Chart Book: Tracking the Post-Great Recession Economy

Note: The Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the acknowledged arbiter of business-cycle dating, describes a recession as “the period between a peak of economic activity and its subsequent trough, or lowest point…involv[ing] a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months.” An expansion is the period from a trough to its subsequent peak or highest point.

The Committee announced on June 8, 2020, that the economic expansion following the trough in April 2009 peaked in February 2020. On July 19, 2021, it announced that the trough of the ensuing recession was in April 2020. While the recession was very deep, it was the shortest on record at just two months. The committee noted that this recession “had different characteristics and dynamics than prior recessions” but nonetheless the unprecedented magnitude of the decline in employment and production, and its broad reach across the economy, warranted the designation of this episode as a recession, even though the downturn was briefer than earlier contractions. On a quarterly basis the NBER dated the previous peak as the fourth quarter of 2019 and the latest trough as the second quarter of 2020.

When President Trump took office in January 2017, he inherited an economy in its 91st month of economic expansion following the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. That expansion continued into 2020, becoming the longest on record but peaked at 128 months in February 2020. The current expansion, which began following the April 2020 trough, is in its 17th month.

While the expansion was long, both the economy’s average annual growth rate and the typical worker’s earnings gains were relatively modest by the standards of earlier long expansions. Former President Trump claimed that his policies would produce a substantial and sustained increase in economic growth, and his Council of Economic Advisers claimed that those policies would boost wages and employment substantially. By contrast, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and many other non-partisan analysts projected much slower economic growth and smaller increases in most workers’ earnings.

This chart book documents the 2009-2020 economic expansion and will continue to track the evolution of the economy. It supplants its predecessor, “The Legacy of the Great Recession,” which covers the decade from the start of the recession in December 2007 through December 2017 with a focus on the plunge into and recovery from the Great Recession.

Part I: COVID-19 Ended Long Recovery and Expansion After the Great Recession

Economic Growth from Mid-2009 into Early 2020 Ended Abruptly

After contracting sharply in the Great Recession, the economy began growing in mid-2009, following the enactment of the financial stabilization bill (Troubled Asset Relief Program or TARP) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Economic growth averaged 2.3 percent per year from mid-2009 through 2019. The pattern of quarterly growth was uneven, with the expansion including several quarters of growth well above 3.5 percent but also three quarters where it was negative.

The onset of COVID-19 produced a sharp contraction in economic activity in March 2020, resulting in a decline in real GDP of 5.1 percent at an annual rate in the year’s first quarter and 31.2 percent in the second quarter. Because GDP was so much lower in the second quarter than it was at the end of 2019, the dollar amount of the 33.8 annualized growth in the third quarter was much smaller than the dollar amount of the second-quarter drop. Growth slowed to a 4.5 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2020.

A reopening of businesses and government relief and stimulus actions fueled the ongoing recovery in the first quarter of 2021. GDP rose by 6.3 percent in the first quarter of 2021 but was still 0.8 percent below its level at the peak of the last expansion in the fourth quarter of 2019. Growth of 6.6 percent in the second quarter pushed GDP 0.8 percent above that previous peak.

Before COVID-19, a key question was what annual growth rate would be sustainable over time. Most analysts believed that the 2017 tax cuts and additional program funding Congress enacted in early 2018 boosted GDP only temporarily. The Trump Administration projected that growth would continue at about 3 percent in the coming years; CBO, in contrast, projected that growth would fall back to under 2 percent over the longer term, as we discuss below in Part III.

Now, the critical questions are how strong the recovery will be and what scars the recession may leave on the economy in the longer term.

Employment Growth Has Resumed After COVID-19 Losses Wiped Out Large Share of 2010-2019 Gains

Through February 2020, total (private and government) payroll employment had risen for 113 straight months. Private employment had risen for 120 straight months, but total government employment was barely above what it was at the start of the expansion. Large employment losses in March and April 2020 wiped out a large share of those gains.

Total nonfarm employment fell by a staggering 20.7 million jobs in April 2020, largely erasing the gains from a decade of job growth. Despite increases in the months since, including increases of 1.1 million jobs in July 2021 and 194,000 in September, there were still 5.0 million fewer jobs on private and government payrolls in September 2021 than there were in February 2020.

Private employment rose by 317,000 jobs in September but remains 4.1 million jobs below its February 2020 level. Federal government employment did not change; state employment declined by 22,000 (putting losses since February 2020 at 257,000); and local employment declined by 101,000 (putting losses since February 2020 at 617,000).

Job Growth Greater Than in 2001-2007 Expansion Ended in March 2020

Nonfarm payroll employment fell more sharply in the Great Recession than in the three prior recessions. In contrast to the rapid bounce-back in employment at the start of the 1980s expansion, the turnaround in the labor market trailed the revival of economic activity marking the beginning of the three expansions prior to the 2020 recession. Job gains from May through November 2020 were large by historical standards but the jobs deficit has also been large and a large jobs deficit remains.

