US GDP Output Gap Update – Q1 2016
Among our favorite indicators to write about is the GDP output gap. Today we update it with the latest Q1 2016 GDP data. We’ve written about it many times in the past (some recent examples: 09/30/2015, 12/27/2014, and 06/06/2014). It is the standard for representing economic slack in most other developed countries but is usually overlooked in the United States in favor of the gap between the unemployment rate and full employment (also called NAIRU (link is external). This is partially because the US Federal Reserve’s FOMC has one half of its main goal to promote ‘full employment’ (along with price stability) but it is also partially because the unemployment rate makes the economy look better, which is always popular to promote. In past US business cycles, these two gaps had a close linear relationship (Okun’s law (link is external) and so normally they were interchangeable, yet, in this recovery, the unemployment rate suggests much more progression than the GDP output gap.
The unemployment gap now, looked at on its face, would imply that the US is at full employment; i.e., the unemployment rate is 5% and full employment is considered to be 5%. Thus, this implies that the US economy is right on the verge of generating inflation pressure. Yet, the unemployment rate almost certainly overstates the health of the economy because of a sharp increase over the last many years of unemployed surveys claiming they are not involved in the workforce (i.e. not looking for a job). From the beginning of the last recession, November 2007, the share of adults claiming to be in the workforce has fallen by 3.0% of the adult population, or 7.6 million people of today’s population! Those 7.6 million simply claiming to be looking for a job would send the unemployment rate up to 9.4%!. In other words, this metric’s strength is heavily reliant on whether people say they are looking for a job or not, and many could switch if the economy was better. Thinking about this in a very simplistic way; a diminishing share of the population working still has to support the entire population and without offsetting higher real wages, this pattern is regressive to the economy. The unemployment rate’s strength misses this.
Adding to the evidence that the unemployment rate is overstating the health of the economy is the mismatch between the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) household survey (unemployment rate) and the establishment survey (non-farm payroll number). Analyzing the growth in non-farm payrolls over the period of recovery (and adjusting for aging demographics) suggests that the US economy still has a gap to full employment of about 1.5 million jobs; this is the Hamilton Project’s Jobs Gap (link is external).
But, the labor market is a subset of the economy, and while its indicators are much more accessible and frequent than measurements on the entire economy, the comprehensive GDP output gap merits being part of the discussion on the economy. Even with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) revising potential GDP lower each year, the GDP output gap (chart) continues to suggest a dis-inflationary economy, let alone a far away date when the Federal Reserve needs to raise rates to restrict growth. This analysis suggests a completely different path for the Fed funds rate than the day-to-day hysterics over which and how many meetings the Fed will raise rates this year. This analysis is the one that has worked, not the “aspirational” economics that most practice.
In an asset management context, US Treasury interest rates tend to trend lower when there is an output gap and trend higher when there is an output surplus. This simple, yet overlooked rule has helped to guide us to stay correctly long US Treasuries over the last several years while the Wall Street community came up with any reason why they were a losing asset class. We continue to think that US Treasury interest rates have significant appreciation ahead of them. As we have stated before, we think the 10yr US Treasury yield will fall to 1.00% or below.