On Friday I reported that the European Central Bank has downgraded its growth forecast for the euro zone. This wraps up a summer of bad economic news from Europe, all together showing that there is no recovery under way. At the same time, as I have explained in a series of blogs elsewhere (Ode to the American Economy, parts one, two and three), the United States continues its sleepwalk out of the Great Recession.
The differences between the U.S. and EU economies are striking. A review of the most recent Eurostat quarterly national accounts data shows that the American economy is not only outgrowing its European counterpart, but it is also in the healthier position of being dominated by consumer spending.
Let us begin with GDP growth (using the single-currency euro zone as the proxy for Europe):
Over the past 20 years for which Eurostat provides quarterly, inflation-adjusted data, there are three episodes where the United States outgrows Europe. The first episode was the heydays of the ’90s, when our unemployment was trending below four percent. Europe was struggling with twice as high unemployment rates and, in fairness, the remaining issues with Europe’s reunification. That said, with the right fiscal policies the 18 current euro-zone countries could easily have enjoyed the same forceful growth as the U.S. economy was producing.
The second episode of faster U.S. growth comes between the Millennium and Great Recessions. Many would attribute this to the housing bubble, and I am inclined to agree to some extent. However, it is important not to forget the Bush tax cuts, which in two phases – 2001 and 2003 – created a one-two punch of multiplier and accelerator effects on economic activity.
Unfortunately, this was also a period of excessive federal spending. The U.S. government grew its budget by 6.7 percent per year, on average, from 2001 to 2009, with the heaviest spending growth allocated to the latter half of that period. Indirectly, this drew resources away from private-sector growth, which partly explains the weakening of GDP growth from the top in early 2004.
As for Europe, the bump in growth right before the Great Recession is not easily explained. As shown in the two charts below, neither consumption nor exports were strong enough to produce that bump.
The third episode of American dominance is the one we are in right now. Amazingly, at a GDP growth rate mostly below 2.5 percent per year, we are leaving Europe in the dust. The difference is easily explained: after the serious dip early in the recession, U.S. fiscal policy has basically been neutral, with only marginal movements in taxes and spending. In fact, after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama has been the fiscally most frugal president since before Reagan. The states have also held back their spending, and even though most states still struggle with budget problems the overall trend in taxation is weakly in favor of lower taxes.
From this viewpoint the American economy has actually for the most part benefited from the Congressional deadlock and President Obama’s passion for playing golf. Our federal government is doing the American economy a favor by doing nothing. It would of course, be better if they cut taxes, reformed away entitlement programs and deregulated, but in lieu of that it is better that they continue to do nothing while we go about our business and slowly bring this economy back to something that resembles full employment.
Europe, on the other hand, is continuing to suffer from years of government-saving austerity. Their tax hikes and spending cuts have been motivated by a desire to keep as much as possible of the welfare state through the Great Recession, with little or no regard for what happens to the private sector. The European people and their businesses are now paying the price in the form of almost zero growth, eleven percent unemployment and a grim outlook on the future.
Adding insult to this national-accounts injury, the next chart shows the role of private consumption in each of the two economies:
There is a simple way to show the importance of private consumption in an economy. Subtract GDP growth from the growth rate of private consumption per period observed, in this case quarters. Sum up the difference per period and divide by the number of periods. If the resulting number is negative, it means that GDP grows faster on average than private consumption; if it is positive the opposite is true. An economy where consumption grows at least as fast as GDP is an economy where the consumer is the key economic agent, where he enjoys a high degree of economic freedom and where, therefore, the free market is a major player in the rest of the economy. In a consumption-drivene economy, the dominating end purpose of productive economic activity is to win over consumer spending on a free market, hence private businesses have to operate as free-market entities as well.
The U.S. consumption growth ratio is 1.3, meaning that for the period observed here, private consumption growth exceeds GDP growth by 1.3 percent per quarter, on average. By contrast, the euro-zone economy has a ratio of -0.7, showing that growth is driven by other variables than private consumption.
Is that “other variable” exports? Let’s take a look:
Interestingly, since the Millennium Recession there has been no major difference in the growth rate of U.S. exports and exports from euro-zone countries. The growth rates are high, especially compared to GDP growth, which means that for the slow-growing euro-zone economy the exports sector has helped keep growth up. This explains why GDP in the euro-zone countries outgrow their own private consumption, but since strong exports growth does not translate into household spending (if it did, private consumption would grow on par with exports) this means that the euro-zone economies are increasingly dependent on foreign markets to grow at all.
With its strong private-consumption growth, the U.S. economy has a big leg up on the European economy. We are, simply, a domestically dominated economy and are much less vulnerable to ups and downs of the international business cycle. Europe’s GDP, on the other hand, basically stands and falls with spending on other continents.
Furthermore, with as big a government sector as the Europeans have, their austerity policies which raise taxes – thus diminish the private sector – and cut government spending actually depress GDP in two ends.
The compounded effect on GDP is, as shown here, rather depressing. Pun intended.