The Most Important Graphs of 2011

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What is it about graphs and economics? In a discipline where facts are murky and certainty is elusive, graphs offer a bright light of information and a small confidence that the world can be summed up between two axes. So when the BBC asked a group of economists to name their graph of the year, we decided to do the same (so did Wonkblog!). Here, from economists on left and right, and from economic journalists from around the beat, are the graphs of the year. Click through the gallery or scroll down to find the graphs organized under categories including Europe, spending & taxing, and energy.

1. IT'S ALL ABOUT EUROPE

Europe's GDP Falls, Can't Get Up

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"People say Europe is hobbled by too much borrowing and irresponsible debt, but even the most prudent lender in the world is going to go bust if nominal incomes fall 15 percent below trend." -- Matthew Yglesias, Slate

Sweden vs. Finland Yields Show the Power of the "Printer"

Screen Shot 2011-12-20 at 10.03.12 AM.png"A phrase you sometimes hear in financial markets is 'punish the printer.' The idea is that countries that are printing a lot of money will see their currencies dive. But a defining characteristic of 2011 was that markets loved printers. Specifically, countries that were able to print their own money saw their borrowing costs plunge, while countries (even fiscally responsible ones) that didn't have this ability saw their borrowing costs jump.

"My favorite example of this is Sweden vs. Finland. The former is outside of the euro zone and can print its own money; the latter uses the Euro and can't. Historically, the two countries have borrowed money at roughly the same rate. Both are considered to be stable and fiscally disciplined.

"In this chart, the green line is the yield on the Finnish 10-year bond. The orange is the Swedish 10-year bond. Starting in the Spring, Finland began to pay a penalty, but still, the two roughly moved in the same direction. It was in late November, when the European crisis got to its hairiest point (even Germany had a failed auction) that you really saw the difference. Finnish yields spiked at the same time Swedish yields plunged. Investors flocked to the country that could print its own money. This defining idea of 2011 also resulted in ultra-cheap rates in the UK, Japan, and of course the U.S." -- Joseph Weisenthal, Deputy Editor, Business Insider

Italian Yields Show the Danger in Europe
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"No data point better captured the outlook for the global economy over the past year than the yield on 10-year Italian government bonds. The crisis in the euro zone has the potential to have as significant a negative impact on the world economy as the financial panic of 2008, and no single data point better captures its manageability than Italian borrowing costs. Italy is the world's third-largest bond market, and Europe could not allow the crisis to spread from the small economies of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal to the too-big-to-fail-and-save economy of Italy. As euro-zone leaders struggled to get ahead of the situation, markets weighed in in real time on their progress, a process captured in this chart. And as Italy's outlook has grown darker, so too has the prospect for an export-driven recovery in America and a soft landing in emerging markets now buffeted by the withdrawal of bank capital. The world watched this chart in 2011, and will continue to monitor it obsessively in 2012." -- Ryan Avent, The Economist

Europe's Yields Reflect the Euro's Crisis

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"Despite repeated European Summits over the past eighteen months that were supposed to provide definitive resolutions to the European debt crisis and despite enormous IMF-EU bailout packages, government borrowing costs for the European periphery rose to unsustainable levels. More disconcerting yet, by mid-2011, a crisis that had embroiled the smaller countries like Greece, Ireland and Portugal, started knocking on the door of Italy and Spain, which is now calling the very survival of the Euro into question" -- Desmond Lachman, AEI
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2. IT'S ALL ABOUT INVESTMENT


The Investment Drought Continues
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"This recession is marked by a massive investment drought in the U.S., which will have long-term negative consequences. The proof: In the latest quarter, net domestic investment was only 3.3% of net national product, compared to 8.0%  in 2007. There's been a rebound in investment since 2009, but it's been very  mild--far less than the country needs." -- Michael Mandel, chief economist, Progressive Policy Institute

The Investment Collapse

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"These are modified and updated figures originally done by James Hamilton on his terrific Econbrowser blog. The first shows the percent change (logarithmically) in real GDP and in residential investment (both measured from the value of the business cycle peak) averaged over the last ten recessions, with the number of quarters since the start of the recession on the x-axis. The second figure shows the same things for the most recent recession. In the previous recessions, GDP typically reached a low point after two quarters (at a value of 1.6 percent below the peak) and took 5 quarters to return to the pre-recession value. Residential investment typically reached a low point after two quarters (dropping 8.6 percent), but then recovered quickly. Now note what has happened in the most recent recession. Real GDP was down more than 5 percent at the low point and took about 15 quarters after the peak to return to the pre-recession levels.  Most strikingly, residential investment dropped nearly 50 percent and is still near its low 15 quarters after the recession started." -- Ted Gayer is Co-Director of the Economic Studies Program at Brookings and a Senior Fellow.