In the pandemic, the drop in payroll employment in April 2020 was huge and the turnaround in payroll employment in the months since then reflected some lifting of pandemic restrictions in many states and some people returning to work in May and June 2020. But states facing outbreaks began re-imposing restrictions and payroll job growth slowed for five straight months prior to falling by 227,000 jobs in December. Policymakers enacted relief measures at the end of December and the American Rescue Plan in March 2021, which — together with some opening up of the economy — produced job gains from January through August, although health and safety concerns arising from the delta variant contributed to slower growth in August The course of the jobs recovery going forward will depend on how quickly the Rescue Plan’s public health measures allow the economy to open up, and the degree to which business investment and household spending respond to the Rescue Plan and subsequent recovery measures policymakers enact to promote a strong, equitable, and sustainable recovery.

The jobs deficit at the start of the 2009-2020 expansion was much larger than those at the start of the previous two expansions, and it took a long time simply to get back to the level of payroll employment at the start of the recession. That said, payroll employment growth was somewhat better than in the 2001-2007 expansion, and it continued much longer.

Nonfarm payroll employment was 10.2 percent (14.1 million jobs) higher in February 2020 than at the start of the Great Recession. But due to the job losses since, in September 2021 such employment was just 6.6 percent (9.1 million jobs) higher than at the start of the Great Recession.

The rise in payroll employment over its peak in the expansion preceding the Great Recession was almost entirely due to private-sector job gains. Government employment was 459,000 jobs (2.1 percent) higher in February 2020 than in December 2007, accounting for only 3.2 percent of the total job gains.

In contrast, government employment in the three expansions preceding the Great Recession accounted for 13 percent (1982-1990), 10 percent (1991-2001), and 25 percent (2001-2007) of each expansion’s employment gains over the level of employment at the peak of the previous expansion. In each case, state and local government job growth was the major contributor.

Unemployment Fell Slowly in Post-Great Recession Expansion but Reached Rates Lower Than in 1990s Before Spiking in COVID-19 Recession

The relatively modest pace of job growth in the first years of the 2009-2020 expansion (compared with the size of the job losses in the recession) kept unemployment quite high for some time after economic activity picked up. This initial persistence of high unemployment was similar to but more extreme than what happened at the start of the two previous expansions. The pattern in all three, however, is quite different from the sharp decline in unemployment at the start of most earlier expansions, including the expansion following the severe 1981-1982 recession.

Nevertheless, by late 2015 the unemployment rate had fallen to 5 percent, its rate at the start of the recession, and it began to fall further at the beginning of 2017. The unemployment rate was 4 percent or lower for the last 24 months of the expansion. It was in the 3.5 percent to 3.7 percent range from April 2019 through February 2020, reaching rates even lower than in the long 1990s expansion. Rates that low were last seen in 1969.

The rise in unemployment since February 2020, however, pushed the unemployment rate well above the 10.8 percent rate reached in late 1982, which itself was the highest since the 1930s. It was a still-elevated 4.8 percent in September 2021, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the actual rate likely is somewhat higher due to misclassification of some workers. In addition, the unemployment rate does not take into account workers who have stopped looking for work and left the labor force.

Average Hourly Earnings Growth Since Start of Recession Distorted by Sharp Decline and Partial Recovery in Number of Low-Wage Jobs

Average hourly earnings of employees on private payrolls grew modestly through much of the recovery from the 2007-09 recession, and through February 2020, wage growth averaged 2.4 percent annually. Inflation was modest as well, but over much of the expansion, real (inflation-adjusted) wages failed to keep up with increases in workers' productivity, as we discuss below in Part III.

The pace of wage growth (before adjusting for inflation) quickened in 2015 and into 2016 but subsequently stalled below 3 percent until 2018, when it began edging up again. The upward trend in earnings growth for all employees stalled in 2019, however, despite very low unemployment. Low inflation led to solid real wage gains in 2015 and 2016 and to a lesser degree in 2019.

Average wage growth increased sharply after February 2020, but not because of widespread wage gains. Rather, large numbers of lower-wage workers bore the brunt of the job losses in the recession and the shift in the composition of total payroll employment toward higher-paid jobs was large enough to temporarily raise the average wage substantially. The partial recovery in low-wage jobs had the opposite effect.

Extraordinary circumstances in the pandemic recession have continued to distort recent 12-month changes, but wages do seem to be on the rise. The monthly average annual earnings data will be a poor guide to trends in worker pay, however, as long as the composition of the labor force is changing as the recovery in low-wage job continues.

In September 2021, average hourly earnings of all employees on private payrolls were 4.6 percent higher than a year earlier; earnings of non-management employees were up 5.5 percent.

