Chapter 5: Macroeconomics: The Big Picture

Start Up: Financial Crisis Batters Economy

The world economy recovered after the recession of 2001. Growth had been fairly rapid, unemployment had stayed low, and inflation seemed to be under control. However, at the end of 2007 the US economy started to unravel, taking with it the largest economies around the world. The economy of the United States and those of much of the world were rocked by the worst financial crisis in nearly 80 years. That crisis plunged the economy into a downturn in total output and employment that seemed likely to last a long time.

In the US, a good deal of the economy’s momentum when things were going well had been fueled by rising house prices. Between 1995 and 2007, housing prices in the United States more than doubled. As house prices rose, consumers who owned houses grew richer and increased their consumption purchases. That helped fuel economic growth. The boom in housing prices had been encouraged by policies of the nation’s monetary authority, the Federal Reserve, which had shifted to an expansionary monetary policy that held short-term interest rates below the inflation rate. Another development, subprime mortgages—mortgage loans to buyers whose credit or income would not ordinarily qualify for mortgage loans—helped bring on the ultimate collapse. When they were first developed, subprime mortgage loans seemed a hugely profitable investment for banks and a good deal for home buyers. Financial institutions developed a wide range of instruments based on “mortgage-backed securities.” As long as house prices kept rising, the system worked and was profitable for virtually all players in the mortgage market. Many firms undertook investments in mortgage-backed securities that assumed house prices would keep rising. Large investment banks bet heavily that house prices would continue rising. Powerful members of Congress pressured two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation), to be even more aggressive in encouraging banks to make mortgage loans to low-income families. The pressure came from the executive branch of government as well—under both Democratic and Republican administrations. In 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (under Bill Clinton, a Democrat) required that 12% of mortgages purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac be for households with incomes less than 60% of the median income in their region. That target was increased to 20% in 2000, 22% in 2005 (now under George W. Bush, a Republican), and was to have increased to 28% in 2008.Russell Roberts, “How Government Stoked the Mania,” Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2008, p. A21. But that final target would not be reached, as both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were seized by the government in 2008. To top things off, a loosening in bank and investment bank regulations gave financial institutions greater leeway in going overboard with purchases of mortgage-backed securities. As house prices began falling in 2007, a system based on the assumption they would continue rising began to unravel very fast. The investment bank Bear Stearns and insurance company American International Group (AIG) required massive infusions of federal money to keep them afloat. In September of 2008, firm after firm with assets tied to mortgage-backed securities began to fail. In some cases, the government rescued them; in other cases, such as Lehman Brothers, they were allowed to fail.

The financial crisis had dramatic and immediate effects on the economy. The economy’s total output, which had been growing through the first half of 2008, fell at an annual rate of 0.5% in the third quarter, according to advance estimates by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Consumers, having weathered higher gasoline prices and higher food prices for most of the year, reduced their consumption expenditures as the value of their houses and the stocks they held plunged—consumption fell at an annual rate of 3.7% in the third quarter. As cold fear gripped financial markets and expectations of further slowdown ensued, firms cut down on investment spending, which includes spending on plant and equipment used in production. While this nonresidential investment component of output fell at an annual rate of 1.5%, the residential component fell even faster as housing investment sank at an annual rate of 17.6%. Government purchases and net exports rose, but not enough to offset reductions in consumption and private investment.Bureau of Economic Analysis, press release, November 25, 2008. As output shrank, unemployment rose. Through the first nine months of 2008 there was concern that price levels in the United States and in most of the world economies were rising rapidly, but toward the end of the year the concern shifted to whether or not the price level might fall.

This recession, which officially began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, was brutal: At 18 months in length, it was the longest U.S. recession since World War II. The nation’s output fell over 4%. The unemployment rate rose dramatically, hitting 10% at the end of 2009, and remaining above 9% throughout 2010. In 2010, to many people it certainly did not feel that the so-called Great Recession had really ended.

And in Canada………

The following remarks are from “The “Great” Recession in Canada: Perception vs. Reality” by the Former Deputy Governor Jean Boivin (2010-2012). Published March 28, 2011

Phase One: Sudden Slowdown

The financial crisis was expected to have a significant impact in Canada, and for the first phase of the cycle, this was certainly the case.

