Is America on the road to zero growth?
Summary: Experts have a wide range of forecasts for America’s economy. Rapid growth, leading to the singularity. Slow growth, the muddle-through economy. An no growth. Each of these poses different challenges for America. All of these look plausible. Here we look at the darkest of three these scenarios, sketched out by Jeremy Grantham. At the end are links to more information.
Excerpt from “On the Road to Zero Growth“
By Jeremy Grantham
GMO Quarterly Letter, November 2012
Summary of the forecast
The U.S. GDP growth rate that we have become accustomed to for over a hundred years – in excess of 3% a year – is not just hiding behind temporary setbacks. It is gone forever. Yet most business people (and the Fed) assume that economic growth will recover to its old rates.
Going forward, GDP growth (conventionally measured) for the U.S. is likely to be about only 1.4% a year, and adjusted growth about 0.9%.
Population growth that peaked in the U.S. at over 1.5% a year in the 1970s will bob along at less than half a percent. This is pretty much baked into the demographic pie. After adjusting for fewer hours worked per person, man-hours worked annually are likely to be growing at only 0.2% a year.
Productivity in manufacturing has been high and is expected to stay high, but manufacturing is now only 9% of the U.S. economy, down from 24% in 1900 and 15% in 1990. It is on its way to only 5% by 2040 or so. There is a limit as to how much this small segment can add to total productivity.
Growth in service productivity in contrast is low and declining. Total productivity is calculated to be just 1.3% through 2030, if we use current accounting methods.
However, current accounting cannot accurately handle rising resource costs. Spending $150-$200 a barrel in offshore Brazil in the future to deliver the same barrel of oil that cost the Saudis $10 will result perversely in a huge increase in (Brazilian) GDP. In reality rising resource costs should be counted as a squeeze on the balance of the economy, as they lower our total utility.
Measuring the non-resource balance of the economy produces the correct effect. The share of resource costs rose by an astonishing 4% of total GDP between 2002 and today. It thus reduced the growth of the nonresource part of GDP by fully 0.4% a year.
Resource costs have been rising, conservatively, at 7% a year since 2000. If this is maintained in a world growing at under 4% and a developed world at under 1.5% it is easy to see how the squeeze will intensify.
The price rise might even accelerate as cheap resources diminish. If resources increase their costs at 9% a year, the U.S. will reach a point where all of the growth generated by the economy is used up in simply obtaining enough resources to run the system. It would take just 11 years before the economic system would be in reverse! If, on the other hand, our resource productivity increases, or demand slows, cost increases may decelerate to 5% a year, giving us 31 years to get our act together. Of course, with extraordinary, innovative breakthroughs we might do even better, but we certainly shouldn’t count on that. (Bear in mind that we don’t even know precisely why the prices started to rise so sharply in 2000.) Excessive optimism and doing little could be extremely dangerous.
For a few years fracking will add helpfully to growth: my guess is that the benefit will peak at about 0.5% within five years, but be modest over longer periods. The key concept here for understanding growth is to know when the maximum upward push will occur. (See Appendix A.)
Increasing climate damage, reflected mainly in food prices and flood damage, is going to increase. With any luck this will not be severe before 2030 (we allow for a 0.1% setback) but it is very likely to accelerate between 2030 and 2050. A great deal will depend on our responses.
The bottom line for U.S. real growth, according to our forecast, is 0.9% a year through 2030, decreasing to 0.4% from 2030 to 2050 (see table on Page 16). This is all done presuming no unexpected disasters, but also no heroics, just normal “muddling through.”
GDP measures must be improved so that they begin to measure output of real usefulness or utility. The current mish-mash of costs and of “goods” and “bads” produces poor and even damaging incentives.
Accurate measurements of growth must eventually include the full costs of running down our natural assets. True income (said Hicks) is meant to allow for sustained productive capacity, which our current measures clearly do not. If they had done so the developed countries might well have been in reverse for the last 20 years.
This is a follow-up to Has America grown old, and can no longer grow? Or are wonders like the singularity in our future?, 28 November 2011.
About the Author
From the GMO website:
Mr. Grantham co-founded GMO in 1977. Prior to GMO’s founding, Mr. Grantham was co-founder of Batterymarch Financial Management in 1969 where he recommended commercial indexing in 1971, one of several claims to being first. He began his investment career as an economist with Royal Dutch Shell.
Mr. Grantham is GMO’s chief investment strategist and is an active member of GMO’s asset allocation division. He is a member of the GMO Board and has also served on investment boards of several non-profit organizations. Mr. Grantham has been featured in Forbes, Barron’s and Business Week and is routinely quoted by the financial press. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Sheffield (U.K.) and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.
For More Information
About the Singularity:
- Good news: The Singularity is coming (again), 8 December 2007
- The Singularity is in our past, 29 March 2009
- Has America grown old, and can no longer grow? Or are wonders like the singularity in our future?, 28 August 2012
Forecasts of America’s future economy:
- What will America look like after this recession?, 18 March 2008 – More forecasts. The recession might change so many things, from the distribution of wealth within the US to the ranking of global powers.
- Some thoughts about the economy of mid-21st century America, 12 January 2009 — Thoughts about future from one of the 20th century’s greatest minds
- A look at our future, when our $promises$ to ourselves come due, 25 March 2010
- America on its way from superpower to banana republic, 28 March 2009
- A look at the future of the world’s political and economic order, 4 June 2010
- Important: Recovering lost knowledge about exhaustion of the Earth’s resources (such as Peak Oil), 21 January 2011