Part II: The Importance of Full Employment

As the 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary fiscal stimulus measures expired, the primary responsibility for nurturing the economic recovery fell to the Federal Reserve. The Fed has a “dual mandate” from Congress to pursue stable prices and “maximum employment.” It does so primarily by cutting interest rates to stimulate economic activity in a weak economy and raising interest rates to restrain economic activity in an overheating economy.

Since the early 1980s, the Fed has used changes in its target for the federal funds rate —the interest rate banks charge each other for overnight loans — to influence economic activity. Changes in the federal funds rate, in turn, induce changes in mortgage interest rates, other consumer interest rates, and the cost of business investment. In the Great Recession the Fed introduced additional unconventional tools to stimulate the economy once it lowered its federal funds-rate target essentially to zero and had no further room to cut it, and it did so again in March in response to COVID-19.

By conventional measures, prior to the pandemic, the economy was close to the Fed’s maximum employment goal for some time. As of February 2020, the unemployment rate and some other measures of labor market slack (that is, excess unemployment and underemployment) were below their levels at the peak of the last expansion. The unemployment rate, for example, fell below the CBO’s estimate of the “natural” rate of unemployment (the rate expected to prevail when the economy is operating at its full sustainable productive capacity). Yet inflation and wage growth were not signaling an overheating economy.

This situation gave the Fed an opportunity to probe how low the unemployment rate could go without generating unacceptable inflation, but such probing was thought to carry the risk that inflation might indeed begin to rise fast enough that the Fed would have to act more aggressively to cool an overheating economy. The short-term demand stimulus from the late-2017 tax cuts and early 2018 spending increases injected additional aggregate demand that complicated the Fed’s task in 2018.

Nevertheless, letting the economy run as “hot” as possible without triggering unacceptable inflation had many advantages, including reducing long-term unemployment, drawing people back into the labor force who wanted to work but were no longer actively looking, and reducing racial disparities in unemployment. So long as businesses and households believed that the Fed would act to rein in unacceptable inflation if it appeared, the costs of prematurely cutting off the possibility of further employment gains was a deterrent to the Fed’s tightening monetary policy too much or too fast. That belief also gave the Fed leeway to cut interest rates when the expansion showed signs of faltering.

Since COVID-19, however, the Fed’s task has changed from continuing to support a high-employment economy to doing all it can to limit the damage in the short term and promote a robust recovery when it is safe to begin reviving economic activity,

Fed Seldom Met Its Inflation Target in the 2009-2020 Expansion and Lowered Its Projection of Longer-Term Unemployment

The Fed in January 2012 formally adopted a 2 percent inflation target as its goal for price stability. It subsequently made it explicit that this was a symmetric target, not a ceiling, meaning that temporary deviations either below or above 2 percent would not necessarily elicit an immediate policy response. In practice, inflation was below the Fed’s target for most of the expansion, leading many analysts to believe the Fed was implicitly treating its inflation target as a ceiling. In August 2020, however, after a year-long review of its operating procedures, the Fed issued a new statement on longer-run goals and monetary policy strategy, stating that “following periods when inflation has been running persistently below 2 percent, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 percent for some time.”

The Fed does not have a specific target for its maximum employment goal. It does, however, periodically publish projections by the members of its monetary-policymaking committee of what they expect the unemployment rate to be in the longer run under their policies. As unemployment fell below those projections while inflation remained below target, the committee members revised down their long-term unemployment rate projections. The last median projection before COVID-19 was 4.1 percent, although actual unemployment was 3.5 percent in February 2020. Now the unemployment rate has surged well above those long-term projections.

The Fed does not have a specific target for its maximum employment goal. It does, however, periodically publish projections by the members of its monetary-policymaking committee of what they expect the unemployment rate to be in the longer run under their policies. As unemployment fell below those projections while inflation remained below target, the committee members revised down their long-term unemployment rate projections. The last median projection before COVID-19 was 4.1 percent, although actual unemployment was 3.5 percent in February. Now, of course, the unemployment rate has surged well above those long-term projections.

The Fed began to lower its target for the federal funds rate in 2008 as the economy began to weaken, and it continued to cut rates as the financial crisis worsened and unemployment rose, until the federal funds rate was effectively zero by the end of 2008. To continue to provide needed monetary stimulus when it was up against this “zero lower bound,” the Fed adopted additional unconventional measures such as the purchase of longer-term assets — a policy known as quantitative easing — to try to lower longer-term interest rates and stimulate interest-sensitive spending more directly.

