How Fast Should the United States Economy be Growing?

According to The Economist, “In the three years since the end of the recession in mid-2009, growth averaged 2.2 percent, barely half the 4.2 percent average of the seven previous recoveries.” This begs the question: How fast should the economy be growing?

Economists, academics, and policy makers have been trying to figure that out. Many have started with an economic theory put forward by noted economist Milton Friedman in 1964. His “Plucking Model” postulates the business cycle is like a string attached to a board. The board represents “the ceiling of maximum feasible output.” Once in a while, the string is plucked down by recession and then it springs back. The idea is the depth of a recession will be mirrored by the strength of the recovery that follows.

At first blush, the Plucking Model doesn’t appear to apply to this recovery. The Great Recession was the deepest downturn since World War II, and the country hasn’t snapped back. According to several recent reports, there may be a reason for this. The ‘ceiling of optimal output’ – the fastest rate at which the economy is expected to grow – may be lower than it used to be. 

  • Productivity and Potential Output Before, During, and After the Great Recession, a working paper from the San Francisco Federal Reserve, found growth in the U.S. was slowing in the mid-2000s although the slowdown was largely unrecognised before the Great Recession.
  • What Accounts for the Slow Growth of the Economy After the Recession, a Congressional Budget Office study, determined about two-thirds of the difference between America’s current growth rate and the average growth after previous recoveries is due to long-term trends including demographic changes. The other one-third is credited to low demand for goods and services.
  • Disentangling the Channels of the 2007-2009 Recessions, by James Stock of Harvard University and Mark Watson of Princeton University, also found slower growth in the U.S. is largely the result of demographic trends such as a limited labour supply as Baby Boomers have begun to retire and the number of women joining the workforce has levelled off. 

Considered together, the reports seem to indicate U.S. economic growth (and that of the U.K) began slowing before the recession and, unless demographic trends shift, the U.S. and our own country, may continue to experience slower growth.