Robert Brenner  The Boom and the Bubble

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O autorovi

Robert Paul Brenner (1943), americký marxistický historik. Absolvoval studia na Princetonu (1970) a do povědomí široké akademické obce se jako mladý badatel zapsal článkem “Třídní struktura agrární společnosti a hospodářský rozvoj v předindustriální Evropě”. Jeho základní teze, totiž že hlavní příčinou přechodu od feudalismu ke kapitalismu nebyl ani tak nárůst mezinárodního obchodu jako spíš transformace zemědělské produkce v Evropě, se stala podnětem k prudké - tzv. “brennerovské” - debatě (“brenner debate”). V současnosti působí jako profesor historie a ředitel Centra pro sociální teorie a srovnávací dějiny na univerzitě v Los Angeles, jako editor socialistického časopisu Proti proudu a jako člen redakční rady časopisu New Left Review. Předměty jeho odborného zájmu jsou raný evropský novověk, hospodářská, sociální a náboženské dějiny, agrární historie, Anglie za Tudorovců a Stuartovců a sociální teorie marxistické provenience.
Díla: Obchod a revoluce: proměna obchodu, politický konflikt a londýnští námořní obchodníci v letech 1550-1653 (1993); Boom jako bublina: USA ve světové ekonomice (2002); Ekonomika globálních turbulencí: Vyspělé kapitalistické ekonomiky od Velkého boomu až k dlouhodobému útlumu (1945-2005) (2008); Vlastnictví a pokrok: historické kořeny a sociální základy samovolného růstu (2009).


Článek Roberta Brennera detailně zkoumá vývoj americké ekonomiky a její situaci okolo roku 2000. Brenner klade otázku po udržitelnosti vysokého tempa růstu ekonomiky na konci 90. let a očekává brzké prasknutí spekulativní bubliny na akciovém trhu.

In the last four years, the US economy has posted its best performance since the sixties. What is the connexion between the formidable boom in the real economy and the historically unprecedented bubble on the stock market? Could the inflation of asset values far beyond the rise in corporate earnings be preparing a Japanese-style nemesis?

Two years ago, in autumn 1998, the international economy appeared to be in profound difficulty. The crisis that had broken out in East Asia in summer 1997 was in the process of engulfing the rest of the world. Stock markets and currencies had crashed outside the capitalist core. Russia had declared bankruptcy. Brazil was falling into depression. The Japanese economy had slipped back into recession. The American economy was not immune. In response to falling profits during the first half of 1998, especially in the still pivotal manufacturing sector, equity prices fell alarmingly from July through September. By October, a severe liquidity crunch threatened to plunge the US—and thereby world—economy into the danger zone. At that point, however, the Federal Reserve intervened. It bailed out the huge Long Term Capital Management hedge fund, on the grounds that, had it been allowed to fail, the international economy risked financial collapse; and lowered interest rates on three successive occasions, not only to counter the credit squeeze, but also to make crystal clear that it wanted equity prices to rise, to subsidize the consumption needed to keep the international economy turning over.

The upshot has been contradictory in the extreme. A US cyclical expansion that, up through 1995, had been even less vigorous than those of the 1970s and 1980s suddenly gathered steam. Since then it has delivered five years’ rapid growth of GDP, labour productivity and even real wages, while reducing unemployment and inflation quite near to the levels of the long postwar expansion. Investment has boomed impressively. Although wildly over-hyped in the business press, US economic performance during the past half-decade has been superior to that of any comparable period since the early 1970s. On the other hand, the same period has witnessed the swelling of the greatest financial bubble in American history. Equity prices have taken leave of any connexion to underlying corporate profits. Household, corporate and financial debt have all reached record levels as a percentage of GDP, making possible an historic explosion of consumption growth. The resulting acceleration of imports has brought trade and current-account deficits to all-time highs. The result has been an unprecedented increase in the acquisition of US assets by the rest of the world, especially short-term holdings, which leaves the American economy theoretically vulnerable to the same sort of flight of capital, asset depreciation and downward pressure on the currency that wrecked East Asia.

The Boom opened the way to the Bubble, but the Bubble has blown up the Boom a good deal more. The problem, therefore, is to disentangle the one from the other. Only by determining the forces underlying each will it be possible to grasp the overall trajectory of the US economy, and gain some idea of where it is going. Have the tensions that nearly brought down the world economy just two short years ago been transcended? Will the current cyclical upturn broaden and deepen? Lurking behind these questions lies a bigger one. Is the American economy finally pulling out of the long downturn that overtook it around 1973, and on the verge of a new long upswing, like that of the 1950s and 1960s? Or, alternatively, does it face the sort of large-scale correction and reaction that ultimately overtook the Japanese bubble of the 1980s, in which the return to earth of over-priced equities and real estate set off a deep and extended recession?

1. Profitably revival: 1985–95

The roots of manufacturing revival in the US go back to the recession of 1979–82, when the record-high real interest rates which accompanied Volcker’s turn to monetarism set off an extended process of industrial rationalization. Massive means of production and labour were eliminated in an explosion of bankruptcies not witnessed since the shedding of suddenly unprofitable plant and equipment during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The crisis of manufacturing was rendered deeper by the huge rise in the dollar which followed the major increase in real interest rates of these years. An acceleration of productivity growth in manufacturing was one palpable result. Another, however, was a series of record-breaking current-account deficits, as the runaway dollar sharply reduced US competitiveness. Between 1980 and 1985, manufacturing import penetration rose by one third. These trends could not be sustained, and soon issued in an abrupt and epoch-making reversal of policy.

Plaza Accord

The turning point—a watershed for the world economy as a whole—came with the Plaza Accord of September 1985, when the G5 powers agreed to take joint action to reduce the exchange rate of the dollar, to rescue a US manufacturing sector threatened with decimation. The Plaza Accord set off ten years of more or less continuous devaluation of the dollar against the yen and the Deutschmark, accompanied by a decade-long freeze on real-wage growth. It thereby opened the way for the competitive recovery of US manufactures, a secular crisis of German and Japanese industry, and an unprecedented explosion of export-based manufacturing development throughout East Asia, where currencies were for the most part tied to the declining dollar. Between 1985 and 1995, the dollar fell by about 40 per cent against the Deutschmark and 60 per cent versus the yen. In the same period, real wages in US manufacturing increased at an average annual rate of 0.5 per cent, compared to 3 per cent in Germany and 2.9 per cent in Japan. Meanwhile, the long-term shake-out of high-cost/low-profit means of production in the US economy was given a further major kick by the recession of 1990–91 and the subsequent extended ‘jobless recovery’.

The combination of dollar devaluation, wage repression and industrial shake-out—and the increased investment that finally ensued after about 1993—detonated a fundamental shift in the modus operandi of US manufacturing towards overseas markets. From 1985 to 1997 exports increased at an average annual rate of 9.3 per cent, more than 40 per cent faster than between 1950 and 1970. Little by little, exports pushed the manufacturing sector forward, and thereby the whole economy. This restoration of international competitiveness made possible what turned out to be a major recovery of pre-tax profitability in manufacturing. As late as 1986, despite vigorous growth of productivity and stagnation of real wages, the rate of profit in manufacturing still remained more than 20 per cent below its level of 1978, and 50 per cent below its level of 1965. But from 1986 onwards manufacturing profitability increased rapidly. Its ascent was interrupted by the recession of 1990–91 and its aftermath but, by 1995, the pre-tax profitability of US manufacturing had risen by 65 per cent above its level of 1986 and was, for the first time in a quarter of a century, above that of 1973—although still a good third below its high tide in 1965.

It has become standard to downplay the importance of the manufacturing sector, by pointing to its shrinking share of total employment and GDP. But during the 1990s, the US corporate manufacturing sector still accounted for 46 per cent of total profits accruing to the non-financial corporate sector; in 1998 (the latest year for which there is data), it took 42.5 per cent of that total. It was the fall of profitability in the international manufacturing sector, beginning between 1965 and 1973, not only in the US but across the world economy, that was primarily responsible for the long downturn—the extended period from the early 1970s through the early 1990s marked by slow growth of output, investment and productivity, high unemployment and deeper and longer cyclical recessions. By the same token, the recovery of pre-tax profitability in US manufacturing was the source of the rise in pre-tax profitability in the non-financial private economy, which climbed by 15.6 per cent between 1986 and 1995, approaching its levels at the end of the 1960s. This is clear from the fact that the pre-tax rate of profit in the non-financial economy outside of manufacturing remained roughly flat for this whole decade—even falling slightly.

The revival of profitability was further amplified by the tax breaks of the early 1980s, when Republicans and Democrats competed with one another to offer the greatest handouts to the corporations. By 1995, after-tax rates of profit in the non-financial corporate economy and in the corporate manufacturing sector had risen, respectively, to within 23 per cent and 24 per cent of their 1965 peaks, even though pre-tax rates were still 34 per cent and 35 per cent below their 1965 levels. The corporations further strengthened themselves, during the first half of the 1990s, by significantly reducing their dependence on borrowing—and so the proportion of their total profits owed to lenders. Between 1979 and 1991, net interest payments as a proportion of the total surplus (profits plus net interest) of non-financial corporations had averaged 31.8 per cent, and reached 37 per cent in 1991. By 1995, that figure had fallen to 20 per cent; it would average under 18 per cent for the remainder of the decade.

As the US economy slowly pulled out of the 1990–91 recession, this revival of profitability finally began to stir the real economy. For a long time manufacturing investment had languished. But between 1993 and 1998, it spurted forward at an average annual rate of 9.4 per cent, compared to 2.6 per cent between 1982 and 1990. In that same period, net capital stock in manufacturing grew at an average annual rate of 2.7 per cent, compared to just 1.3 per cent between 1982 and 1990. The investment recovery in the private economy outside manufacturing began at about the same time, and was ultimately stronger than within manufacturing. In turn, the acceleration of investment almost certainly helped to quicken productivity growth, already much improved by the long-term shake-out of obsolete means of production. The introduction of Japanese-style ‘lean production’ had intensified labour on the shop floor, while out-sourcing had reallocated many processes to non-unionized sectors in which workers lacked even minimal protection. In these years firms were also beginning to apply information technology to manufacturing production in significant ways (although its impact remained limited by low levels of investment). Between 1982 and 1990, despite the slowdown of investment growth, labour productivity in manufacturing thus increased at the average annual rate of some 3.3 per cent, about the same tempo as during the long postwar boom. But under the impetus of the accelerating increase of new plant and equipment from the early 1990s, it now jumped sharply to an annual average of some 4.74 per cent between 1993 and 1999. Nor was this faster rhythm simply the expression of a higher capital–labour ratio. For between 1993 and 1998 capital productivity itself continued to grow at the same 2.6 per cent pace it had reached in the 1980s expansion, making it clear that overall productiveness, taking into account both capital and labour, was rising impressively.