Judging that labor market healing was proceeding apace, the Fed took its first step to raise its target for the federal funds rate in December 2015, and it made a series of quarter-percentage-point increases thereafter that raised the range to 2.25 to 2.50 percent in December 2018. It also began a slow process of reducing its holdings of longer-term assets acquired during the period of quantitative easing, a process that ended in August 2019. Sensing the expansion might be losing momentum, the Fed cut its target range a quarter point to 2.00 to 2.25 percent in July 2019 and made two more quarter point cuts in September and October that lowered the range to 1.50 to 1.75 percent. In response to “evolving risks to economic activity” posed by COVID-19, the Fed cut its target range to 1.00 to 1.25 percent on March 3; it took the final step of cutting to 0 to 0.25 percent and adopting additional unconventional measures on March 15 in response to the effects on economic activity of COVID-19 and policy measures to contain it. The Fed has since launched substantial quantitative easing measures and measures to stabilize financial markets like those introduced to address the 2008 financial panic. In light of its updated operating procedures, the Fed is likely to keep expansionary measures in place for some time.

Broadest Measure of Slack Employment Fell Below Rate at Start of Post-Great-Recession Expansion but Spiked in Pandemic

The Labor Department's most comprehensive alternative unemployment rate measure — which includes people classified as “marginally attached” to the labor force, who want to work but have not looked for a job recently enough to be classified as unemployed, and people working part time because they can't find full-time jobs — recorded its highest reading on record in November 2009 in data that go back to 1994. This measure, known as U-6, fell steadily beginning in 2011 and was below 8.8 percent — its rate at the start of the recession — from February 2017 through February 2020. It jumped from 8.8 percent in March 2020 to 22.9 percent in April 2020 and was 8.5 percent in September 2021.


Employment Gains in Expansion Wiped Out by COVID-19

The sharp rise in unemployment and discouragement over the prospects of finding a job in the Great Recession caused the labor force participation rate (the percentage of the population either working or actively looking for work) to fall sharply. The combination of rising unemployment and falling labor force participation produced a historically steep decline in the percentage of the population with a job (the employment-to-population ratio) for both the prime working-age population (those aged 25-54) and for the entire population aged 16 and older.

The employment-to-population ratio of those aged 16 and older remained near its recession low until 2014, when it began to rise as labor force participation leveled off while unemployment continued to fall. Nevertheless, in February 2020 it was still 2.6 percentage points below its rate at the start of the recession. It fell in March and again in April to its lowest rate on record, 51.3 percent. After rising from May through October to 57.4 percent, where it remained through December, it rose further to 58.0 percent in May 2021 and to 58.7 in September 2021.

That population includes an increasing number of baby boomers near retirement or already retired. Thus, some of the difference between their employment rate at the start of the recession and the rate more than a decade later reflected demographic trends rather than labor market weakness. In contrast, the employment-to-population ratio for those in their prime working years (age 25-54), which fell 4.9 percentage points between the start of the recession and December 2009, recovered all of that loss and was 80.4 percent in February 2020. Nevertheless, it remained below the peak rates achieved in the 1990s expansion, fell to a recent low of 69.6 percent in April 2020, and was 78.0 percent in September 2021.

The household survey used to estimate employment statistics is designed to distinguish between people who are unemployed (actively looking and available for work) and those who are not in the labor force (not actively looking and in most cases not wanting a job). Marginally attached workers, who are included in the U-6 measure of unemployment and underemployment, are not in the labor force because even though they say they want a job, they have not looked recently enough to be counted as unemployed.

These distinctions have become blurred in the current situation, because the number of people receiving unemployment insurance benefits, which normally requires that one actively search for a job, was expanded greatly under the CARES Act, enacted in March 2020. How people answer the survey question of whether they are unemployed and looked for a job recently will determine whether they are classified as unemployed, marginally attached, or not in the labor force. If lots of people who expect to be going back to work when it is safe and pandemic-control measures are relaxed are recorded as not actively looking, true unemployment could be undercounted and the rise in the unemployment rate could be muted. The employment-to-population ratio might then more accurately reflect the extent of joblessness.

Black Unemployment Rate Reached Historic Low but Is Much Higher Than White Rate

Black or African American unemployment is persistently higher — roughly twice as high on average over time — than white unemployment. The difference between the two rates typically narrows when the economy is particularly strong and widens in recessions. Across data that go back to 1972, however, Black unemployment in the best of times is not much better than white unemployment in the worst of times.

Black unemployment averaged 6.1 percent in 2019 and reached a historic low of 5.2 percent in August 2019. It jumped to 16.7 percent in April 2020 and was still a very high 7.9 percent in September 2021. The white unemployment rate averaged 3.3 percent in 2019 and rose to 14.1 percent in April 2020. It was 4.2 percent in September 2021.

