Two Charts That Show Why We Are Not Ready For The Next Recession

Writing recently for Project Syndicate, Brad DeLong offers some sobering thoughts on our readiness for the next recession:

If a recession comes anytime soon, the US government will not have the tools to fight it. The White House and Congress will once again prove inept at deploying fiscal policy as a counter-cyclical stabilizer; and the Fed will not have enough room to provide adequate stimulus through interest-rate cuts.

Running the economy hot has produced some good numbers in the short run, but warning signs are beginning to accumulate. Although there is no natural life-span for a business cycle, this one has already been the longest on record, measured the previous peak of December 2007. It is only prudent to give some thought to our preparedness for the next recession — or our lack of it.

Let’s start with the monetary side. The Fed’s primary tool for fighting recessions is to cut its key interest rate, the federal funds rate, in order to encourage lending and maintain liquidity of the banking system. However, for that tool to work well, the rate has to be high enough before the downturn starts to make room for significant cuts.

The following chart, in which gray bars show recessions, allows us to compare the present situation with business cycles of the past. For example, in late 2000, as the dot-com boom began to wind down, the fed funds rate stood at 6.5 percent. Over the next year, the Fed cut the rate by four and a half points, helping to keep the 2001 recession short and shallow. That still left room to cut another point over the next two years, speeding the recovery.

(Click on image to enlarge)

By the summer of 2007, when it was becoming hard to ignore the growing weakness of the housing sector, the fed funds rate had risen to 5.25 percent. Between July 2007 and December 2008, the Fed cut it as close to zero as was technically possible. This time, even a 5-percentage-point rate cut was not enough to avoid a serious slump.

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