Services and finance

The picture was quite different in the non-manufacturing sector—services, construction, transport, utilities and mines. There improvement was sharply discontinuous and had to wait till 1996. Unlike the pattern in manufacturing, where solid productivity growth had been occurring long before the spurt of the 1990s, productivity in the non-manufacturing sector had recorded a truly dismal trajectory for almost two decades, growing at an average annual pace of 0.6 per cent between 1977 and 1995. Between 1995 and 1999, however, in the wake of the acceleration of non-manufacturing investment, and parallel to the leap upward of non-manufacturing profitability, it increased at an average annual pace of about 2.4 per cent, compared to around 2.7 per cent during the postwar boom between 1950 and 1973.

How, meanwhile, were financial institutions faring? The problems of trying to profit through lending in an era of international over-capacity and over-production in manufacturing had been brought home dramatically when the explosion of lending to Third World producers during the 1970s issued in the LDC debt crisis of the early 1980s, which shook the system to its foundations. The leading capitalist states naturally intervened to rescue the great international banks, using the IMF to insure their funds (as far as possible) by imposing the most crippling terms on the developing economies for their bridging loans. The 1980s foray by US savings and loan institutions and commercial banks into real estate followed a rather similar pattern, ending in the crash of the real-estate bubble and the collapse of many banks by the end of the decade. The resulting bail-out of the S&Ls cost American taxpayers the equivalent of three full years of US private investment. The leveraged mergers and acquisitions craze that so exemplified the financial attitudes of the era met the same sticky end. During the first half of the 1980s it did offer major gains, at a time when the profitability of new productive investment in manufacturing had reached its lowest point. But the field’s potential for gain was soon constricted by over-entry, yielding steadily diminishing returns as the decade wore on and investors were obliged to pay ever more inflated prices for their takeovers. The shipwreck of the mergers and acquisitions movement contributed mightily to the declining condition of commercial banks, already suffering sharply reduced returns as a consequence of intensifying competition from a variety of non-bank lending institutions, such as insurance and finance companies, and of the trend to securitization.

The condition of the financial sector was further worsened by the onset of the recession of 1990–91. It was only another dramatic rescue operation by the government that averted a major crisis. This time, the Federal Reserve brought down short-term real interest rates to zero to enable the banks to restore their balance sheets and resume profitable lending activity. As it turned out, financiers’ problems would be dissolved with astonishing rapidity in the early 1990s. It has been the era of Clinton, Rubin and Greenspan, much more than that of Reagan and Volcker, that has witnessed the true ascendancy of finance in the American economy. When the Fed reduced short-term interest rates so sharply at the start of the decade, it enabled banks both to make windfall profits on the bonds they owned and to carry on their basic business—borrowing cheap, short-term, in order to lend dear, long-term—with unparalleled success. When Clinton promised to balance the budget by forswearing any new outlays not matched by spending cuts, he offered insurance to lenders that inflation would not eat into their profits. To allay any remaining doubts, in 1994 Greenspan raised interest rates sharply, by two and a half percentage points, to slow the expansion down.

Financial lift-off

Still, the ultimate foundation for the economic recovery of lenders and speculators was the return to health of the non-financial economy as the expansion of the 1990s progressed. The banks in particular achieved a stunning turnaround. Loan demand grew rapidly, and loan losses plummeted. Whereas in 1990 just 30 per cent of all bank assets were officially classified as ‘well capitalized’, the figure had risen to 97 per cent by 1996. As the economy began to prosper, moreover, banks were finally able to take maximum advantage of the process of deregulation under way since the end of the 1970s, expanding revenues from off-balance-sheet activities, such as fees from the sale of mutual funds. Meanwhile, the movement toward bank concentration begun in the 1980s accelerated, as the share of bank assets held by the top 50 bank holding companies reached 64 per cent in 1996, up from 57 per cent in 1986, while the number of commercial banking organizations fell to 7,500 from 11,000 a decade earlier. Perhaps most important, the Fed insured that the gap between what the banks paid for their short-term borrowing and what they received for their long-term lending remained ‘unusually wide’. [2] The outcome was truly epoch-making. During the 1990s, US financial institutions in general, and commercial banks in particular, achieved their highest rates of return on equity in the postwar era, and did so by a goodly margin. Indicative of the new state of affairs, financial-sector profits came to constitute a greater percentage of total corporate profits than at any time in postwar history. To put the icing on the cake, equity prices went through the roof.

By the middle of the 1990s the US corporate sector as a whole had significantly improved its condition compared to a decade earlier, largely by means of extended and brutal processes of rationalization and re-distribution. Manufacturers had engaged in wave after wave of shake-out, casting off vast quantities of outdated and redundant plant and equipment and ‘downsizing’ tens of thousands of employees to achieve substantial improvements in productivity. They had hugely increased their profits at the expense of workers, by means of a decade-long freeze on the growth of real wages, and at the expense of their overseas rivals, via a decade-long devaluation of the dollar. Only near the end of this recovery process did they begin to substantially step up investment and thereby productivity growth. As we have seen, it was the revival of profitability in the manufacturing sector, amplified by a major reduction in corporate taxes, that accounted virtually in toto for the recovery in the rate of profit of the non-financial sector as a whole through 1995. After 1995, this increased substantially in the non-manufacturing, mainly service sector as well, bringing profitability in the business economy as a whole still closer to the high plateau of the long postwar boom. With the real economy on a firmer foundation, the financial sector could exploit deregulation, as well unstinting government subsidy and support, to achieve an unexpected turnaround. If this symbiosis between manufacturing, service and financial sectors could be maintained, would not the US economy have finally left the long downturn behind?

2. Watershed: 1995–98

In the world economy, however, the recovery of American manufacturing between 1985 and 1995 had put enormous pressure on the export-oriented economies of Japan and Germany, not to speak of Western Europe as a whole. The deep recessions and large-scale industrial shake-outs experienced by Japan and Western Europe during the first half of the 1990s, under the pressure of fast-rising currencies, may fruitfully be considered the analogue of the crisis in US manufacturing in the first half of the 1980s, following the Volcker shock, the take-off of the dollar, and the Reagan-Regan lurch toward finance. Indeed, Japanese and West European difficulties may have been aggravated by the American head-start in the elimination of high-cost, low-profit firms in similar circumstances. US revival took place at the expense of its leading rivals. But there was a price for this. In the first half of the 1990s the underlying stagnation of the world economy as a whole, plagued by manufacturing over-capacity and further slowed by wage repression and tightening of credit, had not been overcome. The US recovery itself was still constricted by the ever slower growth of world demand, and related intensification of international competition in manufacturing. It cannot be over-stressed that, even by the mid 1990s, the world economy showed little sign of breaking out of its long stagnation. In fact, growth was significantly slower in this half-decade throughout the advanced capitalist economies than in any comparable period back to 1960. This was true not only of the Japanese and European economies, mired in deep recessions, but even of the US economy itself, which grew even more slowly between 1990 and 1995 than it had during the 1970s and 1980s.

Such slow growth, it must be said, was anything but distressing for the Clinton administration, which virtually from its inception combined monetary hawkishness and fiscal stringency of a sort not seen since the days of Eisenhower—pending a full recovery of business profitability. Not only did Clinton reject the kind of deficit spending that had pulled the US and international economy out of every recession since the start of the 1970s, he embarked on a budget-balancing crusade which reduced the Federal deficit as a percentage of GDP from 4.7 per cent in 1992 to virtually zero in 1997. Moreover, when the economy began to show signs of life, the Federal Reserve, as we have seen, raised interest rates by a full three percentage points between February 1994 and February 1995. Indeed, according to public opinion polls, ‘many people thought the country was still in recession right up to 1995’. [3] It was hardly surprising that between 1990 and 1995, American GDP, labour productivity and real wages grew even more slowly than they had during the 1970s and 1980s.

Starting in 1996, however, there was a break in the pattern. In that year, and the one that followed, the growth of every major economic variable palpably accelerated, even including (with a lag) real wages. Clearly, the recovery of profitability in the manufacturing sector, based heavily on dollar devaluation, wage restraint and corporate tax relief—and only very recently amplified by the boom in investment—was beginning to pay off. In 1997, as real exports grew by 14 per cent, the economy flourished as it had not done for several decades, and it began to appear that the US might finally lead the world economy out of the doldrums. The expansion of the US domestic market which was making possible export-led growth internationally was no longer being driven, as it had been for decades, primarily by US government deficits, but, to an important degree, by rising exports and capital investment, founded upon increasing competitiveness and rising profit-rates. Yet just at the moment when faster growth began to take hold in the US economy, from the end of 1995, its foundations started to be transformed by two closely interrelated developments. On the one hand, a sudden rise in the dollar began to undermine US manufacturing exports, by driving up the relative cost of American goods and indirectly precipitating the end of the East Asian boom. On the other hand, an exploding stock-market bubble, financing a feverish growth of indebtedness, began to shift the driving force of expansion towards domestic consumption, and in so doing to speed up substantially the growth of the US economy.

Reverse Plaza

The turning point in the germination of both of these developments, and indeed the evolution of the world economy during the second half of the 1990s, was the agreement forged by the US, Japan and the other G7 powers that would come to be called the ‘Reverse Plaza Accord’. During the first part of 1995, in the wake of the collapse of the peso and the subsequent US bail-out of the Mexican economy, there was a new run on the dollar, sharply accentuating its secular fall over the previous decade. A cheap currency had, of course, been an indispensable precondition for the revival of profitability in the US manufacturing and non-financial economy as a whole, and Washington had more than welcomed it, returning between 1985 and 1995 to the policy of ‘benign neglect’ towards the dollar that had prevailed during most of the 1970s. So when the dollar plummeted during the early months of 1995, the Clinton administration not only did nothing to stand in its way, but even turned up the pressure on Japan, threatening to close off the US market for Japanese cars if Japan did not agree to open up its market to US auto-parts.

