Neil Irwin, a writer for the NYT Upshot section, had an interesting debate with himself about the likely future course of the economy. He got the picture mostly right in my view, with a few important qualifications.
First, his negative scenario is another recession and possibly a financial crisis. I know a lot of folks are saying this stuff, but it's frankly a little silly. The basis of the last financial crisis was a massive amount of debt issued against a hugely over-valued asset (housing). A financial crisis that actually rocks the economy needs this sort of basis.
If a lot of people are speculating in the stock of Uber or other wonder companies, and reality wipes them out, this is just a story of some speculators being wiped out. It is not going to shake the economy as a whole. (San Francisco's economy could take a serious hit.)
Anyhow, financial crises don't just happen, there has to be a real basis for them. To me, the housing bubble was pretty obvious given the unprecedented and unexplained run-up in prices in the largest market in the world. Perhaps there is another bubble out there like this, but neither Irwin nor anyone else has even identified a serious candidate. Until someone can at least give us their candidate bubble, we need not take the financial crisis story seriously.
If we take this collapse story off the table, then we need to reframe the negative scenario. It is not a sudden plunge in output, but rather a period of slow growth and weak job creation. This seems like a much more plausible story.
As Irwin notes, the rising dollar and weak economies of U.S. trading partners are reducing net exports for the country. This is likely to be a drag on growth through the rest of this year and well into 2016. Non-residential investment growth has slowed to a crawl, and with a lot of vacant office space in many markets (look around downtown D.C.), it may slow further. In spite of all the whining about people being unwilling to spend, consumption is actually quite high relative to disposable income.
This doesn't leave much to drive growth. We have been stuck at a weak pace of just over 2.0 percent for the last five years. This has been associated with decent job creation only because of the collapse of productivity growth over this period. It is reasonable to think that growth may slow further. If slower growth were coupled with even a modest uptick in productivity growth (e.g. to 1.5 percent), it could bring job growth to a halt.
This would leave us with an indefinite period of labor market weakness. The unemployment rate may not go up much, but we will make no headway towards bringing the employment to population ratio back to a more normal level. And most workers would continue to see their pay stagnate.
We got a piece of evidence supporting this bad story yesterday when the Labor Department released the Employment Cost Index (ECI) for the third quarter. Instead of the prospect of rising wages, that has folks at the Fed worried, the ECI showed wage and compensation rates slowing from earlier in the year. Over the last year, total hourly compensation has risen 2.0 percent, with wages rising 2.1 percent. There is zero evidence here of any acceleration.
Anyhow, a story of slow job growth and ongoing wage stagnation would look like a pretty bad story to most of the country. It may not be as dramatic as a financial crisis that brings the world banking system to its knees, but it is far more likely and therefore something that we should be very worried about.