Investment Is Depressed, and Consumption Isn’t

I’m mystified by Dean Baker’s claim, in his latest entry, that “Non-residential investment is back to its pre-recession level of GDP.”

According to figures available here (through 2010, the latest figures that I can find), inflation-adjusted net non-residential investment in 2010 was down 68 percent from its 2006 level, and down 72 percent from its 2007 level.

I’m mystified also by Dean’s claim that consumption spending is still down. Adjusting for inflation, and using the data available here, real personal consumption expenditures in the third quarter of 2011 (the latest period for which such data are available) were slightly higher than they were during the third quarter of 2007 (the final full quarter before the start of the recession).

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Dangerous Waffle about “the” Liquidity Trap by Tim Congdon

    Tim Congdon argues that John Maynard Keynes’ latter-day followers have badly misinterpreted the theorist they profess to follow. Led by Paul Krugman, Keynesians have claimed that a near-zero Federal Funds rate is indicative of a liquidity trap. This diagnosis has several problems. First, it is not what Keynes meant by the term; second, even a rate of zero percent does not exhaust monetary policy; and third, a genuine Keynesian liquidity trap has not happened and cannot plausibly happen, in part but not solely because Keynes assumed constant prices throughout the economy, a condition that is unlikely in the face of a rising money supply. Congdon commends to readers Milton Friedman’s monetary prescription: a gradually and predictably rising supply of money, not the wild swings we have seen in recent years.

Response Essays

  • Keynes and the Current Crisis by Dean Baker

    Dean Baker argues that Keynesians have not given up on monetary policy. Although the federal funds rate can’t go negative, the Federal Reserve can still set a higher inflation target, a solution both he and Paul Krugman endorse. Alongside monetary policy, Baker recommends fiscal policy: The recent economic stimulus legislation worked as intended, he argues, although the recession was more severe than the administration anticipated, and thus the stimulus proved to be too small. Policymakers have a duty to try to return the country to full employment, as the unemployed, who are suffering the most in the current crisis, are not to blame for their troubles.

  • Keynes, Friedman, and Higgs by Donald J. Boudreaux

    Don Boudreaux agrees with Congdon that a monetarist policy approach would be preferable, but he draws our attention to a third relevant consideration: regime uncertainty, as described by the economist Robert Higgs. When businesses are uncertain about the major economic decisions of governments and central banks, they will defer new investments and retain cash rather than hiring new workers. Neither monetarism nor Keynesianism does anything to address the problem, which Keynes himself conceded was real.

  • Tim Congdon on Liquidity Traps vs. Portfolio Rebalancing by Robert Hetzel

    Robert Hetzel reiterates that a zero lower bound for interest rates is a different phenomenon from a liquidity trap. The latter is an “irrelevant academic construct” as long as the central bank can create new money. Still, we learn little from this distinction unless we can determine the nature of the initial shock that caused pessimism among market participants; different types of shocks, monetary and real, call for different remedies. Central banks rarely use the analytical tools that would be necessary for them to evaluate their own roles in economically rigorous ways; instead, they tend to blame difficult times on the private sector, while taking credit for good ones.

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