Why Have Recoveries Been So Miserable the Past 20 Years?

Recoveries have been getting weaker and weaker because that's how the Fed wants them


It's time to talk about everybody's least favorite Davos buzzword -- New Normal.

With GDP unexpectedly contracting 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 (though the private sector mostly kept up, despite the obstacles we've thrown in its way), it's enough to make you wonder if this time really is different. In other words, has the economy settled into a, well, new normal of slower growth?

If it has, it's not quite new, at least when it comes to recoveries. As you can see in this Minneapolis Fed chart of job gains following recessions, something changed after 1981. Recoveries went from being V-shaped affairs characterized by rapid bouncebacks in employment to U-shaped ones better described as nasty, brutish, and long.

(Note: I excluded the recovery from the 1980 recession, because the double-dip in 1981 cut it short).


The story of the jobless recovery is one of what the Fed isn't doing. As Paul Krugman points out, recessions have become post-(or perhaps pre-) modern. Through the 1980s, postwar recessions happened when the Fed decided to raise rates to head off inflation, and recoveries happened when the Fed decided things had tamed down enough to lower rates. But now recessions happen when bubbles burst, with financial deregulation and the global savings glut making these more of a recurring feature of our economy, and the Fed hasn't been able to cut interest rates enough to generate strong post-crash recoveries. Or maybe it hasn't wanted to.

Here's a stupid question. Why have interest rates and inflation mostly been falling for the past 30 years? In other words if the Fed has been de facto, and later de jure, targeting inflation for most of this period (and it has), why has inflation been on a down trend (and it has)? As you can see in the chart below, core PCE inflation, which excludes food and energy costs, fell substantially from the Reagan recovery through the bursting tech bubble, and has more or less held steady since, though a bit more on the less side recently.

Say hello to "opportunistic disinflation." Okay, let's translate this from Fed-ese. Remember, the Fed is supposed to target 2 percent inflation, meaning it raises rates when prices rise by more than that much and lowers them once the economy's cooled off enough, but it wasn't always so. Back in the mid-1980s, inflation was hovering around 4 percent, a major achievement following the stagflation of the previous decade, but the Fed wanted it to go lower -- here's the crucial bit -- without taking the blame for it. The Volcker Fed had come in for quite a bit of abuse when it whipped inflation at the expense of the severe 1981-82 downturn, and the Fed seems to have learned it was better not to leave its fingerprints on the business cycle.

In other words, Let recessions do their dirty work for them.

It's not hard for central bankers to get what they want without doing anything, as long as what they want is less inflation (and that's almost always what central bankers want). They just have to wait for a recession to come along ... and then keep waiting until inflation falls to where they want it. Then, once prices have declined enough for their taste, they cut rates (or buy bonds) to stabilize inflation at this new, lower level. But it's one thing to stabilize inflation at a lower level; it's another to keep it there. The Fed has to raise rates faster than it otherwise would during the subsequent recovery to keep inflation from going back to where it was before the recession. It's what the Fed calls "opportunistic disinflation," and it's hard to believe this wasn't their strategy looking at falling inflation the previous few decades. Not that we have to guess. Fed president Edward Boehene actually laid out this approach in 1989, and Fed governor Laurence Meyer endorsed the idea of "reducing inflation cycle-to-cycle" in a 1996 speech -- the same year the Wall Street Journal leaked an internal Fed memo outlining the policy.

In short: Recoveries have been jobless, because that's how the Fed likes them.

But it gets worse. Pushing inflation progressively lower means recoveries get progressively weaker, since the Fed has to choke off inflation, and hence the recovery, at lower and lower levels. Now, to be fair, the Fed, and Ben Bernanke in particular, have awoken to the dangers of this approach. The danger, of course, is that the Fed gets in a situation where short-term rates are stuck at zero, but the economy stays stuck in a slump. Sound familiar? Bernanke realized this was a threat in 2002 when the economy was flirting with deflation despite 1.34 interest rates, and vowed not to let it happen here. (Remember, "disinflation" means falling inflation, and "deflation" means negative inflation).

The Fed, of course, did let it happen here. But it didn't let prices actually start to fall, which would make debt and borrowing more expensive at the worst possible moment, due to the Fed's bond-buying and to wages that are sticky downwards. Bernanke got the Fed to accept that opportunistic disinflation had gone too far with QE1 and QE2, but it's not clear that he's gotten them to give up on the idea altogether. Core inflation has settled in below 2 percent, and the Fed's economic projections don't show it rising above that level anytime soon. That's pushed nominal GDP growth -- the growth of the total size of the economy -- down to 4 percent for each of the past three years; a low level the Fed is apparently comfortable with. Bernanke seems to be trying to shift the consensus towards undoing some of this disinflation -- unlike previous rounds of bond-buying, QE3 was aimed at lowering unemployment, and not stopping lower prices, while the Evans rule explicitly says the Fed will tolerate inflation up to 2.5 percent -- but there's been no shift in the data so far. The Fed needs to realize there is no try when it comes to reflation. It has to promise to do whatever it takes.

The new normal doesn't have to be new or normal if the Fed doesn't want it to be.