By April 1995, however, the same low dollar that had been helping to drive the US manufacturing economy for a decade had brought the Japanese to the edge of collapse. The yen had risen by 60 per cent over its level at the start of 1991, and by 30 per cent over its level at the beginning of 1994, to a record-high exchange rate of 79 against the dollar. At this astronomic height, Japanese producers could not even cover their variable costs, and the Japanese growth machine appeared to be grinding to a halt. Despite what had been, right up to this juncture, their almost obsessive concern with manufacturing competitiveness, US authorities were in no position to regard this development with equanimity. They had just been shocked by the Mexican crisis, which, arising ‘from nowhere’, had shaken the international financial system. A Japanese version would obviously be very much more dangerous. And even if a Japanese crisis could be contained, it might easily precipitate a large-scale liquidation of Japan’s enormous holdings of US assets, especially Treasury Bonds. Such a development would drive up interest rates, frighten money markets, and possibly catalyse a recession at the very moment when the US economy finally appeared ready to right itself. The next presidential election was, moreover, beginning to loom. Led by Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, the US not only summarily dropped its campaign to force open the Japanese auto-parts market, but entered into an arrangement with the Japanese and Germans to take joint action to drive down the yen (and Deutschmark) and push up the dollar. This was to be accomplished in part by lowering Japanese interest rates vis-?-vis American, but also by stepping up Japanese and German purchase of dollars, as well as intervention by the Treasury itself to support the US currency. [4]

This was a momentous agreement, representing a total about-face in the policies both of the US and its main allies and rivals, in much the same way as had the original Plaza Accord of 1985. The US relinquished the advantage the cheap currency had given its manufacturing sector for almost a decade. But it secured in exchange the prospect of a huge inflow of funds that could be expected to help cover its rising current-account deficit and push up equity prices, as well as a flood of cheap imports which could be counted on to exert strong downward pressure on prices, relieving the Fed of much of the job of containing inflation. In a sense, the Clinton administration was favouring lenders and stock-market speculators at the expense of manufacturers, in much the same way as the Reagan administration had done during the first half of the 1980s. It may have believed that a slimmed-down US manufacturing sector could now successfully withstand a rise of the dollar. It may also have felt that increasing profitability in services and growing domestic consumption could make up for any decline in manufacturing profitability and export growth. In any event, powerful reverberations from this deal were felt immediately throughout the world system, in just the opposite way that the dramatic effects of the original Plaza Accord had been registered from 1985. A rising currency now began to squeeze American (rather than Japanese and German) manufacturing; Japanese and German industries (rather than US) initiated (short-lived) recoveries; and East Asia slid from record boom in the wake of the Plaza Accord to regional depression in the wake of Reverse Plaza. At the same time, a huge financial bubble now blew up in the US, enabling the American economic expansion to accelerate on the basis of rising shares, increasing debt and runaway consumption—much as the bubble in Japan had done, after 1985.

Equity surge

From the time of the Volcker recession at the start of the 1980s, the US stock market had been enjoying an historic ascent. This had been interrupted by the stock-market crash of 1987; but when not only the US Fed but also the Japanese financial authorities took decisive action to cut short the collapse in equity prices, many investors began to believe that the stock market would never be allowed to drop too severely, and the bull run continued. Between 1990 and 1993, the rising market was driven further up when Greenspan reduced short-term real interest rates to zero, in order to rescue debt-burdened corporations and failing banks—opening the way for a massive expansion of liquidity. Since opportunities to profit were still relatively limited in a US real economy only slowly recovering from recession, the resulting flood of extra-cheap money poured into the stock market, catalysing a major new escalation of equity prices in these years. Still, by the end of 1995 share prices, even after a rapid increase over the better part of a dozen years, had failed to outdistance the growth of corporate profits. It could indeed be said without too much exaggeration that the dramatic rise in equity prices up to that point basically reflected the recovery of profitability in the US economy from its depressed state in the recession of the early 1980s. Between 1980 and 1995 the index of equity prices on the New York Stock Exchange climbed by a factor of 4.28, while after-tax profits increased by a factor of 4.68. But from this point onwards, share prices quickly lost contact with underlying corporate profits, as the stock-market bubble blew up.

Clearly, the recovery of profitability that had begun a decade previously, and the high levels of investor confidence this had created, were necessary conditions for the surge of equity prices that took place from 1995–96. The forces that actually powered it are less easy to specify. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the dramatic transformations in international financial conditions and flows set off in the course of 1995 were largely responsible. In March 1995, in the wake of the Mexican bail-out, the Fed ended the credit-tightening campaign it had begun about a year earlier and, starting in July 1995, lowered rates by about three-quarters of a point during the subsequent half year. Perhaps even more significant, the measures taken to implement the Reverse Plaza Accord not only began to drive up the dollar, thereby amplifying increases in the value of US assets (including equities) for internationally oriented investors, but also unleashed a torrent of cash from Japan, East Asia and the world at large into US financial markets, sharply easing the cost of borrowing for share-purchases.

In April 1995, the Bank of Japan cut the official discount rate, already a very low 1.75 per cent, to 1 per cent and, the following September, reduced it further to 0.5 per cent. This did help to bring about the desired effect of reducing the yen’s value. But rather than strongly stimulating a domestic economy in which profit rates were still too low to justify much long-term investment in new plant and equipment, Japan’s ultra-low interest rates had the effect of pumping up the global supply of credit, as a major portion of increased Japanese liquidity leaked out of the country. US investors, in particular, fabricated a very profitable ‘carry trade’, borrowing yen in Japan at a low rate of interest, converting them into dollars, and using the latter to invest around the world. Much of the proceeds found their way back into the US stock market. [5]

Meanwhile, Japanese authorities were pouring money into US government securities and US currency, and encouraging Japanese insurance companies to follow suit by relaxing regulations on overseas investment. Governments from East Asia, aiming to hold down the value of local currencies so as to sustain export growth, did the same and were followed by private investors, especially from hedge funds, from all over the world. In 1995 the rest of the world thus bought US government securities worth $197.2 billion, two and a half times the average for the previous four years, following up with purchases of $312 billion in 1996 and $189.6 billion in 1997. Of these purchases, by far the greater part were Treasury instruments—$168.5 billion in 1995, $270.7 billion in 1996, and $139.7 billion in 1997. The grand total of more than half a trillion dollars of US Treasury instruments purchased by foreigners in these three years covered not only the total new debt issued by the US Treasury in this period, but a further $266.2 billion of US government debt previously held by, and now bought from, US citizens. [6]

Such enormous purchases could not but dramatically ease conditions on US money markets, driving down interest rates and freeing a flood of liquidity to purchase US equities. Between January 1995, when they hit their peak in the wake of the bond-market crunch of 1994, and January 1996, interest rates on thirty-year Treasury bonds fell sharply from 7.85 per cent to 6.05 per cent. This near 25 per cent reduction in the cost of long-term borrowing over the course of 1995 was a major factor in catalysing the stock-market bubble. So, too, was the new take-off of the dollar, triggered by dramatic purchases of the currency by US authorities, in coordination with their Japanese and German counterparts, in May and August of 1995; and subsequently propelled by the tidal wave of foreign purchases of US government securities. The dollar’s exchange rate against the yen shot up by 50 per cent in the short period between April 1995 and the end of 1996.

With interest rates falling so sharply and the dollar rising so rapidly, the stock market could not but take off. After having risen respectively by just 2 and 1.8 per cent in 1994, the S&P 500 and the NYSE jumped up by 17.6 and 14.6 per cent in 1995, by far the biggest increases since 1989. Both indexes rose by a further 23 per cent during 1996, and by December of that year Greenspan was already issuing his famous warning against ‘irrational exuberance’. Investors ignored his admonition. In 1997, the S&P 500 increased by another 30 per cent, the NYSE an additional 27 per cent. The expansion of the US equity price bubble beginning in 1995 was soon amplifying the accelerating growth in the economy at large. Major sales of shares, especially to corporations that financed their buybacks through debt, added substantially to households’ buying power. At the same time, the inflation of asset values resulting from the rise in stock prices appeared to justify a historic running down of household savings, as well as a big increase in household borrowing. Acceleration of consumption in turn gave a major fillip to what appeared to be an increasingly powerful boom, while the rise in US imports and current-account deficit helped pull the world economy out of the recessions of the first half of the decade. The non-manufacturing sector was the principal beneficiary at home. With consumption growth accelerating, demand for its products expanded accordingly. Since its output was composed mainly of non-tradeables, far from being hurt by the flood of imports cheapened by the high dollar, it enjoyed lower-cost imports. Non-manufacturing investment rose very rapidly and, as already noted, brought about a real leap in the growth of productivity. Between 1995 and 1997, long-flat (though never extremely reduced) profitability in the service sector rose by 22 per cent, taking the rate of profit in the non-financial private economy as a whole to within 19 per cent of its 1965 peak. [7] It appeared that the economy was finally operating on all cylinders.

