustrates the pitfalls of mechanically focusing on specific categories of spending. In fact, the relatively slower pace of consumer spending in this expansion has in part been compensated by a relatively high pace of business spending on equipment and software:

If you throw consumer durables into the general notion of "investment" (investment in this case for home production) the story of this recovery is the relative boom in capital spending compared to recent recoveries:

And what about that "still-terrible job market"? You won't get much argument from me about that description, but here again the reality is complicated. Focusing once more on the period since the end of the recession, the pace of job creation is not out of sync in comparison to recent expansions (though job creation after the last two recessions was meager as well, and we are, of course, starting from a much bigger hole in terms of jobs lost):

So, relative to recent experience, at this point in the recovery GDP growth and employment growth are about average (if we ignore the size of the recession in both measures). The undeniable (and relevant) human toll aside, the current recovery seems so disappointing because we expect the pace of the recovery to bear some relationship to the depth of the downturn. That expectation, in turn, comes from a view of the world in which potential output proceeds in a more or less linear fashion, up and to the right. But what if that view is wrong and our potential is a sequence of more or less permanent "jumps" up and down, some of which are small and some of which are big?

In addition, investment growth to date has been strong relative to recent recoveries and, as Leonhardt suggests, consumption growth has been somewhat weak. So here's a question: Would we have had more job creation and stronger GDP growth had businesses been more inclined to add workers instead of capital? And if that had occurred, might the consumption numbers have been considerably stronger?

David Altig By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed


July 20, 2011 in Business Cycles, Economic Growth and Development, Employment, Forecasts, Saving, Capital, and Investment | Permalink


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This is an excellent contribution to elevating the quality of commentary on the current expansion. It is time to recognize the cycles experienced in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s were fundamentally different from those since. Because of this, the earlier cycles are not part of the relevant benchmark for making comparisons to current behavior. Three cheers for taking them out of the baseline used for comparisons.

Posted by: Douglas Lee | July 21, 2011 at 10:22 AM

Let me ask a supplemental question. Following the '91 recession, the US created something like 20mm jobs. Following the '01 recession, perhaps 8.5mm jobs were created. How many jobs will be created in this decade?

Posted by: stewart sprague | July 21, 2011 at 10:40 AM

The payroll employment chart suggests that just looking at the path for the level of employment from the end of a recession is not the relevant metric. How about looking at net jobs lost during the recession versus net jobs regained during the recovery? Then, the metric captures the essence of what the graph should indicate -- and what the blog offers in words. That the immense job loss of the recent recession is the big difference, and the recent sluggish job creation is akin to recoveries in 1991 and 2001. From this perspective, we have a problem that has been around for a few business cycles.

Posted by: ET_OC | July 21, 2011 at 02:44 PM

The obvious deficiencies in GDP this time have been net exports and government spending.

While the Fed has done its best to promote both, the politicians in Washington have done their best in the opposite direction by promoting an over-valued dollar and reduced federal spending, despite interest rates on the federal debt that are universally lower than during the years of the federal budget surplus.

Posted by: Paul | July 21, 2011 at 04:19 PM

I find it highly annoying that the the obvious is invisible to everyone.

Households were pulling $1.2T/yr of new mortgage debt during the boom 2004-2006. This was all cut off in 2007-2008.

Corporate debt take-on was another $800B/yr during this time, for a $2T/yr stimulus to the economy.


Previous recessions in my life were all prompted by the Fed raising interest rates to throttle debt growth. What killed debt growth this time was the collapse of the ponzi lending structure and the bubble machine it was powering.

Posted by: Troy | July 22, 2011 at 01:58 AM

If you look at percent job losses since peak employment (not only since end of recession), then you can see how bad this recession is. At this point of the cycle after all prior recessions since WWII, the employment has recovered to pre-recession levels. In this recession, we are still 5% down.

Posted by: Nino | July 22, 2011 at 05:29 PM

I look at PAYEMS (see below) and what do I see ? I see PAYEMS moving sideways since 2000/2001 so that after a decade of nonsense we find ourselves with 29,502.4 (Thousands (!)) less jobs than we would have had had the pre-2000/2001 trend continued to date.[1][id]=PAYEMS&log_scales=Left

Posted by: In Hell's Kitchen (NYC) | July 23, 2011 at 09:04 AM

Of course the comparison matter. your comparison against the 1990-91 and 2001 make 2007 look average. When comparing against all post WWII recession/recoveries all three of those recoveries look below average (with all recoveries since 1990 looking very weak indeed). Even then the down-turn was the worst putting the starting point at a very, very low level.

Posted by: RangerHondo | July 26, 2011 at 08:48 AM

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