During the this recession, GDP declined by 3.3 per cent over three quarters. In contrast, over the same period of time in the 1980s and the 1990s, it fell by 2.2 per cent and 1.9 per cent, respectively.

A prominent feature of the recent recession was the spectacular drop in exports. Exports were harder hit than in any previous recession, decreasing by 16 per cent over three quarters, while the most significant drop during the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s was only 8 per cent (Chart 4).

Investments were equally hard hit by the recession. There was a 22 per cent downturn in investments over just three quarters (Chart 5). Nothing like this has ever been seen. It took two years during the 1980s recession, and three years during the 1990s recession, before a downturn of comparable magnitude was recorded. This recent decline in investment is partly due to the exceptionally high levels of uncertainty haunting the global economy.

In sum, the recent recession was different from previous ones, owing to a more pronounced slowdown triggered by unusually steep drops in exports and investment. During its initial phase, the effects of the crisis in Canada—albeit to a somewhat lesser degree—were comparable to those in the United States and showed real signs of becoming a “Great Recession” (Chart 6).

Phase Two: Rapid Recovery

Despite the rapid slowdown, the recovery was faster than those that followed previous recessions. Why?

Neither exports nor investments can provide the answer. While GDP has recovered to pre-recession levels, business investment and exports have only recovered 45 per cent and 67 per cent, respectively, of the losses incurred during the recession.

If the recovery was speedier, despite weaker contributions from investment and exports, support for the recovery must have come from household and government spending. This was indeed the case. Household spending declined by only 2 per cent between 2009 and 2010, compared with 6 per cent during the previous two recessions. The contribution of government spending to growth was more than one percentage point in each year.

The greater strength of household and government spending reflects Canada’s favourable position at the outset of the recession. Major adjustments had been made to the structure of the Canadian economy. Business and household balance sheets were relatively sound, and the banking system was robust, managed prudently, and sufficiently capitalized. Canada’s monetary policy framework had been effective and was credible. The fiscal situation was favourable, and the social safety net and regulatory framework were effective. As well, household spending was boosted by the prosperity arising from strong demand for our natural resources and by improved terms of trade.

This favourable position gave Canada the flexibility it needed to respond strongly to the crisis without compromising the credibility of our public policy frameworks. Thanks to the expansionary monetary and fiscal measures adopted in concert with other G-20 countries, Canada was able to support domestic demand which contributed significantly to the economic recovery.

Important Lingering Issues

In Canada, then, we had room to manoeuvre to help us effectively absorb the aftershocks of the global economic crisis. It is essential to maintain this buffer in light of the elevated risks that still exist worldwide and the structural issues that persist in the Canadian economy, even after the recession. The standard of living that we will be able to sustain in the medium term will depend, in fact, on our ability to address these issues.

Allow me to address three of these issues: household indebtedness, international competitiveness and, more importantly, our productivity.

Household Indebtedness

Since the beginning of the recovery, household credit has increased at twice the rate of personal disposable income. In the autumn of 2010, Canadian household debt climbed to an unprecedented level of 147 per cent of disposable income (Chart 7).

The relatively healthy financial condition of Canadian households at the beginning of the “Great” Recession helped the Canadian economy to better withstand the initial shocks of the crisis. However, going forward, it is essential to maintain the necessary room to manoeuvre to keep household spending on a viable path. This leads us to believe that the rate of household spending will more closely correspond to future earnings, and certain signs to that effect have already been observed.

Canada’s International Competitiveness

The second issue is our ability to compete internationally. The slow recovery of exports is due in part to the sluggishness of global economic activity. It is also due to the continued erosion of Canadian business competitiveness over the past ten years. This erosion can be attributed to the appreciation of the Canadian dollar and Canada’s poor productivity performance. Thus, Canadian exporters are seeing their market shares for a wide range of goods drop in the U.S. market—by far the most important market for Canada—while exporters in other countries, such as China and Mexico, are gaining ground (Chart 8).