Debacle of 1998

By the autumn of 1997, the East Asian crisis had only just begun to unfold, and the US economy was at the zenith of its manufacturing-led revival. In 1996 and 1997, manufacturing output and exports continued to grow rapidly. Costs of production, moreover, were still falling sharply, as the annual growth of labour productivity averaged 3.2 per cent, the output-capital ratio 6 per cent, and nominal compensation a mere 2.2 per cent in these years. Nevertheless, over the same two-year period, the real effective exchange rate of the dollar rose by 20 per cent, and its value versus the yen by 50 per cent, placing powerful downward pressure on the prices of tradeable goods. Manufacturing product prices were thus forced down at an average annual rate of 3.5 per cent in 1996 and 1997, with the result that the rise of the manufacturing rate of profit—and that of the private economy as a whole—originating in the mid 1980s and only briefly interrupted in the recession of the early 1990s, finally came to an end during the second half of 1997. [8]

When the Asian crisis hit, US producers had to face not only stepped-up competition from their rivals in Japan, Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe who were benefiting from falling currencies. They also had to confront the collapse of hitherto dynamic East Asian export markets and the flooding of US domestic markets by East Asian imports, made extraordinarily cheap by the depreciation of East Asian currencies. The growth of US exports, an essential motor of the boom, plummeted in real terms from 14 per cent in 1997 to 2 per cent in 1998, from an average annual rate of 17.4 per cent in the third quarter of 1997 to minus 0.5 per cent in the second and third quarters of 1998. US real imports, meanwhile, continued to expand at an 11.8 per cent clip in 1998, compared to 14.2 per cent in 1997. With export and import prices tumbling by 3.1 per cent and 5.9 per cent respectively in 1998, the US manufacturing sector was set for a fall; the corporate manufacturing profit rate fell by about 12 per cent, vis-?-vis 1997. [9] Declining corporate profits in turn exerted downward pressure on equity markets. Share prices of the smaller companies represented on the Russell 2000 were most vulnerable, falling by 20 per cent between April and the first week in August. By that point, the elite S&P 500 had itself begun to drop, losing 10 per cent from its mid-July peak; in the wake of the Russian default, it fell a further 10 per cent. The stock-market decline threatened to put a quick end to the US expansion by destroying business confidence and sending into reverse the rising tide of domestic consumption. With much of the rest of the international economy in crisis, a recession in the US now threatened to plunge the world into depression.

3. The bubble sustains the boom

By late September 1998, a major crisis was unfolding in the US. The Russian default triggered a flight to quality in the bond markets, manifested in the emergence of huge differentials between the interest rates paid on relatively safe US Treasuries and those on less secure corporate bonds, LDC sovereign debt, and even certain European government issues. The shares of commercial banks dropped precipitously, on fears of big losses on loans to emerging nations. But the greatest losses were sustained by the hedge funds and proprietary trading desks of commercial and investment banks, collectively known as Highly Leveraged Financial Institutions (HLFI), which lost untold billions of dollars after accumulating huge long positions in high-risk, poorer-quality, higher-yielding debt instruments, offset by short positions in developed nations’ government bonds.

The watershed came on 20 September, when the huge Long Term Capital Management hedge fund (LTCM) admitted to the US government that it was facing insolvency. It was at this juncture that the US Fed intervened. It brought together a consortium of fourteen Wall Street banks and brokerage houses to organize a $3.6 billion bail-out of LTCM. Greenspan justified this rescue operation of a non-bank on the grounds that, had the Fed failed to act, the international financial system would have been put in jeopardy. [10] The Fed then made its famous three successive interest-rate cuts, including one dramatic reduction between its regular meetings. If its immediate aim was to counteract the danger of financial markets seizing up, a broader goal was from the start to revive equity prices, and keep the long-running bull market going. The Fed’s interest-rate reductions thus marked a turning point, not so much because the resulting fall in the cost of borrowing was all that great, but because it gave such a strong positive signal to investors that it wanted stocks to rise, in order to stabilize a domestic and international economy that was careening toward crisis. Greenspan vigorously denied, of course, that his interest rate reductions were at all designed to affect share prices. But investors did not have to be reminded that his intervention at this juncture was hardly the first of his bail-outs of financiers and corporations. In October 1987, he had intervened to counter the stock-market crash, and between 1990 and 1992 he had reduced real short-term interest rates to zero to rescue failing banks and deeply indebted corporations, in the wake of the S&L and commercial banks crises, and the leveraged mergers and acquisitions debacle. Nor had it escaped their notice that the US Treasury and Federal Reserve had gone out of their way to rescue the leading international banks at the time of the Latin American debt crisis of 1982; the American investors who stood to suffer huge losses as a result of the Mexican collapse of 1994–95; and the international banks, once again, at the time of the crisis in East Asia of 1997–98.

Investors were thus confirmed in their view that Greenspan simply would not allow stock prices to fall too far, all the more so because they realized how dependent the current economic expansion had become on consumption and thus the bull market. In truth, Greenspan probably had little choice. The main foundation of the US expansion, the recovery of manufacturing profitability, had given way under the impact of the rising dollar and the worsening of world over-production that had resulted from the crisis in East Asia. Between 1987 and 1997 export growth had been responsible for almost one-third of total growth of GDP—in 1998 and 1999 taken together, for only 7 per cent. To avert a downturn on an international scale, the Fed was in effect substituting a new form of demand stimulus—increased private debt, both corporate and consumer—for the old Keynesian kind, based on public deficits. The American stimulus would function much as it had in the mid 1970s and early 1980s to pull the world away from recession.

The Fed’s decisive intervention in the equity and credit markets in autumn–winter 1998 not only put a stop to the frightening fall of the stock market of the previous summer but enabled it to skyrocket further, without the benefit of any rise in profits at all. Thus, during 1998 and 1999, the NYSE Index increased by 20.5 per cent and 12.5 per cent, respectively, even though after-tax corporate profits net of interest grew by minus 3.9 per cent and 4.6 per cent. In the same two years, the S&P 500 Index increased by 27 per cent and 19 per cent, respectively, despite earnings for S&P 500 firms of 0 per cent in 1998 and 17 per cent in 1999. The Fed jumped in to re-assure the credit markets yet again at the end of 1999, ostensibly in response to possible Y2K disruption. By pumping sufficient liquidity into the banking system to bring the Federal Funds Rate suddenly down from 5.5 to below 4 per cent—the widest deviation from its target rate in nine years—Greenspan paved the way for a final frantic, upward leap in the equity markets during the first quarter of 2000. By March 2000, the S&P 500 had risen 20 per cent above its level at the end of October 1999. It now stood at 3.3 times its level at the end of 1994. The technology and internet-dominated NASDAQ had exploded in much more extreme fashion, up from 2736 in early October 1999 to 5000 in March 2000.

Corporate buy-backs

If the conditions making for the continual expansion of the bubble were nurtured by the Fed, equity prices were themselves directly, and consciously, pushed up by the corporations. In the course of the leveraged mergers and acquisitions craze of the 1980s, firms had initiated the practice of buying up their own stock through ever increasing assumption of debt. The remarkable outcome was that corporations made the overwhelming majority of net purchases of equities during this era: no less than 72.5 per cent between 1983 and 1990. Although their capital expenditures were quite limited in this period, corporate cash flow covered only about 87.5 per cent of such outlays, leaving 12.5 per cent to be financed by borrowing. It follows that fully 100 per cent of corporate stock purchases in those years were financed by further borrowing. Corporate stock purchases absorbed 50 per cent of corporate borrowing and amounted to 125 per cent of retained earnings (after-tax profits of enterprise minus dividends) and 25 per cent of corporate cash flow (retained earnings plus depreciation). [11]

During the first three years of the 1990s, in the wake of the corporate debt crisis, firms pretty much ceased both to buy back stocks or to borrow. But, beginning in 1994, taking up where they had left off during the leveraged mergers and acquisitions movement of the 1980s, they went ever more deeply into debt. As in that earlier era, moreover, they did so hardly at all for the purpose of funding investment in new plant and equipment, which continued to be covered mainly out of internal funds, but instead mainly for the purpose of buying back stocks. The resumption of the mergers and acquisitions movement, which has accelerated in recent years, accounted for some of these operations. Somewhat lower real interest rates, which made the cost of borrowing cheaper, together with a tax system that is lighter on capital gains than dividends and allows corporations to write off interest payments entirely, were also important factors. But it is clear that, as the 1990s progressed, mounting stock buy-backs were increasingly driven by the desire of corporate executives, taking an increasing part of their salaries in the form of stock options, to drive up company stock values simply to line their own pockets. They have had no hesitation in resorting to ever more debt to accomplish this. By 1999, the corporate debt-to-equity ratio of S&P 500 companies had shot up to 116 per cent, compared to 84 per cent at the end of the 1980s, when the corporate debt crisis had paralysed both banks and corporations. [12] In the years 1994–99 inclusive, borrowing by non-financial corporations amounted to $1.22 trillion. Of that total, corporations used just 15.3 per cent to fund capital expenditures, financing the rest of such purchases out of retained earnings plus depreciation, while they devoted no less than 57 per cent or $697.4 billion, to buying back stocks—an amount equal to about 75 per cent of their retained earnings and 18 per cent of their cash flow.


By the first quarter of 2000, the value of corporate equities, their market capitalization, had soared to $19.6 trillion, up from $6.3 trillion in 1994. The incongruity of this figure, and this ascent, was evident from many angles. Most definitive, of course, was the lack of connexion between the rise of share prices and the growth of output—and particularly of profitability—of the underlying economy. Market capitalization as a percentage of GDP had needed just five years between 1995 and early 2000 to triple from 50 per cent to 150 per cent of GDP—despite the fact that after-tax corporate profits had risen by only 41.2 per cent in the interim. By contrast, it had taken a full thirteen years between 1982 and 1995 just to double from 25 per cent to 50 per cent of GDP—even though corporate profits had risen by 160 per cent in the intervening period. [13] Equally telling was the unprecedented divergence between companies’ valuations on the stock market in terms of the price of their equities and the value of the financial and physical capital that they possessed. In the first quarter of 2000, the ratio of the stock-market value of US non-financial corporations to their net worth—known as Tobin’s Q—reached 1.92, up from 0.94 in 1994 and 1.14 in 1995, and from an average of 0.65 for the twentieth century as a whole. This was some 50 per cent higher than this ratio’s previous peaks during the twentieth century, which came, not surprisingly, in 1929 (at 1.3) and 1969 (at 1.2), at the very conclusions of the stock market booms of those decades.

