While operating more than an entire percentage point below its potential growth rate, the U.S. economy still raised its business sector employment by nearly 2 million people over the last twelve months.
That is a remarkable achievement because companies usually don't step up hiring until a sustained increase in capacity pressures them to start adding to their labor force.
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And no other economy contributed last year 4.1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to the rest of the world. Those in the emerging markets, who are now complaining about declining dollar liquidity, may also wish to note that the U.S. last year bought from them $515 billion more than it sold to them.
Based on current growth dynamics, this year promises an even better outlook for employment creation and America's contribution to the world economy.
The most recent evidence from survey data indicates that the U.S. service sector (approximately 90 percent of the economy) continues to expand in a steady and sustained fashion. Despite recent distortions caused by bad weather, the same is true of the manufacturing industries, where the capacity utilization rate is approaching its long-term average of 80 percent.
The U.S. economy is underpinned by growing real incomes, increasing employment, record-low borrowing costs and an easing access to credit facilities as banks continue to open up their channels of consumer financing.
Balanced policy mix
All these developments are taking place in the context of an appropriately supportive policy mix, where the tightening fiscal policy is offset by an expansionary credit stance.
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That policy configuration has allowed the U.S. to achieve a relatively fast and substantial fiscal consolidation in an environment of a growing economy. Indeed, this year's budget deficit is expected to come in at 3 percent of GDP and to decline 24 percent from the previous fiscal year – a feast that euro area austerity advocates can only dream about.
The Treasury's declining borrowing requirements are making it possible for the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) not only to safely scale back its monthly asset purchases, but also to maintain its highly accommodative policy stance to compensate for the falling public sector outlays.
Here are some numbers to illustrate the point: in the course of December and January, the Fed's balance sheet expanded by a monthly average of only $22 billion – a huge drop from a monthly average of $98.8 billion in the previous two months.
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The Fed did that without creating any adverse effects in bond and mortgage markets. Last Friday, for example, the yield on the benchmark ten-year Treasury note traded at 2.74 percent, compared with 2.84 percent in the early December of last year. Mortgage costs followed the same pattern.
The rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.32 percent last Friday, down from 4.41 percent a month ago and 4.46 percent in December.
This is encouraging, and we may soon begin to see a gradual shrinking of the Fed's $3.7 trillion balance sheet. The Fed will, however, maintain its easy credit stance as long as the inflation pressures are kept at bay by the prevailing slack in labor and product markets.
Plenty of room for noninflationary growth
At the moment, there are no reasons to worry about rising inflation expectations. Unit labor costs in the fourth quarter declined 1.6 percent from the year earlier as a result of strong productivity gains and weak wage increases. For last year as a whole, unit labor costs rose only 0.8 percent.
More of the same can be expected in the months ahead because, even under conditions of modest economic activity, a slow take up of the labor market slack will lead to productivity growth that will offset most of the underlying wage gains of about 2 percent.
The Fed's recent statements show that they are well aware of that. The U.S. monetary authorities are not fooled by a surprisingly fast decline of the unemployment rate. They know that the actual jobless rate last month was double the officially reported rate of 6.6 percent – if one adds to the unemployment rolls involuntary part-time workers and people marginally attached to the labor force.
The Treasury and the Fed are also turning their attention to the external demand for American goods and services.
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Worrying about one-fifth of U.S. exports that go to Europe, Washington wants to see more supportive economic policies in the recession-ridden euro area. The focus is now on Germany, which is seen as holding back the euro zone growth with its staggering current account surplus of 7 percent of GDP.
The U.S. has less of a case against China. The Chinese current account surplus is below 2 percent of GDP, growth is increasingly led by domestic demand, China's imports are growing at a rate of 10 percent or more, and the yuan's exchange rate is being forced up by capital inflows Beijing finds increasingly difficult to control.
All this will be part of the next meeting of the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Sydney, Australia on February 20-22, 2014.
Based on this analysis, I remain optimistic about the U.S. economic outlook.
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Yes, the U.S. has structural problems with its welfare programs, its income distribution is unacceptably skewed and its birth rates are falling. But all that is widely known and is part of a lively public policy debate. Therefore, I see no point of harping on these issues just to find something to be down on the U.S. economy.
My investment strategy conclusions also remain largely unchanged. I like U.S. equities, but I don't like bonds. I am more positive about gold, because I believe that geopolitical instabilities, strengthening growth in developed economies, and some central banks' asset diversifications will support gold prices.
Michael Ivanovitch is president of MSI Global, a New York-based economic research company. He also served as a senior economist at the OECD in Paris, international economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and taught economics at Columbia.