Hispanic/Latino Unemployment Rate Reached Historic Low but Remained Higher Than White Rate

Historically, the unemployment rate for Hispanic/Latino workers has remained between the Black and white unemployment rates in recessions and expansions, but in April 2020 it rose above both. It averaged 4.3 percent in 2019, reached an all-time low of 3.9 percent in September 2019 in data that go back to 1973 and was 4.4 percent in February 2020. Similar to the Black and white unemployment rates, it rose substantially in March and April 2020, reaching 18.9 percent in April. It was 6.3 percent in September 2021.


Long-Term Unemployment Rate in Pandemic Below Record High in Last Recession but Share of Unemployed Still Near Record High Set Then

Long-term unemployment — the state of looking for work for 27 weeks or longer — reached much higher levels and persisted much longer in the Great Recession and lingering jobs slump in the early stages of the expansion than in any previous period in data back to the late 1940s. The worst previous episode was in the early 1980s, when long-term unemployment as a share of all unemployed workers peaked at 26.0 percent and the long-term unemployment rate peaked at 2.6 percent.

In the earlier episode, however, a year after peaking at 2.6 percent, the long-term unemployment rate had dropped to 1.4 percent. It took six years to fall back to that rate in the post-Great-Recession expansion, which it did in June 2015. That rate was 1.7 percent in September 2021.

As the number of newly unemployed swelled after February 2020, the share of all unemployed people who have been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer fell to 4.4 percent in April 2020; but as unemployment spells lengthened, it rose to 34.5 percent (or 2.7 million people) in September 2021.

Unemployed Workers per Job Opening Surged and Voluntary Quits Rate Plunged in COVID-19 Recession but Have Been Recovering Since

The number of people looking for work swelled in the Great Recession while the number of job openings shrank. At the beginning of the last expansion, there were nearly seven people looking for work for every job opening. That ratio declined substantially over the expansion, to the point where in February 2020 there were 5.7 million unemployed workers and 7.0 million job openings (about 82 job seekers for every 100 job openings).

Whether workers are happy or unhappy in their current job, they are far less willing to quit to look for another one when job prospects are poor than when they are good. The percentage of workers quitting their jobs fell sharply in the Great Recession but rose in the expansion, surpassing the rate at the start of the recession. It remained, however, below the rate at the peak of the 1990s expansion.

These favorable trends ended with the sharp contraction in economic activity and job openings in March and April 2020, when there were about five unemployed workers for every job opening. That ratio has come down substantially since, and in August 2021 there were 8.4 million unemployed workers and 10.4 million job openings (down from a record high 11.1 million job openings in data that go back to December 2000). In August there were 80 officially unemployed workers for every 100 job openings.

The share of employed workers quitting their jobs to look for another job fell sharply in the recession but has been rising since. The quits rate, which is an indicator of the confidence workers feel that they can quickly find a new job, rose to the highest rate on record in August at 2.9 percent (workers who voluntarily quit their job to look for another one do not qualify for unemployment insurance).

Part III: Prospects for Economic Growth and Earnings

Great Recession Sharply Reduced GDP and Growth Projections; Pandemic Delivered Another Sharp Blow

For a half century prior to the Great Recession, actual GDP, except in unusual circumstances such as the pandemic, which is determined by the demand for goods and services, fluctuated in a relatively narrow range around CBO’s estimate of what the economy was capable of supplying on a sustainable, non-inflationary basis (potential GDP). Actual GDP fell below potential in recessions and temporarily rose above it in booms. The Great Recession created what at the time was an unusually large and long-lasting gap between actual and potential GDP. This “output gap” generated substantial excess unemployment and underemployment and idle productive capacity among businesses.

The drop in GDP due to the pandemic was much steeper and temporary supply shortages contributed to the huge output gap, but CBO projects that the gap will be erased much more quickly than was the case in the recovery from the Great Recession and that actual GDP will exceed potential for several years.

The Great Recession GDP gap narrowed slowly, not closing until 2018, according to CBO’s Budget and Economic Outlook: 2019-2029. Part of this gap-closing reflected growth in actual GDP as the economy recovered from the recession. A significant part, however, resulted from CBO’s successive downward revisions after 2007 to its projections of potential GDP. As a result, CBO’s estimates of both the level and growth rate of potential GDP for 2007-2017 were much lower than projections made before the Great Recession. (The chart below is constructed so that a straight line represents a constant growth rate, with a steeper slope representing a higher growth rate.)

In January 2020, before the pandemic affected GDP, CBO projected that actual GDP would exceed potential GDP this year but slow thereafter. However, GDP fell sharply in the first half of the year and regained part of that loss in the second half. CBO’s July 2021 projections show the recovery continuing in 2021 and actual GDP rising above potential GDP from 2022 through 2026 as a result of the relief and recovery measures enacted in 2020-21.