With corporations’ shares costing so much more than the means of production and financial assets that they owned, it would seem to have been only common sense for investors to buy new plant and equipment and the like, rather than purchase equities, in order to secure any given amount of capital. That they so often did the opposite was a clear indication that a bubble was in progress. [14] Finally, in March 2000, the price-to-earnings ratio for the corporations represented on the S&P 500 index—the ratio of what it costs, on average, to buy a share with respect to the annual earnings (profits) that share represents—reached about 32. In view of the extent to which the rise of share prices had diverged from the increase of profits, it is not surprising that this was again a record—at least one third higher than this ratio’s previous peaks during the twentieth century, and about two and a half times its historical average of 13.2. The annual rate of return on equities—the so-called earnings yield, which is simply the price–earnings ratio inverted—was thus extremely low in historical terms—around 3 per cent, compared to the historical average of 7.7 per cent. One might therefore have expected that stocks would have been regarded as an increasingly bad investment. That the opposite was the case was indicative of the fact that equities were being purchased, for the most part, simply on the expectation that their prices would go up further, irrespective of corporations’ rates of return, and one more sign of the bubble dynamic. [15]

Household debt

Meanwhile, private citizens were launched on their own spree. Between 1994 and the first quarter of 2000, the value of equities held by households rose from $4.5 trillion to $11.5 trillion. [16] Buoyed by this enormous asset appreciation, households felt they had the wherewithal to decrease savings and step up borrowing to an historically unprecedented degree. Between 1950 and 1992, the personal savings rate had never gone above 10.9 per cent and never fallen below 7.5 per cent, except in three isolated years. Between 1992 and the first half of 2000, it plummeted from 8.7 per cent to 0.3 per cent. Conversely, household borrowing soared—although as a percentage of GDP it did not quite reach the record levels of the 1980s, probably because borrowing by working-class families to compensate for declining incomes was not as widespread as in the earlier period. Still, by 1999 household debt as a proportion of personal disposable income reached the all-time high of 97 per cent, up from an average of 80 per cent during the second half of the 1980s. Throughout this same period, 1994–99 inclusive, households were in every single year net sellers of equities, for a total of $218 billion. Put crudely, corporations, with some significant help from state and local government retirement funds and life insurance companies, made the net purchases that drove up the stock market, largely by means of stepping up their borrowing. Households took advantage of the resulting inflation of asset values not just to increase their borrowing and decrease their savings, but to realize significant capital gains. [17]

In order to respond to the skyrocketing demand for loans from households and corporations, to cover increased consumption as well as the purchase of equities, financial institutions had vastly to expand their own borrowing. Between 1995 and 1999, financial-sector borrowing increased by two and a half times and averaged just about 10 per cent of GDP, more than double the average of the previous decade. This was manifest in the rapid growth of the money supply. Between 1995 and 1999, M3 grew at an average annual rate of just under 8.3 per cent, compared to 1 per cent a year between 1990 and 1995. Such a burst of borrowing by the financial sector could not have occurred without the blessing of the Federal Reserve, which might, for example, have increased interest rates or reserve requirements had it wished to keep down the growth of debt to fund stock purchases and consumption. But containing the bubble could not have been farther from Alan Greenspan’s mind. Indeed, during the years 1998–99, financial-sector borrowing averaged 12 per cent of GDP, which was 75 per cent higher than in any previous year on record. In the same two years, just to be sure that available liquidity was great enough to support the enormous binge taking place, the government itself, through such entities as the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Association, lent a cool $0.6 trillion to consumers for house purchases and the like. Its own borrowing to do so amounted to almost 30 per cent of total financial-sector debt in these years. By the end of 1999, household, corporate and financial debt were all at their highest levels as percentages of GDP in postwar US history.

Runaway consumption

As savings collapsed, debt mounted and big capital gains were realized, personal consumption sped up, playing an ever greater role in driving economic growth. After increasing at an average annual rate of 2.9 per cent and accounting for about two-thirds of the growth of GDP between 1985 and 1995, household expenditures grew at an average annual pace of 4.2 per cent between 1995 and 1999, when they were responsible for 73 per cent of GDP increase. As the Fed and the Treasury must have hoped, moreover, this more than made up for the collapse of exports from the end of 1997, increasing at the torrid average annual rate of 5 per cent and accounting for four-fifths of a GDP growth of 4.3 per cent a year in 1998–99. All told, after having increased at a rate of 2.4 per cent between 1989 and 1995, GDP grew at a rate of 4.15 per cent between 1995 and 1999. Of this, according to the Federal Reserve, about a quarter could be attributed to the ‘wealth effect’ of the skyrocketing stock market. Put another way, stock-market-driven consumption boosted the growth of GDP in this period by about one-third. Real wages, too, finally began to increase substantially in 1998 and 1999, averaging 3.3 per cent in the non-farm sector, after having averaged 0.3 per cent between 1986 and 1996, giving a further major lift to consumption in these years.

US supply could not keep up with this level of demand. By 1998–99 the increase in gross domestic purchases was outrunning that of gross domestic product by 25 per cent. Goods produced abroad had to fill the gap, and real imports of goods and services rose at the very rapid pace of 11.2 per cent per annum between 1995 and 1999, compared to 6.1 per cent per annum between 1985 and 1995. Such ballooning US imports were critical in reviving the world economy from 1995, and indispensable in preventing it from falling into depression in the wake of the East Asian crisis of 1997–98. During the early years of the 1990s, the US current account deficit had come back somewhat from its record highs of the mid to late 1980s. But, from 1994–95, as the economy began to expand, the external balance started to slide again. Once export growth collapsed and consumption accelerated in 1998, trade and current-account deficits exploded. In 1999 and 2000, both set new records.

To finance these, the US had no choice but to incur growing liabilities to overseas purchasers. Foreign investors, however, hardly needed coaxing to purchase American assets, and their rush to get hold of them helped considerably to swell the bubble. The process got under way in 1995, when Japanese and other East Asian governments sought to keep down their exchange rates by purchasing US government securities, and private buyers followed suit to take advantage of the rising dollar. But in 1997, the composition of overseas purchases shifted significantly. Various East Asian governments were obliged to liquidate dollar assets in an effort to support their plummeting currencies. On the other hand, private investors abroad increasingly saw the US as a safe haven in a world under threat of recession and stepped up foreign direct investments, becoming even more central players in US equity and corporate bond markets. In the first quarter of 2000 they were responsible for 30 per cent of total purchases of shares—up from 15 per cent in 1999 and 7 per cent in 1998—and 40 per cent of total bond purchases—up from 33 per cent in 1999 and 20 per cent in 1998.

The growth of foreign entry into these markets amplified the US asset boom, as overseas lenders directly and indirectly subsidized debt-driven consumption, so that US demand could subsidize their own exports. The fact remains that the bulk of the assets they bought could be liquidated with relative ease—their private purchases of US Treasuries, corporate bonds and equities between 1995 and the first half of 2000 amounting to around $1.6 trillion, compared to around 900 billion in direct investments. By the first half of 2000, gross US assets held by the rest of the world reached $6.7 trillion, or 67 per cent of US GDP, compared to just $3.4 trillion, or 46 per cent of GDP, in 1995. Of these, $3.49 trillion were composed of privately held US treasury certificates, corporate bonds and equities, compared to $1.2 trillion in direct investments. [18] The dependence of American prosperity—and the prospects for global expansion—on unprecedented foreign purchases of US assets, is stark. So, too, is the vulnerability of the US boom to any withdrawal of overseas confidence.

4. The contours and character of the boom

Given the extraordinary hype surrounding it, the contours of the expansion of the 1990s and the boom to which it has given rise should be kept in perspective. In 1999 Alan Greenspan gushed: ‘We are witnessing, this decade in the US, history’s most compelling demonstration of the productive capacity of free peoples operating in free markets.’ He had clearly been seduced by his own creation. Taking the data at face value, there are no grounds yet for thinking that we have entered a ‘new economy’—if by ‘new economy’ is meant one of unique (or even unusual) productivity and vitality, in historical terms, and not just greater dynamism than during the long downturn of the two decades after 1973.

The performance of the US economy in the decade of the 1990s as a whole did not remotely compare to that of the first three decades of the post-war era. The decade’s business cycle has been stronger, but not dramatically so, than those of the 1980s (1979–90) or the 1970s (1973–79). Moreover, to the degree it did improve upon its predecessors, this was entirely due to the growth acceleration after 1995. [19] Till then, American economic performance in the 1990s failed to better that of the 1970s and 1980s, let alone that of the 1950s and 1960s. In terms of the growth of GDP, it was actually worse. Since 1995, the expansion has become considerably more powerful. But even the boom of the four and a half years between 1995 and the middle of 2000 has, at best, barely been able to match the twenty-three-year economic expansion between 1950 and 1973, in terms of the average annual growth of GDP—4.15 per cent versus 4.2 per cent; of labour productivity—2.7 per cent versus 2.7 per cent; of real wages—1.8 per cent versus 2.7 per cent; or of the rate of unemployment—4.7 per cent versus 4.2 per cent (and that long period, unlike the present short one, included several recessions). Of course, the magnitude of the expansion of the US economy during the long postwar upturn did not remotely compare to that of Japan, or of most of Western Europe.