The Investment Collapse, Part II

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"This chart shows that residential investment usually provides a strong and early contribution to growth post-recession but is not doing so in this recovery. This is in contrast to equipment and software, which is contributing to growth. The lack of robust recovery in the housing market continues to be a significant problem for the economy." -- Adam Ozimek, Modeled Behavior
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3. IT'S ALL ABOUT GROWING, SPENDING & TAXING

Mind the GDP Gap

Screen Shot 2011-12-21 at 1.41.07 PM.png"The economy suffered a severe shock during the recession, with the result that economic activity, represented by the blue line, contracted sharply. Since then, GDP has recovered at a steady pace and now stands above its pre-recession level. However, GDP growth has merely kept pace with its trend (or potential) rate, the red line, which is a function of population growth, changes in labor supply, and productivity growth.  As a result, the gap between what our economy is producing and what it could produce if it were operating at the level implied by the trend has not closed much. The green bars show this unused capacity to have equaled 7.4% - or more than $1 trillion - of potential output in Q3 2011. This unused capacity represents workers who cannot find jobs, idle machinery, and foregone opportunities for growth; in this challenging economy, this chart underscores why we must continue to focus attention on investments in the economic recovery and long-run growth." -- Treasury Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy Dr. Jan Eberly

Real GDP vs. Employment

Screen Shot 2011-12-19 at 6.13.06 PM.png"The chart shows real GDP in the U.S. and the level of total civilian employment from 2002-2011. The total output of the U.S. economy in Q3 of this year finally increased to a level above the output in the fourth quarter of 2007, when the recession started (blue line). In other words, the U.S. economy has now made a complete recovery from the 2007-2009 recession.  But the labor market is still struggling to recover. We have 6.6 million fewer jobs today in the U.S. than in December 2007 when the recession started (red line in chart), along with a 8.6% unemployment rate, and thus another "jobless recovery."  On the other hand, it's remarkable that the U.S. economy is now able to produce more output than in 2007, but is doing so with 6.6 million fewer workers, as a result of significant gains in productivity brought about by the severe recession.  Therefore, the chart helps to tell the story of two different sides of an economy in recovery: we've seen huge gains in productivity and a recovery in output, but at the same time we see a labor market struggling to recover, with the possibility that it will take many more years or even a decade to regain all of the millions of jobs lost during the recession." - Mark J. Perry, Ph.D., visiting fellow, American Enterprise Institute

Tracking the Course of U.S. Debt

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"Greece, Italy, Spain and other countries are suffering from a financial and economic crisis - fueled by unmanageable debt and monetary policy failure - that will surely affect the U.S. economy. As this graph shows, debt held by the public in the U.S. totals about 70 percent of the economy. For the U.S. to avoid going down the same path as Europe, Washington must curb federal spending." --  Emily Goff, Research Assistant, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, Heritage Foundation

Mandatory Spending Out of Control

Screen Shot 2011-12-19 at 7.15.41 PM.png"Since the adoption of President Johnson's Great Society programs, spending on entitlement programs has grown more than five times faster than annually appropriated discretionary spending. The entitlements run on autopilot, with rare congressional oversight. This unsustainable rate of spending threatens to overwhelm the budget and smother the economy." -- Patrick Louis Knudsen, Grover M. Hermann Senior Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Average Tax Levels Won't Keep Up With Spending

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"As this graph shows, under average historical levels of revenue, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will consume all tax revenues by 2049. We must reform these entitlement programs now to make them fiscally sustainable and to ensure that seniors are protected from poverty, without burying younger generations under insurmountable levels of debt." -- Romina Boccia, Research Coordinator, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

It's a Spending Problem, Not a Tax Problem...

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"This graph refutes the claim that inadequate tax revenues are causing America's deficits. Revenues are low due to lingering effects of the recession, but they will surpass their historical average as the economy recovers. Meanwhile, spending is on a runaway train and will rise well above the historical average by the end of the decade. Washington's spending problem is clearly to blame." -- Alison Fraser, Director, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

... Oh, It's a Taxing Problem Alright

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"The federal budget deficit this year will approach 10 percent of GDP, an unsustainable level that will soon push our national debt past 100 percent of GDP. The deficit will shrink rapidly over the next few years, to a manageable 3 percent of GDP, but only if Congress allows the 2001-2010 tax cuts to expire in 2013 as scheduled. If Congress instead extends the tax cuts--and the traditional "extenders"--deficits will not drop below 7 percent of GDP and our debt will soar." -- Roberton Williams, Tax Policy Center