As global economic growth continues to take root, we are seeing early evidence of a recovery in net exports. But, at this point, exports are still weak when compared with previous recessions. And in a world of growing international competition, we should not assume that the forces causing the erosion of competitiveness through the previous decade will simply fade away because of a global recovery.

This situation highlights the need to diversify our export markets and increase our ability to compete, not only with American producers, but also with other foreign exporters.

Productivity and Investment

This brings us to the third issue. As I just discussed, international competitiveness is based on our ingenuity, the efficiency with which we produce, or, for short, productivity. But beyond its influence on international competitiveness, productivity is a fundamental determinant of our economic well-being. To improve productivity, we need investment.

The slow recovery of investment in this cycle is particularly surprising in light of relatively favourable financial conditions: interest rates remain low, and the exchange rate facilitates imports of machinery and equipment.

The elevated level of uncertainty experienced during the recession, especially from a global perspective, was a major hindrance to business investment. This uncertainty was not confined to our borders: the link between uncertainty and business investment was clearly evident in the economies of the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom. 7

Yet heightened uncertainty is only part of the explanation. Although the recession in the United States was more serious and Americans faced at least the same degree of global uncertainty as we experienced in Canada, Canadian business investment in machinery and equipment lags behind that of the United States (Chart 9). In 2009, Canadian workers had access, on average, to approximately half the capital expenditures in machinery and equipment and information and communication technologies (ICT) of those available to their American counterparts. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, between 1987 and 2009, Canadian investment in machinery and equipment and ICT per worker represented, on average, 77 per cent and 59 per cent, respectively, of similar American investments.

It is true that business investment started to recover at the end of 2009. Yet much progress remains to be made: less than half of the extraordinary drop in investments of the last recession have been recovered. With the increasing globalization of markets and the demographic challenges we face, maintaining our standard of living will require improved productivity. We must continue to innovate and to invest in promising projects.

Conclusion: Perception vs. Reality

We are fond of repeating the old adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Recent experience expands the notion and shows that good prevention measures can also make the cure more effective. Before the Great Recession, Canada was able to protect itself by ensuring that it had room to manoeuvre to absorb the shocks of the crisis. The lessons we learned from the past were reflected in the adoption of sound public policy frameworks. A solid position, combined with the relatively healthy state of Canadian households, gave us the flexibility to withstand the worst effects of the global shock.

Future economists studying the 2007–09 recession in Canada may find it difficult to go beyond their first impressions and assess its true impact. Some will undoubtedly surmise that the economic activity of this time did indeed reflect, not only the extent of the shock, but also our ability to absorb it. The storm we weathered was a major one. We should not forget that it could have struck at a time when we were more vulnerable and less flexible. Things could have unfolded very differently, with disastrous results.

It is some comfort to know that, collectively, we were able to limit the damage. We must proceed with the strategy that has served us so well: continue to learn from our experiences to ensure better prevention and, when necessary, a better cure. For this, we must strive to deal with the issues that confront us with strength and determination.


The Study of Macroeconomics

Output, employment, and the price level are the key variables in the study of macroeconomics, which is the analysis of aggregate values of economic variables. What determines a country’s output, and why does output in some economies expand while in others it contracts? Why do some economies grow faster than others? What causes prices throughout an economy to fluctuate, and how do such fluctuations affect people? What causes employment and unemployment? Why does a country’s unemployment rate fluctuate? Why do different countries have different unemployment rates?

We would pronounce an economy “healthy” if its annual output of goods and services were growing at a rate it can sustain, its price level stable, and its unemployment rate low. What would constitute “good” numbers for each of these variables depends on time and place, but those are the outcomes that most people would agree are desirable for the aggregate economy. When the economy deviates from what is considered good performance, there are often calls for the government to “do something” to improve performance. How government policies affect economic performance is a major topic of macroeconomics. When the financial and economic crises struck throughout the world in 2008, there was massive intervention from world central banks and from governments throughout the world in an effort to stimulate their economies.

This chapter provides a preliminary sketch of the most important macroeconomic issues: growth of total output and the business cycle, changes in the price level, and unemployment. Grappling with these issues will be important to you not only in your exploration of macroeconomics but throughout your life.


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