‘30s? ‘70s? Economy may defy history

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It would be handy for investors if Wall Street could agree on which decade the U.S. economy is about to relive.

But increasingly, no period from the last century seems to fill the bill.

Three months ago, there was plenty of talk about repeating the 1930s -- maybe not quite so horrific, but with many of the same destructive trends: rocketing unemployment, collapsing consumption and widespread asset devaluations.

It’s still early in our housing-centered mess, but it’s clear that the economy thus far has shown remarkable resilience given the ravaged state of our financial system.


U.S. first-quarter growth was revised to a 0.9% annualized rate in a government report Thursday, up from a previously estimated 0.6% rate.

No question, many consumers and businesses are struggling. But the first-quarter data, and many of the economic reports since, just aren’t accommodating the depression mongers.

In part, we can credit globalization, as foreign demand for U.S. exports has mushroomed.

Overall, the numbers indicate that “the probability of a 1930s-style economic black hole forming and wiping out our country’s economic base is virtually nil,” says Scott Anderson, an economist at Wells Fargo & Co. in Minneapolis.

If the ‘30s aren’t the right template, how about the 1970s? Now, as then, commodity prices are surging, led by oil. That has stoked fear of inflation leaping into double digits -- the most enduring painful memory of the ‘70s other than leisure suits.

This week, two major companies announced price increases that had that ugly ‘70s feel to them.

Dow Chemical Co. -- which annually sells more than $50 billion worth of chemicals, plastics and other stuff worldwide -- said it would boost prices as much as 20% effective Sunday. Dow cited the “extraordinary rise in energy and related raw material costs.”


And Eastman Kodak Co. on Friday said it would raise prices on certain products up to 20% July 1.

Just how many of those increases will stick remains to be seen, however. Because one of the cold realities of a slower economy is that pricing power is harder to come by, unless you’ve got something that the world just can’t do without.

Joe LaVorgna, an economist at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York, notes that weak or no growth historically has had a way of “eventually wringing inflation pressures out of the economy.” Since World War II, the inflation rate on average fell by two-thirds in recessions, he said.

But there’s a bigger reason to doubt that a ‘70s-style inflation spiral could take hold this time around: It takes two to spiral -- meaning, you need rising wages to give consumers the wherewithal to pay higher prices and create the vicious cycle of one feeding the other.

Wage growth? Now? Have you asked for a raise lately?

Unlike in the ‘70s, when cost-of-living increases for workers were routine, they now are “more the exception than the rule,” says Paul Kasriel, an economist at Northern Trust in Chicago.

What’s more, labor unions are far less powerful now than they were then, he notes, which limits the effect on wages in general from union-negotiated pay contracts.


Of course, real incomes weren’t growing much in the early part of this decade, either. But consumption got a big assist in that period from the housing boom, as people cashed out some or all of their home equity. We know what happened to that trend.

Add to all of the above the downward pressure on wages of many U.S. workers from the effects of globalization (i.e., more competition all around the globe).

So this is good news? My pay isn’t going up, and that will eventually help bring down inflation? It is, no doubt, a bitter pill. And at least in the near term, globalization could well make inflation worse.

America’s status as a debtor nation means we have, in effect, transferred a huge amount of our wealth to the rest of the world. The slide in the dollar’s value, one byproduct of that wealth transfer, means other peoples’ purchasing power has risen while ours has fallen.

So even as we cut back on gasoline use, much of the rest of the world is more able to pay up for oil. That will help keep the price elevated until either global demand eases or supplies increase, or both. And higher energy costs will continue to make it difficult for formerly low-cost exporters (such as China) to keep a lid on prices of manufactured goods.

Still, in the long run, globalization should reduce the chances of sustained, ‘70s-style inflation by favoring innovators worldwide. The best way to keep prices in check is to make sure the best goods and services -- including ours -- can quickly find their way into the marketplace.


The flip side is that, by keeping our doors open to cash-rich foreign investors, we may help keep the value of our assets (including houses) from deflating as much as they otherwise might have, given our own financial struggles of the moment.

So it’s not the ‘70s all over again, nor the ‘30s. It’s a very different world, and we’re making it up as we go along.