It should also be pointed out that the pace of US job creation during the 1990s has been less than that during the upswings of the 1970s and 1980s, and has delivered such low rates of unemployment mainly because the expansion started with little labour-market slack, compared to those predecessors. Moreover, the growth of real wages has been reasonably rapid only since 1998. In fact, as late as 1997 the real hourly-wage level in the non-farm economy was no higher than it had been in 1992. For production and non-supervisory workers, the situation was very much worse: by 1999, their average hourly real wage had failed to surpass its level of 1970, and was still more than 5 per cent below its 1979 peak. Meanwhile, notoriously, the distribution of wealth over the course of the 1990s got much worse: between 1989 and 1997, the top 1 per cent increased its net worth by 11.3 per cent, the top 5 per cent by 10 per cent, the top 10 per cent by 4.1 per cent, and the bottom 90 per cent by minus 4.4 per cent. [20]

Perhaps most telling of all, the rate of growth of labour productivity achieved in the US manufacturing sector since 1993, the evidence most commonly cited for the emergence of a ‘new economy’, is not clearly better than that of its leading rivals. Whereas US manufacturing productivity increased at an annual rate of 4.7 per cent between 1993 and 1999, German and French manufacturing productivity grew at the average rates of 5 per cent (through 1998) and 4.25 per cent, respectively. During the same period, Japanese manufacturing productivity lagged somewhat, averaging 3.7 per cent, but was clearly held down by recession (yielding less than zero productivity growth for a couple of these years). In fact, between 1990 and 1998, non-farm labour productivity growth in the Euro area as a whole was roughly equal to that of the US, averaging about 2 per cent a year, and the increase in total factor productivity was somewhat higher. [21]

A new vitality

Bearing all this in mind, it remains true that, when the burst of growth beginning in 1996 is taken into account, the business cycle of the 1990s did mark a modest improvement over that of the 1970s and 1980s, and the recent four-to-five year US boom does represent a clear discontinuity in the context of the past quarter-century’s long stagnation. How should the numbers be interpreted? It is clear that during the course of the 1990s the American economy displayed a major increase in vitality, expressed in interrelated accelerations in investment and productivity growth in the non-farm economy, after very extended periods of investment stagnation and slow productivity gains. [22] Between 1995 and the middle of 2000, real business plant and equipment averaged respectively 17 and 9.7 per cent as a percentage of GDP, compared to 14.6 and 6 per cent during the eight-year expansion of the 1980s, and 13.4 and 3.4 per cent during the nine-year expansion of the 1960s. During the same four-and-a-half-year period, non-farm labour productivity growth averaged 2.7 per cent, compared to 1.6 per cent between 1990 and 1995 and 1.4 per cent between 1973 and 1990. [23]

In light of this increase in the rate of capital accumulation, the figures indicating a parallel upsurge in the growth of labour productivity, even if overstated, would appear mostly to carry conviction, despite the technical controversy surrounding them. The case is fairly clear-cut for manufacturing, simply because the acceleration of both productivity and investment has been so pronounced, and has occurred where one would expect it. In the period between 1993 and 1999, the rate of growth of manufacturing labour productivity was more than one-third greater than that during the business expansion between 1982 and 1990. It seems only reasonable to view this impressive improvement as stemming from the 100 per cent increase in the rate of growth of the capital stock in the same period, compared to 1982–90. This is especially so since, for the first time since the long downturn began around 1973, the capital–labour ratio was able to grow consistently during an expansion, increasing at an average annual rate of 1.8 per cent between 1993 and 1998, compared to 0 per cent between 1975 and 1979, and 1982 and 1990. [24] It is significant that in the durable goods sector, labour productivity growth jumped to approximately 7 per cent for 1993–99, compared to 3.9 per cent between 1982 and 1990. This is where one would have anticipated productivity gains to be disproportionately located, since it was here that the acceleration of investment was mainly concentrated—with an increase of durable goods investment averaging 12.3 per cent between 1993 and 1998, against 6.3 per cent for non-durable goods. It is here, too, that the leading growth industries are to be found: industrial and commercial machinery, including computers, and electrical machinery, including semi-conductors.

Productivity gains in the remainder of the economy are more difficult to evaluate, because of their extreme discontinuity. Labour productivity in non-manufacturing increased at an average annual rate of about 2.4 per cent between 1995 and 1999, after having barely grown at all during the previous eighteen years. Even by 1995, the level of labour productivity in this sector was a scant 4 per cent higher than it had been in 1977. The fact that non-manufacturing productivity did not begin to increase until the growth of output accelerated, beginning in 1996, has led a number of analysts to discount it as a by-product of this more rapid, perhaps unsustainable output growth. By this reasoning, the uptick in recorded labour-productivity growth outside of manufacturing is largely a result of increased pressures on workers in response to fast-rising demand, an expression of the speed-up common to the later phases of the business cycle, when investment growth typically subsides. What calls this account into question, however, is that the growth of investment during the 1990s has, very atypically, actually accelerated as the business cycle has matured, creating the strong possibility that the rise in registered output per hour is an expression of increased plant and equipment at workers’ disposal, not just their increased effort. Average annual investment growth in the non-manufacturing sector in nominal terms has thus been well over 10 per cent during the business expansion that began in 1991—more than twice as high as in the comparable expansion of the much more inflationary 1980s—and reached its highest point during the first half of 2000. Over that same period, moreover, nominal investment in information processing and software increased as a proportion of the total from about 30 to 35 percent. It is hard to believe that employers made such large expenditures over such an extended period, if these were not contributing a good deal to their profitability by substantially increasing their productivity growth.

The containment of inflation during the 1990s is in line with the preceding analysis. Accounting for stable prices during the first half of the decade is hardly a problem. In those years, real wage growth was effectively zero, so upward pressure from costs on prices was minimal. With GDP increase in these years also very limited, the growth of demand was even lower than in the 1970s and 1980s. Just to make sure, as noted, the Fed raised interest rates very sharply in 1994. What requires more explanation is the low rate of inflation over the next half-decade, in the face of a rapid growth of GDP, a major fall in unemployment and acceleration of real wages. No doubt the weakened position of workers continued to be a critical factor in keeping down price increases. Private-sector union density averaged below 10 per cent of the labour force during the second half of the 1990s, notwithstanding the efforts of the AFL–CIO under a new leadership. Despite low unemployment, moreover, workers’ insecurity remained great, as layoffs and job turnover continued to run very high and the huge proportion of the labour force in low-wage slots continued to undercut the bargaining position of those with better pay. While ever tighter labour markets have naturally forced up wage growth to a significant degree, they have not so far squeezed profits or lifted prices significantly, and are unlikely to do so, simply because corporations at present have the power to force real wage increases into line with productivity growth. [25]

The main active force in keeping down inflation during the second half of the decade has probably been the very slow growth in the prices of world manufactures and US imports—results of the high dollar and crisis conditions abroad. Especially with the East Asian economies in the doldrums, import prices of industrial inputs have been very stable. Moreover, with world demand sluggish from 1997 through 1999, raw material—and, especially, oil—prices have been kept down until very recently. Finally, since the dollar has risen so much in value, goods from overseas are that much cheaper in the US. Under these circumstances, it has been extremely difficult for American sellers of tradeable goods to push up prices. Even so, it is difficult to discount the anti-inflationary impact of the rapid growth of productivity in US manufacturing, which limited the average annual growth of its unit labour costs between 1995 and 1999 to minus 1.2 per cent. Increased productivity growth has clearly been important outside of manufacturing as well, as price increases have also been kept down in the non-farm economy as a whole—i.e., beyond the tradeable goods sector.

Finally, and crucially, the rapid increase of the capital stock, by preventing capacity utilization from increasing much over the length of the expansion, despite the accelerating growth of GDP, will also have been critical in containing costs and prices. Even despite the record-breaking length of the 1990s expansion, the factory operating rate at the beginning of 1999 was more than a percentage point below its average over the past 30 years. To make the same point another way, capacity utilization was a bit lower in 1999 than in 1993. During the last two and a half years, from 1997 through the first half of 2000, real wage growth in the non-farm economy has averaged 2.9 per cent per year—yet the increase in unit labour costs over the same period has averaged just 1.6 per cent, only a little higher than that of product prices, at 1.4 per cent.

In sum, an explosive growth of household consumption, based on a record run-down of savings and unprecedented growth of private indebtedness, began to amplify the US expansion in 1996, and secured its continuation in 1998. What also distinguished the economy’s trajectory in these years was that rapidly expanding demand was met by fast growing supply and little inflation, i.e. by rising output rather than rising prices. Ultimately responsible for this improvement in performance was the major increase in pre-tax and after-tax profit rates, originating in the manufacturing sector between 1985 and 1995, but spreading beyond it between 1995 and 1997 and bringing about a very significant revival, if not total recovery, of overall non-farm profitability by comparison with the postwar boom. During the 1970s, due to the growth of Federal deficits, public and private borrowing combined as a percentage of GDP was 50 per cent higher than in the later 1990s. But because profit rates were significantly lower, corporations had relatively smaller surpluses available for investment, while many were on the edge of bankruptcy. The result was ‘less bang for the buck’—relatively bigger price increases and relatively smaller investment, productivity and output increases, in response to any given increase in aggregate demand. During the 1980s, public and private deficits combined were higher as a percentage of GDP than in the 1970s. But still-low profit rates and record-high real interest rates kept investment and productivity growth to a minimum. In this context, as the increase of debt drove the expansion, inflation was held down by very slow nominal (as well as real) wage growth, as well as a very high dollar during the first half of the decade.

By contrast, during the early to mid-1990s, as pre- and (even more) after-tax profitability approached the peaks of the mid 1960s—unleashing increased investment, industrial capacity and productivity growth through the second half of the decade—domestic supply could keep up with debt-driven demand in a way that it could not through most of the long period that preceded it. Not only were price increases held down, but rising wages were accommodated without much pressure on the rate of profit, at least outside the manufacturing sector (which was indeed squeezed by falling world prices from 1998). If an ‘artificial’ debt-based increase in demand, founded ultimately in rising equity prices, drove the boom after 1995, the economy was able to respond with considerably more vigour than it had for a long time.

5. Can the boom be sustained?

The question, of course, is whether the boom can be sustained. Will the excesses of the bubble that have driven the boom so far upward find their nemesis in a down-side over-correction, as they did in Japan at the start of the 1990s? Well aware of this danger, the US authorities are counting on the hectic expansion of US household consumption—before it subsides—to place the economy on a sounder footing, catalysing a smooth transition from the international crisis of 1997–98 to a sustained world upturn. By animating export-led expansions throughout the global economy, and so setting off a reciprocal acceleration of overseas demand for American goods, US consumption growth will—in the favoured scenario—enable American manufacturers to recover the levels of export growth they enjoyed up to 1997, and thereby regain their former rates of profit. At the same time, it is hoped, investment outside of manufacturing will keep growing sufficiently fast to sustain productivity gains at least at the level of the past four to five years, thereby raising the rate of profit in services yet higher. The economy could then break its current addiction to debt-driven consumption, shifting the basis of the boom to exports and investments—and therewith a sounder foundation for elevated equity prices (which could, in the meantime, have seen a ‘correction’, but would have been prevented from crashing).

