Alarm Bells Ringing: Productivity Dives and Credit Card Debt Soars in US; Private Investment in China Falls

Today’s US print edition of the Wall Street Journal was not a happy bunny. Articles on the front page (Productivity Fall Imperils Growth), inside front cover (Plastic Is Back In Style), and back cover (China’s Private Sector Withers as Growth Slows), pretty much portrayed a state of global gloom.

First, productivity. Readers of this blog will know my thoughts about productivity. Advanced economies are struggling to demonstrate productivity improvements and so our collective long-term growth prospects are falling. We can’t just adding more hours to get back to reasonable economic growth and pay off our debts- we need to become more productive.

Increasing red tape, political gridlock or uncertainty, uncompetitive tax rates, quantitive easing, low interest rates, and a regulatory framework that dissuades both business risks (in banking) and start-ups and capital investment (private sector investment) are crimping opportunities for productivity improvements.  Capitalism is being strangled.  I might even go as far to say that the technology or the IT industry is also struggling to demonstrate the value it can bring to business. Whatever the case, productivity is critical to our long-term success and few governments or leaders are even talking about it.

Second, credit card debt. From an economic cycle perspective the US economy is past the high-point of the recovery and most likely moving down toward the next down-cycle. Though you would not know this from the economic data. However, consumer debt is suggesting a bit of a problem is bubbling away.

After the financial crisis US consumer debt (and private sector debt, for that matter) took a bit of hiatus. We all took time off to unload some of our liabilities. However the report suggests that all the debt cycles are now trending up: mortgage debt ‘recovered’ first, then student loans, automobiles, and finally now we see credit card debt on the increase. What is interesting though is that this growth is mainly associated with those of us with a subprime or low credit score. In other words, that part of the consumer population that is most at risk of non-payment are stoking up on credit. The percent of the population with high credit scores has remained the same over the last ten years.  

Finally, China. The news is not good. The article clearly only refers to a few individual company interviews but does report on some economic data, for what it is worth. Private sector capital investment in things like factories and vehicles grew 2.8% in 1H 2016, compared to 30% in the last 10 years. June was the first time it actually fell since China started tracking the data in 2004.

Public sector spending has been very high recently, partly as an attempt to replace the loss of private investment and also to support of the needed investment to convert the Chinese economy from a supply-based manufacturing oriented economy to a demand-based consumer model. This will take years; all the while public sector debt is pilling up. The article also highlights a government official who suggests that falling productivity is part of the problem.

So with just one coffee out of the way, I was already not feeling good about the world. Off to go cook breakfast for the boys. I hope they have a better time back at school today!

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