Relax! The U.S. Recovery Is Just Getting Started
The National Bureau of Economic Research marked the end of the last recession at June 2009. Similarly, the stock market hit bottom in the first half of 2009. The four-week moving average of initial jobless claims peaked in April that year. And the unemployment rate peaked in October. All of these suggest a broad-based trough at some point during 2009, making the economic expansion at least seven years old by now.
But given the severity of the financial crisis and the shock to the economy, the beginning of the recovery was not like moving from recession to expansion. It was more like moving from depression to recession. Rather than a normal business cycle in which four steps forward are followed by two steps back, the Great Recession was more like five steps back. Should the ensuing first two or three steps count as part of the next expansion, or something else?
The growth in the early part of this recovery was abnormal. Part of it was caused by government fiscal stimulus, which proved to be inadequate and was then followed by federal, state and local austerity. Part of it was caused by a "dead cat bounce," as output fell so hard, below consumption in industries like the auto sector, that a certain amount of recovery was inevitable as producers had to increase output merely to match consumption. And then some part of the recovery was caused by the energy sector and the boom in fracking, a localized boom that eventually went bust.
The missing piece was housing, the bread and butter of the American economy. The Housing Market Index from the National Association of Home Builders didn't begin to increase from depressed levels until October 2011. Similarly, single-family-building permits didn't begin to increase from depressed levels until 2011. It's here, in late 2011, that I would claim the current expansion began, making it barely five years old, quite young in the context of a downturn that lasted four or five years rather than just two.
Ultimately, housing is the driver of the U.S. economy, which is why any understanding of the recovery of the economy must factor in the recovery of housing. Single-family-building permits peaked in the second half of 2005. Subprime mortgage originators started going bankrupt in 2007, the same time that housing prices started falling significantly. Outside of globally attractive real estate markets like San Francisco, New York and Miami, housing prices and activity continued to fall well into 2011.
The early years of the housing recovery, from 2010 to 2012, were more driven by investors and institutions buying foreclosures and investment properties with cash than by owner-occupiers coming back to the market. In the past few years, housing demand has been soaking up inventory created during the bubble years and pushing home prices back toward their mid-2000s levels. First-time home-buying remains below normal.
Only now are we seeing tertiary markets like exurban areas start to expand again, and construction remains below the level of household formation. One of the metro areas that was a poster child of the housing bubble, the Riverside-San Bernardino metro area in Southern California, is still building 80 percent fewer single family homes than it was at the peak of the last cycle.
This doesn't mean that a recovery is a recovery only if every sector bounces back in unison. The energy sector has already busted. As millennials start to buy homes in larger numbers, we may have a temporary glut of apartments. Silicon Valley startups may retrench. Corporations may end up over-borrowing in response to a boom in demand for their debt, leading to a debt restructuring. But barring a major fiscal or monetary policy error, this cycle of expansion, which is more like an adolescent than a senior citizen, could continue on for many more years.
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