As of the middle of 2000, the US economy seemed to be developing in much the manner hoped for by US authorities. It was booming in an extraordinary fashion, actually accelerating its pace in a way rarely seen so late in a business expansion. Over the previous twelve months, GDP had grown by 6.1 per cent. In the same period, non-farm labour productivity had increased at the astounding pace of 7 per cent—far beyond the quite respectable 4.1 per cent achieved the year before. This result is almost certainly attributable to still accelerating investment, which increased 14.2 per cent for the year, growing at an annual rate of 18 per cent during the first half of 2000. On the other hand, despite the big jump in GDP and productivity growth, real wages rose just 1.4 per cent during the year ending in the middle of 2000, half the 2.7 per cent increase of the twelve months before that, and crept up a mere 0.8 per cent on an annual basis during the first half of 2000. Firms, meanwhile, were able to raise prices significantly faster than in the previous year, especially during the first half of 2000, when they increased at an annualized pace of 2.7 per cent. Things could hardly have been going much better for capital. It is no wonder that, during the first half of 2000, corporate profits (ex-interest) rose at a 14 per cent annual pace.

Meanwhile, the expanding US economy did indeed stimulate faster growth throughout much of the world, especially parts of East Asia and Western Europe, and was benefiting in turn from increased overseas sales. Korea, for example, had seemingly emerged from its crisis. Its exports to the US shot up by 20–25 per cent in 1999 and the first half of 2000, while Korean GDP grew 11 per cent in 1999 and was projected to expand almost as fast in 2000. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore were doing about as well. The Euro economies, whose exports to the US market increased at an annualized rate of 11 per cent for 1999–2000, were expanding as rapidly as they had ever done since the end of the 1980s, at an average annual rate of better than 3.5 per cent, with unemployment declining. In this dynamic context of cyclical international upturn, US export growth also picked up speed—real goods exports increasing by 13.3 per cent for the year ending in the middle of 2000, compared to 2.2 per cent in 1998 and 4 per cent in 1999. The policy scenario of Greenspan–Summers–Clinton seemed to be in the process of realization, and the vista of a new long upturn seemed anything but a fantasy.

To help ensure the desired outcome, from June 1999 to 2000, Greenspan reversed his 1998 policy of reducing interest rates to push up equity prices, raising short-term interest rates to date by a total of 1.75 per cent. The tightening was quite mild, to say the least. By summer 2000, rising prices meant that real interest rates had still failed to rise above their level when the tightening began. The Fed Chair apparently hopes that, in the same way that his patent desire for a rise in equity prices drove up the stock market in autumn 1998, without the need for dramatically reduced borrowing costs, his unconcealed wish for them now to slow their ascent—or even sustain a modest ‘correction’—will bring the required outcome without his having to take stronger steps. The aim is explicitly to slow down household consumption—and therewith imports—by cooling off equity markets. [26] It remains, however, an open question whether the US can pull this off without jeopardizing its own expansion, and exposing the rest of the world to the risk of stagnation, or worse. The course that the US economy must negotiate is one that would largely return it to the more export-oriented path that it had been pursuing up through 1997—ideally, this time, complemented by accelerated export growth among the US’s trading partners and rivals, too. A mutually expanding world division of labour would, as in the textbooks, confer sufficient gains on all parties to sustain a coordinated international expansion. To further underwrite the whole process, the US non-tradeables non-manufacturing sector would have to sustain a virtuous upward spiral of high rates of profit, leading to higher investment and productivity growth, unleashing in turn faster wage growth and a dynamically expanding domestic market.

International over-production?

But neither the return to a path of complementary rather than competitive international expansion, nor the continuation of an investment boom in the non-tradeables sector can be taken for granted. It must be remembered, to begin with, that right up through 1998, the world’s leading manufacturing economies—in the US and East Asia, in Western Europe and Japan—had continued to find it difficult, if not impossible, to expand and prosper together, in the face of international over-capacity and over-production in manufacturing. From 1995, as we have seen, the rising dollar and stepped-up growth of the US economy spurred fast-rising US imports, which in turn detonated a new cyclical upturn across much of the world, pulling Western Europe and Japan out of the doldrums, just as they had done in the wake of the cyclical downturns of the mid 1970s and early 1980s (but had notably failed to do during the first half of the 1990s, when slowed US growth and a low dollar had ratified West European and Japanese recessions). Indeed, in 1997 the growth of GDP for the G7 and OECD economies taken together hit a peak for the decade. But the high exchange rates in the US, and the East Asian economies tracking the dollar, so essential to export revival in Japan and Western Europe, led in short order to declining competitive performance, falling profitability and economic slowdown for US manufacturing, and an all-out crisis in East Asia—which threatened, by autumn–winter 1998, to pull the world economy, including the US, back into recession or worse. International over-capacity and over-production, manifested in ongoing downward pressure on the rate of profit in international manufacturing, had once again reared its ugly head.

According to a survey by the Economist taken early in 1999, ‘Thanks to enormous over-investment, especially in Asia, the world is awash with excess capacity in computer chips, steel, cars, textiles, and chemicals … The car industry, for instance, is already reckoned to have at least 30 per cent unused capacity worldwide—yet new factories in Asia are still coming on stream.’ The Economist went on to assert that: ‘None of this excess capacity is likely to be shut down quickly, because cash-strapped firms have an incentive to keep factories running, even at a loss, to generate income. The global glut is pushing prices relentlessly lower. Devaluation cannot make excess capacity disappear; it simply shifts the problem to somebody else’. The upshot, it concluded, was that the world output gap—between industrial capacity and its use—was approaching its highest levels since the 1930s. [27]

From 1998 onwards, as we have seen, the growth of debt-driven consumption came to substitute for increasing manufacturing competitiveness and rising exports in pushing the US economy forward, enabling it to finesse for the time being these system-wide problems. But the question that imposes itself is whether the US can now reverse the process, at the same time as its rivals sustain their own export-driven expansions. The international recovery that has gathered force since 1999 has provided little clear evidence that the world’s leading manufacturing economies can finally expand together, at least without the benefit of a US current-account deficit that is setting new records every year—i.e., without the continuation of the US consumption boom. US export growth has indeed responded crisply to an emerging international economic expansion, which has been made possible largely by the rise of US imports. But it has hardly done so unproblematically, since the level of American imports as of the middle of the year 2000 is a full 30 per cent above that of American exports. What this means is that exports would henceforth have to grow about a third faster than imports just to prevent the trade deficit from widening further. In the year ending at mid-2000, US exports grew by about 13 per cent, but imports increased by about 22 per cent. Were that pace of import growth to continue for the rest of this year, exports would have to grow at an impossible 28.5 per cent annual rate just to hold the trade gap to its present $30 billion per month. It is therefore very hard to see how the current-account deficit can avoid hitting 4.5 or 5 per cent of GDP in 2000, setting a new record.

In the current international expansion, just as in that of 1996–97 (and, indeed, the previous cyclical recoveries of the first part of the 1980s and the middle of the 1970s), the US’s main rivals and partners in Western Europe and East Asia have depended upon a combination of sharply reduced exchange rates (notably the very low Euro) and a sizzling US import market to accelerate growth. Were the growth of American GDP and the American market to slow down significantly, it is hard to believe that the overseas stimulus to US exports would increase. On the contrary, for the world market to expand sufficiently to absorb US export growth at its current rapid rate, it would seem that US imports and the US current-account deficit must increase disproportionately. The implication is that for the American and world economy to continue to grow vigorously, the reigning pattern of expansion must continue to prevail—though this would obviously do nothing to reduce the current account deficit, indeed would be likely to make it worse.

By the same token, it is far from clear that US manufacturers can, at the current level of the dollar, easily escape the kind of downward pressure on their profits and their pace of capital accumulation that they experienced in 1998 and 1999, under the impact of the international economic slowdown. During the first half of 2000, profits (not including interest) in the corporate manufacturing sector had still failed to rise above their level of 1997, even though real goods exports grew by 13 per cent. This was despite the fact that personal consumption expenditures continued to explode upwards, as they had in 1999, at the astonishing—and probably unsustainable—annual rate of 5.35 per cent. It did not help, of course, that the Euro plummeted in this period. But then again, a low Euro has been pivotal for the European recovery that has helped drive US exports.

In the final analysis, the fundamental source of strength for the US non-financial economy since 1995, and especially since 1997, has been its capacity to maintain, and even increase, its aggregate profitability, despite the powerful downward pressure in the interim on the manufacturing profit rate. This strength has derived, in the first instance, from the remarkable performance of its non-manufacturing sector. There the profit rate rose sharply between 1995 and 1997 and continued to increase sufficiently to compensate for the decline in the manufacturing profit rate in 1998 and 1999. In fact, during the first half of 2000, total profits (not including interest) in the non-financial corporate economy were $93 billion dollars higher than they had been in 1997, and the non-manufacturing economy accounted for all but $3 billion of that increase. As a consequence, the profit rate in the non-financial corporate economy—including manufacturing—remained in 1999 as high as it had been in 1997, and will probably increase in 2000. On the basis of these rising returns, investment in the non-manufacturing sector rose even faster than in the non-farm economy as a whole from 1995 through the present, and very markedly so from 1998, as manufacturing investment growth appears to have fallen significantly from that point. [28] In turn, with non-manufacturing investment accelerating, non-manufacturing productivity growth, almost non-existent over the previous two decades, broke from its torpor and also sped up remarkably, clearly accelerating in the last two years. With real wage growth lagging, higher investment, leading to higher productivity growth, has brought still higher profitability.

The spectre of Japan?

The question is whether this can be sustained. For not only did the fevered growth of personal consumption provide an enormous incentive for new investment in plant and equipment in this sector, but it was indispensable to its realization—just as it also enabled the manufacturing sector to limit its losses in 1997 and 1998. Despite the collapse of export growth, from around 10 per cent per year in nominal terms between 1985 and 1997, to 0 per cent a year in 1998 and 1999, and the parallel fall in manufacturing competitiveness, the decline in the rate of manufacturing profit was held down to 10–12 per cent or so—in large part because durable goods consumption suddenly grew at the phenomenal pace of 11 per cent a year between 1997 and the middle of 2000, having increased at a 6.5 per cent pace between 1991 and 1997. The problem is, of course, that the fast-rising consumption that paved the way for accelerating investment, and cushioned the slowdown in manufacturing during the second half of the 1990s, was itself dependent upon the running down of household savings and the enormous increase in household debt. Yet, given the unprecedented ratio of household debt to household income and the fall of the savings rate below zero, it is not easy to see how borrowing can continue to rise sufficiently to sustain consumption growth—and, therefore, how consumption growth can continue to drive the economy.