President Trump’s Pre-Pandemic Growth Goals Had Historical Precedents but Were Highly Optimistic

Growth in potential GDP, and hence in the limit on sustainable growth in actual GDP, is determined by how fast the potential labor force and labor productivity grow. The potential labor force, in turn, grows through native population growth and immigration, while labor productivity grows through business investment in physical capital (machines, factories, offices, and stores) as well as investments in R&D and other intellectual property. Improvements in labor quality through education and training can also boost productivity, as can improvements in managerial efficiency or technology that enable businesses to produce more with the same amount of labor and capital.

Short-term changes in monetary and fiscal (tax and spending) policies aim to minimize bouts of excessive inflation or unemployment due to fluctuations in aggregate demand around potential GDP. “Supply-side” policies, such as well-conceived tax, regulatory, and public investment measures, can complement labor force growth and private investment in expanding potential GDP. They can also produce public benefits that GDP does not necessarily capture, such as distributional fairness and health and safety improvements. Poorly conceived policies, however, can impede growth and hurt national economic welfare.

The Trump Administration argued from the start that its policies would return the economy to growth rates of 3 percent or more like those achieved in the second half of the last century. CBO’s more sober assessment reflected the importance of demographic factors such as the retirement of the baby boom generation, which, without greater immigration, will slow population and potential labor force growth substantially. CBO also projected that, while potential productivity growth would improve somewhat relative to its recent past, it would not match the 3.1 percent average rate achieved over the entire 1950-2018 period — which included 4.0 percent average annual productivity growth in 1950-73.

The path of potential GDP is highly uncertain at this point. The deterioration in potential GDP growth in the Great Recession, however, is a cautionary tale about the risks to longer-term growth when the economy undergoes a deep recession and slow recovery.

Growth in Purchasing Power of Workers’ Wages and Benefits Has Not Kept Pace With Productivity Growth

Productivity growth is the key to a rising material standard of living. Employers can afford to pay workers more without threatening their bottom line when their workers produce more per hour worked and when businesses can charge higher prices for the goods and services they sell. Workers enjoy a rising material standard of living when their earnings rise faster than the cost of the goods and services they buy.

From 1948 to 1973, productivity and the real (inflation-adjusted) average hourly compensation (wages and salaries plus fringe benefits) of workers in the nonfarm business sector each nearly doubled, irrespective of whether inflation is measured using producer prices or consumer prices. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, however, productivity growth slowed. At the same time, compensation per hour adjusted for inflation in consumer prices grew much more slowly than productivity, while compensation adjusted for inflation in producer prices grew at roughly the same rate as productivity.

That disparity arose because nonfarm business output includes not just consumer goods and services but also investment goods and exports, and those output components’ prices rose more slowly than consumer prices. Because compensation adjusted for producer prices tracked productivity fairly closely during this period, profit margins and hence the split in total income between the share going to workers and the share going to business owners and shareholders, did not change much during this period. But because consumer prices rose more than producer prices, growth in the purchasing power of workers’ earnings fell short of growth in labor productivity.

Productivity picked up considerably in the late 1990s and early 2000s but was disappointingly slow in the expansion following the Great Recession. Workers saw a brief spurt in their real compensation in the second half of the 1990s but have seen little progress since. Productivity has grown faster than compensation adjusted for producer prices since the turn of the century, indicating that producers have been able to increase their profit margins, raising capital’s share of nonfarm business income at the expense of labor’s share.

Over the course of that expansion, which ended in the fourth quarter of 2019, output per hour rose at an average rate of 1.2 percent per year, compensation per hour adjusted for consumer prices rose 0.7 percent per year, and compensation per hour adjusted for producer prices rose 1.0 percent per year. Compared with a year earlier, output per hour in the second quarter of 2021 was 1.8 percent higher, compensation per hour adjusted for consumer prices was 2.7 percent higher, and compensation per hour adjusted for producer prices was 2.0 percent higher.

(CBO’s data on potential productivity growth discussed above cover the entire economy, including general government output and the output of households and some nonprofits, for all of which output is measured in a way that assumes no productivity growth. The data discussed here are for actual productivity growth in the nonfarm business sector, which covers about 75 percent of economic activity but makes a disproportionate contribution to measured productivity growth.)

Average Annual Growth in Real Output per Hour and Real Compensation per Hour (Percent)
  2009:Q2 - 2019:Q4 2020:Q2 - 2021:Q2
Output per hour 1.2% 1.8%
Real compensation per hour (consumer prices) 0.7% 2.7%
Real compensation per hour (producer prices) 1.0% 2.0%
Source: CBPP analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data

Part IV: International Trade, Federal Budget Deficits, and Growth

The United States buys more goods from the rest of the world than they buy from us, as President Trump emphasized. However, the trade deficit in goods does not reflect the full scope of the United States’ balance of payments with the rest of the world, and contrary to the former President’s rhetoric, a trade deficit does not make the United States “losers” in international trade or justify a trade war.

