By Robert Romano
The S&P 500 is up 9.5 percent since Nov. 9, 2016, a big jump for global stocks and asset prices that has already been touted the Trump rally, but is it for real?
So early into President Donald Trump’s first year in office, naturally, it is impossible to say.
The real rubber will meet the road when it comes to three key factors: Jobs, labor participation and economic growth. Those will determine if we are just in another speculative bubble, or if we truly are about to enter a genuine economic boom.
In past boom economies, the U.S. labor force was expanding rapidly, millions of jobs were being created and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was soaring. These were virtuous cycles with more people participating in the economy, businesses expanding, increasing confidence and thus, boosting spending.
In other words, the exact opposite of the economy of the past decade, which from a GDP standpoint was the worst ever, even worse than the Great Depression. Overall, real GDP, that is, GDP adjusted for inflation, has not exceeded 4 percent since 2000, and not been above 3 percent since 2005.
The slowdown has unfortunately correlated with decelerating growth in job creation, incomes and the labor force. About 9 million aged 16 to 64 either left the labor force or did not enter on a net basis as labor participation for working age Americans has dropped this century.
The recession of 2008 and 2009 was not met with a robust recovery, and it has had a real impact in those areas that affect Americans the most: Finding jobs and boosting income.
Those charts are more or less moving in the same direction. In short, we’ve barely gotten back to where we were before the financial crisis, and to the extent the economy has slowed down, so too have financial prospects for the American people.
But the lesson is, if we want more jobs and higher incomes, then we need more economic growth and to get people back in the labor force looking for jobs as a result of new opportunities were available as businesses expanded.
A ray of sunshine, then, comes from the household survey in the monthly jobs numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the month of February, those reporting they had jobs grew by 447,000. Those entering the labor force grew by 340,000 as the labor participation rate grew to 63 percent.
Obviously, a single month’s data is not predictive of the future, so a word of caution to the exuberant.
Secular stagnation economists like Lawrence Summers worry that the slow growth may be here to stay. Mohamed El-Erian famously called the period of slower growth, which he predicted after the financial crisis, the “new normal.”
Certainly, there have been a lot of reasons to suggest that the economic slowdown we’re experiencing in the U.S. — but also Japan, Europe and elsewhere in the developed world — will ultimately continue. But perhaps those appeared as warning lights, that if we continued on our current path, the future would be less prosperous.
President Trump, then, appears as a wild card in this capacity, arguing for bringing jobs back to the U.S., expanding production here and boosting the labor force.
To the extent he succeeds, high rates of working appear to predict higher rates of consumption, and that should help growth reach more robust numbers. The 9 million potential workers slack in the labor force, looms large, and seems to argue that robust growth remains possible, just by creating an environment where new jobs appear.
We’ll all know soon in the coming months and years if his plan is succeeding, based on whether those job opportunities emerge, increasing demand for labor and boosting incomes. Stay tuned.
Robert Romano is the senior editor of Americans for Limited Government.