In recent weeks, and particularly in last week's ISM, employment claims and unemployment reports, we've observed a substantial weakening in measures of economic growth. At present, the evidence of economic deterioration is not severe - as I noted in 2000, 2007 and last summer, recession evidence is best obtained from a syndrome of conditions, including the behavior of the yield curve, credit spreads, stock prices, production, and employment growth. While all of these components have weakened, they have not deteriorated to the extent that has (always) accompanied the onset of recessions.
To a large extent, the current softening of economic conditions is really nothing more than the recrudescence of the deterioration we saw last summer. Basically, we're coming up on the can that the Fed kicked down the road when it initiated QE2. While the Fed was successful in releasing a modest amount of pent-up demand, and was certainly successful in provoking speculative activity, there was never a realistic prospect of creating a beneficial "wealth effect" for the economy as a whole. The historical evidence is emphatic that people consume off of perceived "permanent income" - not off of volatile dollars. Wealth is driven by the creation of long-term cash flows through productive investment, not by boosting the valuation of existing cash flows by encouraging speculation. There was no reason for people to take much of a permanent signal from fluctuations in a stock market that has lost more than half of its value twice in a decade (and is likely to lose a good chunk of its value again if history is of any indication).
So while the Fed has been successful in fostering speculation, further impoverishing the world's poor through commodity price increases, and subsidizing banks by driving funding costs to zero (at the expense of the risk averse and the elderly), QE2 has clearly failed from an economic standpoint. This failure is not because we haven't given it enough time, or because monetary policy works with a lag. Rather, the policy has failed because it focused on easing constraints (bank reserves, short-term interest rates) that weren't binding in the first place. Very simply, neither the Fed's policy, nor the fiscal policy initiatives to date, address the central challenge that the U.S. economy faces, which is the debt burden on households.
The salient problem in the U.S. economy isn't the precise level of already low mortgage rates. It isn't "uncertainty" about taxes or health care. The problem is that people aren't spending as they did in recent decades, because that spending was largely debt-financed, and the pressures now run in the opposite direction. We still haven't restructured mortgage debt on millions of homes that are underwater. Property values are hitting new lows. Hundreds of thousands of properties are delinquent and yet the mortgages are being carried by the banking system at face value. Banks, knowing this, are clearly reluctant to extend their balance sheets further. Government deficits of nearly 10% of GDP are presently required to cover the gap in private incomes and spending. Indeed, most of what we observe as personal income growth is attributable to transfer payments from government.
To be clear, I believe that about 90% of the economy is functioning reasonably well (in the typical range of what is experienced over an economic cycle), but 10% of it is in extreme difficulty well outside what is seen in the normal cycle, and is only floating thanks to deficit spending that is unsustainable in the long-term and increasingly under pressure in the short-term. The problem is that we measure severe recessions as declines in GDP on the order of 2% or so. Without addressing the central problem of household indebtedness and underwater mortgages, the economic growth we get may not be robust enough to avoid more frequent recessions and near-recessions.