Strategic Analysis | April 2014

Is Rising Inequality a Hindrance to the US Economic Recovery?

The US economy has been expanding moderately since the official end of the Great Recession in 2009. The budget deficit has been steadily decreasing, inflation has remained in check, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 6.7 percent. The restrictive fiscal policy stance of the past three years has exerted a negative influence on aggregate demand and growth, which has been offset by rising domestic private demand; net exports have had only a negligible (positive) effect on growth.
As Wynne Godley noted in 1999, in the Strategic Analysis Seven Unsustainable Processes, if an economy faces sluggish net export demand and fiscal policy is restrictive, economic growth becomes dependent on the private sector’s continuing to spend in excess of its income. However, this continuous excess is not sustainable in the medium and long run. Therefore, if spending were to stop rising relative to income, without either fiscal relaxation or a sharp recovery in net exports, the impetus driving the expansion would evaporate and output could not grow fast enough to stop unemployment from rising. Moreover, because growth is so dependent on “rising private borrowing,” the real economy “is at the mercy of the stock market to an unusual extent.” As proved by the crisis of 2001 and the Great Recession of 2007–09, Godley’s analysis turned out to be correct.
Fifteen years later, the US economy appears to be going down the same road again. Postrecession, foreign demand is still weak and the government is maintaining its tight fiscal stance. Once again, the recovery predicted in the latest Congressional Budget Office report relies on excessive private sector borrowing, and once again, the recovery is at the mercy of the stock market. Given that the income distribution has worsened since the crisis—continuing a 35-year trend—the burden of indebtedness will again fall disproportionally on the middle class and the poor. In order for the CBO projections to materialize, households in the bottom 90 percent of the distribution would have to start accumulating debt again in line with the prerecession trend while the stock of debt of the top 10 percent remained at its present level. Clearly, this process is unsustainable. The United States now faces a choice between two undesirable outcomes: a prolonged period of low growth—secular stagnation—or a bubble-fueled expansion that will end with a serious financial and economic crisis. The only way out of this dilemma is a reversal of the trend toward greater income inequality.  

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