President Trump’s view of trade as a situation in which one country can only gain at the expense of other countries is at odds with the vast majority of economists’ broadly accepted understanding that trade makes each trading partner richer than it would be on its own. Trade expands the amount, quality, and variety of goods and services a country’s residents can buy by allowing the country to expand production of goods and services for export that it can profitably trade for other goods and services that are cheaper to import than to produce domestically. Economists find that trade wars — where countries impose tariffs or other restrictions on imports from one another and/or subsidize their own exports — shrink those opportunities and make countries that engage in them worse off than they would be with more open trade.

While international trade can increase the overall size of the economy and provide net benefits to the country as a whole, it also creates winners and losers within the country, with the larger gains from trade spread broadly but thinly and the smaller losses concentrated in particular industries, regions, or groups of workers. The United States needs better policies to cushion the blow for those most affected by economic shocks of all kinds, including trade shocks, and to ease the inevitable transition to new patterns of activity in a dynamic, growing economy. It is also important for the United States to be a party to negotiating multilateral international trade agreements that set the rules under which countries trade with one another and settle international trade disputes for the United States and its trading partners to enjoy the mutual benefits from trade while avoiding costly trade wars.

Contrary to President Trump’s claims, a trade deficit is neither a sign of economic weakness nor under a President’s control. While trade policy can affect the composition of U.S. imports and exports and the trade balance with individual countries, the overall size of the trade deficit is determined by a complex set of relationships among broader forces, such as how fast the United States is growing relative to its trading partners, households’ and domestic businesses’ saving and investment decisions, multinational corporations’ decisions about where to invest (which are influenced by tax policy and economic fundamentals), and finally, federal budget policy and foreign central banks’ and international investors’ willingness to hold U.S. debt.

When U.S. households, businesses, and governments collectively spend more than they produce, excess spending must be met through net imports, and foreigners must be willing to finance that excess spending. Incomes, interest rates, and the foreign exchange value of the dollar adjust to bring the amount of excess spending, the trade balance, and foreign willingness to lend to the United States into alignment.

Trade Surpluses in Services and Net Payments From Foreigners Partly Offset Goods Deficit; Annual Net Borrowing From Foreigners Down From Mid-2000s Peak

The United States sold $1.7 trillion worth of goods to the rest of the world in 2018 and bought $2.6 trillion worth of goods from the rest of the world, resulting in a goods deficit equal to 4.4 percent of GDP. The United States ran a surplus in services (such as tourism, education, and financial services) and received more investment income and other payments from abroad than it sent abroad. As a result, the current account — the most comprehensive measure of trade and income flows between the United States and the rest of the world, because it includes goods, services, and income earned in or paid to the rest of the world — had a deficit equal to 2.5 percent of GDP.

The United States’ balance of payments, however, includes not only the income flows recorded in the current account but also capital flows associated with borrowing, lending, and investment by the United States and its trading partners. Dollars flow in when the rest of the world lends to the United States by buying U.S. Treasury securities and other U.S. financial assets or invests directly in the United States by acquiring, establishing, or expanding businesses here. Dollars flow out when the United States lends to the rest of the world by buying foreign financial assets or when U.S. companies invest abroad.

The United States is both the largest direct investor in other countries and the largest recipient of foreign direct investment. The difference between new foreign direct investment in the United States and new U.S. direct investment abroad is relatively small in most years. The United States is a large net borrower from the rest of the world, however, due to sales of U.S. Treasury debt and other financial assets to the rest of the world that far exceed U.S. purchases of foreign financial assets.

The dollars that flow out to purchase imports must ultimately flow back in as export sales or as an increase in foreign holdings of U.S. assets net of U.S holdings of foreign assets. In other words, net national borrowing is the mirror image of the current account deficit in the year those capital flows occur. Subsequently, the interest and profits that foreigners receive by lending to or investing in the United States will be income payments to the rest of the world in future current accounts, and the income the United States receives from foreign direct investment or purchases of foreign financial assets will be income payments from the rest of the world.

The United States has been a net borrower for much of the last four decades, with borrowing peaking at 5.8 percent of GDP in 2006. U.S. net borrowing and its complement, the current account deficit, then shrank with the collapse of trade and capital flows worldwide in the financial crisis and Great Recession and, while still large, have remained roughly the same share of GDP since 2009.

As a result of decades of net borrowing, the difference between total U.S. assets held abroad and total foreign assets held in the United States, known as its net international investment position, was negative $9.6 trillion at the end of 2018. Nevertheless, the rest of the world so far has been a willing lender to the United States.

Moreover, despite this large net debt, the income the United States receives from its holdings of foreign assets has exceeded the income it pays to foreign holders of U.S. Treasury debt and other U.S. assets. Historically, the United States has enjoyed relatively low borrowing costs due in part to the dollar’s role as a “reserve currency” that is in demand worldwide to facilitate international trade and settle international financial obligations whether or not they involve the United States. Since the financial crisis, worldwide demand for safe financial assets, especially U.S. Treasury securities, has kept U.S. international borrowing costs particularly low relative to the income the United States earns on its investment abroad.

