November 29, 2017 Patrick Oliver-Kelley

Fed Chairman Janet Yellen is still inclined to raise interest rates gradually seeking to balance the risks of moving too fast or too slowly. The Fed is widely expected to raise its benchmark rate by a quarter of a percentage point at its final policy meeting of the year in mid-December. The rate now sits in a range of 1 percent to 1.25 percent.

Unemployment has fallen to 4.1 percent as of October, which the Fed regards as a little lower than the minimum level that can be sustained without spurring inflation.

On the other hand, the Fed sees little reason to rush. The economy is not overheating, inflation is below 2 percent, and the Fed does not want to stall growth.

Candidate Trump made aggressive claims about growing the U.S. economy. In a speech to the Economic Club of New York on Sept. 15, Trump asserted that his economic plan would raise U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) by more than 4 percent per year. The next month, he stepped up that claim during the third presidential debate saying: “And I actually think we can go higher than 4 percent. I think you can go to 5 percent or 6 percent.”

For the record, the United States has not seen consistent economic growth of 5-6 percent since the 1940s, or 4 percent since the 1950s and 1960s. Growth in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s was only slightly above 3 percent. Since 2000, it has been less than that, at 1.6 percent. For the next decade, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has projected U.S. GDP growth of approximately 2 percent per year.

Trump’s proposed fiscal policy of tax cuts and increased government spending are not likely to result in a sustained increase in GDP expansion. We would like to be wrong on this point, but to date we evaluate Trump’s fiscal proposals as unlikely to overcome major headwinds of high debt, low productivity growth and stagnant workforce growth. The latter two have not generally been negative headwinds, but rather have been strong tailwinds for growth for most of U.S. history — so strong that the pernicious negatives of debt were masked when debt-to-income levels were lower than exist today.

U.S. private debt relative to GDP has been increasing almost steadily for the past 65 years. Since 2000, government debt has also surged. This has resulted in total U.S. private and federal government debt accumulation in excess of $58 trillion, about equal to three times annual GDP or income. A major red flag is that the recent growth rate of total debt continues to exceed the growth rate of nominal GDP, signaling subpar investment outcomes and the burdensome weight of the accumulated debt load. Our worry is that Trump’s fiscal expansion will exacerbate this debt cycle and actually work to suppress long-term economic growth.

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