This is especially so, given the likely diminution, if not disappearance, of the wealth effect derived from soaring equity prices. Indeed, were equity prices to cease to rise for any length of time, it is difficult to see how they could be prevented from falling rather sharply (since the 1990s, equities have largely been purchased on the expectation that they would go further up in value, rather than for their rate of return). The US economy would then find itself in a position not unlike that of Japan at the end of its bubble era. Prevented by its high-priced currency from returning to an export-oriented path of growth, its manufacturing sector would be unable to dynamize the economy. With equity prices—and thus borrowing and consumption growth—returning to earth, its non-manufacturing, non-tradeables sector would find itself without the fast-expanding home market that could valorize its huge expansion of plant and equipment. With dollar-denominated costs too high to exploit the growth of international demand, and with domestic demand falling off, a return to stagnation would be on the agenda. Corporations, now without the net worth that hitherto constituted their collateral, due to the declining prices of their shares, would now not only find borrowing much more difficult but would find the interest rates on their existing obligations starting to rise.

But were the US economy obliged to accept a significant slowdown to accommodate the end of the bubble, it is by no means clear that this could be accomplished without disruption. For if US growth were to cool off sufficiently to curb import growth, it is difficult to see how the rest of the world economy could fail to decelerate too—with unpredictable consequences, especially in East Asia, which has depended so overwhelmingly on a fast-growing US market. This would undercut the US’s own export expansion. But it is doubtful if the difficulties would end there. For if American GDP growth were to slow, and equity prices to drop at all significantly, US assets in general would lose some of their attraction to foreign purchasers. Speculative foreign purchases of US shares and corporate bonds have recently been muliplying at an unsustainable rate. Any serious attempt to flee these assets would put enormous downward pressure on the dollar. In this case, the Fed would be caught in a double bind. It would need to reduce interest rates to provide the liquidity to keep the economy turning over and defend US assets, but it would, even more, need to raise interest rates to attract an inflow of funds from overseas, to maintain the dollar for the US to fund its record-breaking current-account deficit. Yet how high would interest rates have to go to counteract the enormous downward pressure on the dollar, if overseas holders sought to liquidate their portfolios? Such a scenario would risk setting off interacting declines in asset markets and the currency, driven by a panicky flight of capital, with devastating consequences for the real economy. This, as we know, is what happened in East Asia in 1997–98. But, of course, it could not happen here.

[1] Reduced manufacturing profitability was itself largely the result of the intensification of international competition, which led to the rise of over-capacity and over-production. The attempts made both by firms and states to reduce costs and improve competitiveness combined to produce the opposite effect, tending to exacerbate redundant production and to reduce the growth of aggregate demand. Profitability thus stayed down, and economic stagnation continued. See Robert Brenner, ‘The Economics of Global Turbulence’, NLR I/229, May–June 1998.

[2] OECD, Economic Survey. The United States 1997, Washington, D.C. 1997, pp. 71, 176, n. 26.

[3] Economic Report of the President 1996, Washington, DC, 1996, p. 46; Rich Miller et al, ‘How Prosperity is Shaping the American Economy’, Business Week, 14 February 2000.

[4] For this and the previous paragraph, see R. Taggart Murphy, The Weight of the Yen, New York 1996; J. B. Judis, ‘Dollar Foolish’, New Republic, 9 December 1996.

[5] Weight of the Yen; Ron Bevacqua, ‘Whither the Japanese Model?’, Review of International Political Economy, vol. 5, no. 3, September 1998, pp. 410–23.

[6] Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Flow of Funds Accounts of the United States. Flows and Outstandings [henceforth FRB, Flow of Funds], Table F.107 Rest of World (flows) and Table F.209 Treasury Securities (flows); OECD, Economic Survey. United States 1995, Paris 1995, pp. 55–8; OECD, Economic Survey. United States 1996, Paris 1996, pp. 49–51; OECD, Economic Survey. United States 1997, Paris 1997, pp. 73–5. The difference between total government securities and total Treasury instruments purchased by the rest of the world in these years was made up of government agency securities, bonds issued by entities like FNMA or FIX.

[7] In 1997, after-tax non-financial corporate and corporate profit rates came within 15 and 9 per cent, respectively, of their 1965 high-points.

[8] Cf. OECD, Economic Survey. United States 1999, Paris 1999, p. 32, esp. Figure 7. ‘After a rapid rise from 1992 to the middle of 1997, corporate profits have weakened recently, and their share of the national income has begun to drop.’

[9] Bureau of Economic Analysis, ‘National Income and Product Accounts: Second Quarter 2000 GDP and Revised Estimates: 1997 Through First Quarter 2000’, 28 July 2000.

[10] On the unfolding financial crisis of autumn 1998, see Peter Warburton, Debt and Delusion. Central Bank Follies that Threaten Economic Disaster, London 2000, pp. 263–6.

[11] FRB, Flow of Funds, Table F.102 Non-farm Non-financial Corporate Business (flows); Table F.213 Corporate Equities (flows).

[12] Daniel Bogler and Gary Silverman, ‘US Risky Debt Threat to Banks’, Financial Times, 22 February 2000.

[13] Martin Wolf, ‘Walking on Troubled Waters,’ Financial Times, 12 January 2000. Wolf’s figures do not jibe perfectly with those in the most recent FRB, Flow of Funds, but they are close enough.

[14] FRB, Flow of Funds, B.102. Balance Sheet of Nonfinancial Corporations, line 37; Andrew Smithers and Stephen Wright, Valuing Wall Street: Protecting Wealth in Turbulent Times, New York 2000, p. 10, Chart 2.1, and pp.146–54, 257. Net worth is defined as financial assets plus their tangible assets in real estate, equipment and software, and inventories at what it would currently cost to replace them, minus their liabilities.

[15] Valuing Wall Street, pp. 226 and 227, esp. Chart 22.1.

[16] FRB, Flow of Funds, Table L.213 Corporate Equities (levels).

[17] FRB, Flow of Funds, Table F.213 Corporate Equities (flows). The figure given here for net sales by households is derived by subtracting net equity purchases by mutual funds of $882 billion in these years from net household equity sales of $1.1 trillion.

[18] FRB, Flow of Funds, Table L.107 Rest of the World (levels). Between 1995 and 2000, net US assets held by the rest of the world doubled, reaching $1.4 trillion, or 14.2 per cent of GDP, compared to just $0.7 trillion, or 9.4 per cent of GDP a brief five years before. ‘Net assets’ here simply means gross assets held by the rest of the world, minus liabilities of the rest of the world to US entities (which here includes the market value of foreign equities held by US residents).

[19] Indeed, if one were to consider only the expansion of the 1990s, i.e. the period in the business cycle from the point it hits bottom and turns up (the trough), ‘it has not been the expansion with the highest rate of growth, [and] even during the last four years, average growth only just reached that of the expansion of the 1980s and remained well short of that of the 1960s.’ Bank for International Settlements, 70th Annual Report 1999–2000, Basel, 5 June 2000, p. 13. The reason that the business cycle of the 1990s as a whole looks slightly better than its predecessors of the 1980s and 1970s is that the recession of 1990–91 with which it began was much shallower than those of 1974–75 and 1979–82.

[20] Bank for International Settlements, 70th Annual Report 1999–2000, p. 14; Lawrence Mishel et al, The State of Working America 2000–2001 (preliminary edition), Ithaca 2000, p. 121, Figure 2A; Lawrence Mishel et al, The State of Working America 1998–1999, Ithaca 1999, p. 264, Table 5.6.

[21] US Bureau of Labor Statistics, ‘International Comparisons of Manufacturing Productivity and Unit Labor Cost Trends, Revised Data for 1998’, News Release, p. 7, Table B and p. 17, Table 1; ‘Europe’s Economies: Stumbling Yet Again?’, Economist, 16 September 2000, p. 78, chart 2.

[22] In what follows, I tend to accept, especially for the sake of argument, the government’s revised economic statistics, and try to present a coherent picture based on them. But it must be emphasized that changes in methods of measurement have been very great, and the resulting numbers may decisively over-state the growth of the key variables.

[23] Bank for International Settlements, 70th Annual Report 1999-2000, p.13 Figures on the growth of real investment in this period have been called into question, because they appear, in part, to be based on the attribution of unrealistically huge declines in prices to components of investment growth. However, the fact that the growth of non-farm business investment in nominal terms was also so rapid—averaging 9 per cent per annum during the business expansion of the 1990s (1991–2000), compared to 4.9 per cent for the business expansion of the 1980s (1982–90), when inflation was significantly higher—gives some credence to the evidence that capital accumulation was indeed quite rapid. Economic Report of the President 2000, p. 326, Table B-16.

[24] In the business cycles of the 1970s and 1980s, gains in the capital–labour ratio were made only during the recessions, as a consequence of sharp absolute falls in the size of the labour force, rather than of the growth of the capital stock compared to the growth of the labour force.

[25] This is not, of course, to doubt that should demand side problems manifest themselves in the form of slower growth of output or prices, sticky wages would either squeeze profits or lead to greater inflation.

[26] By autumn 2000, Greenspan’s wish was coming true, as the S & P 500 index had essentially stagnated for months, and the technology and internet dominated NASDAQ index, central site of the bubble, had fallen by 40 per cent.

[27] ‘Could It Happen Again?’ Economist, 22 February 1999. As the Bank for International Settlements put it several months later: ‘The overhang of excess industrial capacity in many countries and sectors continues to be a serious threat to financial stability. Without an orderly reduction or take up of this excess capacity rates of return on capital will continue to disappoint, with potentially debilitating and long-lasting effects on confidence and investment spending. Moreover, the solvency of the institutions that financed this capital expansion becomes increasingly questionable.’ 69th Annual Report 1998–1999, Basel, 7 June 1999.

[28] In 1998, the last year for which there is relevant data, manufacturing investment (in nominal terms) fell to 2.6 per cent, compared to 10.8 per cent for the previous four years, while non-manufacturing investment rose to 13.2 per cent, compared to 9.1 per cent.