The U.S. Is a Low-Tax Country

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"This chart is a stark illustration of how Washington's recent policies have favored the "1 percent." It shows that the tax rates paid by two cohorts of super-rich Americans (millionaires in red and the richest 400 households in the entire country in blue) have plunged in recent years to historic lows, even as their incomes have skyrocketed.  The fact that the average tax rate of the richest 400 people in the country is just 16.6 percent shows that Warren Buffett is far from the only billionaire paying lower taxes than middle-class Americans." -- Seth Hanlon, director of fiscal policy, Center for American Progress

Low Marginal Tax Rates Don't Create Jobs


"All year long, the country has been engaged in a debate over the best way to spur job creation, especially in the context of widening budget deficits. The year began with a deal to preserve the Bush tax cuts, including those for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, and it concluded with a fight over whether millionaires should pay higher taxes to offset the cost of the payroll tax cut. This chart neatly puts the lie to the notion that lower marginal tax rates for the wealthy will produce enormous job growth by showing that, over the past sixty years, the economy has actually produced far more jobs when the top income tax rate was higher." -- Michael Linden, Director of Tax and Budget Policy, Center for American Progress

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4. ENERGY, ENERGY, ENGERY

Oil Profits v. Oil Prices

big oil profits v prices for oil gas.jpg"Big oil companies make larger profits when oil and gasoline prices are high.  These revenues come from the pockets of everyday Americans.  The five biggest oil companies - BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell - have already made $100 billion in profits during the first three quarters of 2011 due to high oil prices. Yet they and other big oil companies have fought tooth and nail this year to retain tax breaks worth $4 billion annually." -- Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow, Center for American Progress

The Most Disastrous Year Ever
Screen Shot 2011-12-19 at 6.25.17 PM.png"The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that the United States set a record with 12 separate billion dollar weather/climate disasters in 2011.  Total damages were approximately $52 billion.  NOAA Chief Jane Lubchenco noted that "what we are seeing this year is not just an anomalous year, but a harbinger of things to come for at least a subset of those extreme events that we are tallying."  She noted that some of the increase is driven by climate change." -- Dr. Joe Romm, Senior Fellow and Editor of Climate Progress

A Century of Love for Oil and Gas

Screen Shot 2011-12-19 at 6.29.28 PM.png"Many conservatives have attacked the Obama administration's effort to invest in emerging clean energy technologies, including wind and solar electricity generation. Yet they defend longstanding tax breaks for the mature oil and gas (O&G), and nuclear industries. However, the federal government annually spends an average of thirteen times more money on the oil and gas industry compared to investments in renewable energy." -- Richard Caperton, Director of Clean Energy Investment, Center for American Progress

Our Competitors' Green Investments

"On the two-year anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we should look back with satisfaction that we have seen the American clean energy industry through a rough period in the global economy. However, the United States risks ceding its gains and falling dangerously behind its competitors without continuing investment.  Many conservatives oppose such investments.   Without it, the United States will see an exodus of firms and capital to countries that  are growing their clean tech industries, particularly China and Germany. U.S. private-sector firms lament a lack of clear and consistent policy on clean energy. This stymies investment and slows job creation." -- Bracken Hendricks, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

Where the Green Jobs Are

highest rates of green job growth.jpg"The failure of several clean energy companies that received loan guarantees have many conservatives increasing their opposition to such investments.  However, clean energy has been a bright spot in the sluggish economy.  The clean economy sector focused on clean energy--especially wind, solar, fuel cell, smart grid, biofuel, and battery companies--grew far more quickly than the economy as a whole. A Brookings Institution report found major job growth in clean energy between 2003 and 2010: Solar thermal and wind grew by 18.4 percent and 14.9 percent, respectively." -- Kate Gordon, Vice President for Energy Policy, Center for American Progress
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5. IT'S ALL ABOUT THE INCOME

The Rich Get Richer

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"There was a moment of synchronicity between a report years in the making from the economic wonks at CBO and the activists planning on occupying a square near Wall Street. Both turned critical attention towards the idea of the 1%. As CBO found, even after taxes and transfers, the top 1% were taking a much bigger slice out of the America economy than 30 years ago. Meanwhile corporate and Wall Street profits are up, giving the 1% a nice boost, while 2011 was a lost year for the American worker - adding to the sense the something is broken with the American income distribution." -- Mike Konczal, Roosevelt Institute, Rortybomb Blog

The Rich Pay Almost All Federal Income Taxes

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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