I disagree with the economic pessimists who believe, as I outlined in yesterday’s column, that persistently slow growth will be the norm for years to come.
Yes, huge federal government deficits and debt are a major drag. It’s also true that budget surpluses aren't likely to materialize to shrink the $17 trillion-plus national debt, even if growth resumes.
Nevertheless, there is a strong possibility that government debt relative to gross domestic product will fall appreciably, as it did after World War II. Back then, deficits were relatively small, so GDP outran gross federal debt. The debt-to-GDP ratio dropped from 122 percent in 1946 to 43 percent 20 years later.
The ratio fell even further in the late 1960s and 1970s as inflation, caused by rapidly rising federal spending on Vietnam and Great Society programs, pushed taxpayers into higher tax brackets and filled government coffers. Higher corporate-tax revenues also resulted from under-depreciation and inventory profits.
A more recent example of a reduction of the federal debt-to-GDP ratio came in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton. Robust nominal growth of 5.5 percent a year caused deficits to shrink so much that small surpluses existed in fiscal years 1998 to 2001. Federal tax receipts rose 7 percent on average, faster than nominal GDP, and outlays grew slower, at 3.6 percent. The dot-com bubble lifted individual income-tax receipts at an 8 percent annual rate and corporate taxes by 8.3 percent a year.
I believe much of today’s new technology -- the Internet, biotechnology, semiconductors, wireless devices, robotics and 3-D printers -- is in its infancy. Collectively, they have the potential to rivalthe rapid growth and productivity-generating effect of the American industrial revolution and railroads in the late 1800s. Mass-produced autos and the electrification of factories and homes, which led to electric appliances and radio in the 1920s, offer yet more examples. Today, only a third of the world’s population is connected to the Internet but 90 percent live within range of a cellular network.
Sure, productivity (output per hour worked) grew by only 1.5 percent from 2009 to 2012, but that’s normal after a severe recession. I expect it to return to a 2.5 percent annual growth rate -- or more -- after deleveraging is completed in another four years or so. Even in the 1930s, productivity averaged 2.4 percent a year, higher than in the Roaring '20s. In the 1930s, much of the new technology from the 1920s -- electrification and mass production -- was adopted despite the Great Depression.
This article arrived with the subscriber’s comment: “This view from Gary Shilling seems well based on historical data. I suspect it’s in line with your thoughts too.”
Absolutely, although I have not had all of Gary Shilling’s numbers to support it but the key premises are similar: 1) Several years of deleveraging following a financial crisis slow GDP growth significantly, and government debt rises; 2) Recovery time will vary among countries, subject to governance, but will become apparent between 5 to 10 years after the financial crisis for most of them; 3) What I have described in recent years as ‘the accelerating rate of technological innovation’ will be the most important factor contributing to our next secular bull market;
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