Federal Budget Deficits Are Often (but Not Always) the Major Source of Net National Borrowing

The United States has been a net international borrower every year but one since 1983. That’s because in most of those years federal budget deficits were larger than net lending in the rest of the economy. Unless policymakers reverse the large revenue losses from the 2017 tax cuts and raise enough revenue to meet 21st century budget needs, budget deficits will keep the United States a substantial net borrower over the coming decade and erode the country’s net investment income surplus.

Net lending or borrowing in a particular sector of the economy is the difference between that sector’s aggregate saving and its aggregate investment in productive capital. Any surplus of saving over investment is available for lending; any shortfall of saving relative to investment requires borrowing. An economy-wide surplus of saving over investment must be lent or invested abroad; a shortfall must be offset by borrowing or attracting investment from the rest of the world.

In the early to mid-1980s, a steep recession and policymakers’ decisions to lower tax rates and increase defense spending produced large federal budget deficits. Non-federal saving consistently exceeded non-federal investment, but by less than federal borrowing, hence the country was a net borrower in the international economy. (Non-federal lending or saving is the sum of such activity by households, domestic businesses, and state and local governments.)

In the 1990s expansion, by contrast, a strong economy together with effective deficit-reduction and budget-enforcement policies produced declining budget deficits and eventually surpluses in 1998-2001. Meanwhile, foreign funding attracted by the strong economy and booming stock market flowed in to help fuel a surge in domestic investment that outstripped domestic saving. These foreign capital inflows turned the non-federal sector into a large enough net borrower to keep the country a net borrower, despite the falling federal budget deficits and eventual surpluses.

The 2001 recession and deficit-producing tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 ended the brief era of federal budget surpluses. The federal government became a major borrower again, but businesses and households also went on a borrowing binge in the housing boom preceding the Great Recession. That combination led to record net national borrowing that reached 5.8 percent of GDP in 2006.

The Great Recession and policymakers’ enactment of temporary fiscal stimulus measures created large budget deficits in 2009-12. However, the substantial rise in federal borrowing to fund these deficits was partly offset by a collapse in investment and sharp reduction in borrowing in the non-federal sector, which turned it into a net lender again. As a result, net national borrowing, while still substantial, actually was lower as a share of GDP over this period than it had been immediately prior to the recession.

President Trump inherited a growing economy, but one with a large budget deficit that was projected to gradually get larger as a share of GDP over the next decade under the tax and spending policies in place at the time. He and Congress then made those projected future budget deficits even larger by enacting tax cuts and spending increases in late 2017 and early 2018 — well before the emergency measuresto address COVID-19.

An increase in federal borrowing must be accommodated by some combination of higher private saving, lower domestic investment, and increased foreign borrowing. Any reduction in domestic investment means lower productivity, less future output, and lower workers’ earnings. Increased foreign borrowing can attenuate a decline in domestic investment due to federal budget deficits but interest and profits from investment funded by foreign borrowing will go to those countries rather than contribute to U.S. national income.

In a 2018 analysis, CBO projected a rise in the current account deficit to 3.6 percent of GDP in 2021, driven primarily by growing federal budget deficits, followed by a gradual decline to 3.0 percent of GDP by 2028. This was despite continued high federal borrowing, primarily as a result of slowing domestic investment relative to saving that raises non-federal net lending. CBO also estimated that the 2017 tax act would reduce U.S. net international income by an average of 0.3 percent of GDP from 2018 to 2028.

Part V: Conclusion

The economy was on solid footing when President Trump took office in January 2017. It had been growing since mid-2009 and the huge job losses from the 2007-2009 Great Recession had been erased by 2014. The economic expansion continued into 2020, becoming the longest expansion on record before abruptly ending in the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Trump made bold claims for how his policies would raise the economy’s sustainable growth rate significantly above the 2.2 percent growth rate it had achieved prior to his inauguration and produce a significant increase in the typical worker’s earnings. Those claims were much more optimistic than what the Congressional Budget Office and most other outside analysts expected.

While the recovery appeared to be faltering in 2015, it regained momentum in the second half of 2016 and economic growth trended upward, with GDP 3.2 percent higher in the second quarter of 2018 than in the same quarter a year earlier. The growth rate trended down thereafter, however, and GDP grew just 2.3 percent between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the fourth quarter of 2019; by the spring of 2020, the longest expansion in U.S. history was over.

It remains to be seen how the economy will recover from the pandemic, but the COVID-19 recession and the effectiveness of the policy response will shape discussions about the economy more than the debate over longer-term economic assumptions that prevailed prior to the crisis.