Ten years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the official economic statistics — the ones that fill news stories, television shows and presidential tweets — say that the American economy is fully recovered.
The unemployment rate is lower than it was before the financial crisis began. The stock market has soared. The total combined output of the American economy, also known as gross domestic product, has risen 20 percent since Lehman collapsed. The crisis is over.
But, of course, it isn’t over. The financial crisis remains the most influential event of the 21st century. It left millions of people — many of whom were already anxious about the economy — feeling much more anxious, if not downright angry. Their frustration has helped create a threat to Western liberal democracy that would have been hard to imagine a decade ago. Far-right political parties are on the rise across Europe, and Britain is leaving the European Union. The United States elected a racist reality-television star who has thrown the presidency into chaos.
Look around, and you can see the lingering effects of the financial crisis just about everywhere — everywhere, that is, except in the most commonly cited economic statistics. So who are you going to believe: Those statistics, or your own eyes?
Over the course of history, financial crises — and the long downturns that follow — have reordered American society in all sorts of ways. One of those ways happens to involve the statistics that the government collects. Crises have often highlighted the need for new measures of human well-being.
The unemployment rate was invented in the 1870s in response to concerns about mass joblessness after the Panic of 1873. The government’s measure of national output, now called G.D.P., began during the Great Depression. Senator Robert La Follette, the progressive hero from Wisconsin, introduced the resolution that later led to the measurement of G.D.P., and the great economist Simon Kuznets, later a Nobel laureate, oversaw the first version.
Almost a century later, it is time for a new set of statistics. It’s time for measures that do a better job of capturing the realities of modern American life.
As a technical matter, the current batch of official numbers are perfectly accurate. They also describe some real and important aspects of the American economy. The trouble is that a handful of statistics dominate the public conversation about the economy despite the fact that they provide a misleading portrait of people’s lives. Even worse, the statistics have become more misleading over time.
The main reason is inequality. A small, affluent segment of the population receives a large and growing share of the economy’s bounty. It was true before Lehman Brothers collapsed on Sept. 15, 2008, and it has become even more so since. As a result, statistics that sound as if they describe the broad American economy — like G.D.P. and the Dow Jones industrial average — end up mostly describing the experiences of the affluent.
The stock market, for example, has completely recovered from the financial crisis, and then some. Stocks are now worth almost 60 percent more than when the crisis began in 2007, according to a inflation-adjusted measure from Moody’s Analytics. But wealthy households own the bulk of stocks. Most Americans are much more dependent on their houses. That’s why the net worth of the median household is still about 20 percent lower than it was in early 2007. When television commentators drone on about the Dow, they’re not talking about a good measure of most people’s wealth.
The unemployment rate has also become less meaningful than it once was. In recent decades, the number of idle working-age adults has surged. They are not working, not looking for work, not going to school and not taking care of children. Many of them would like to work, but they can’t find a decent-paying job and have given up looking. They are not counted in the official unemployment rate.
All the while, the federal government and much of the news media continue to act as if the same economic measures that made sense decades ago still make sense today. Habit comes before accuracy.
Fortunately, there is a nascent movement to change that. A team of academic economists — Gabriel Zucman, Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty (the best-selling author on inequality) — has begun publishing a version of G.D.P. that separates out the share of national income flowing to rich, middle class and poor. For now, its data is published with a lag; the most recent available year is 2014. But the work is starting to receive attention from other academics and policy experts.
In the Senate, two Democratic senators, including Chuck Schumer, the party leader, have introduced a bill that would direct the federal government to publish a version of the same data series. Heather Boushey, who runs the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, told me that it could be the most important change in economic data collection in decades.
And there is no reason that data reform needs to be limited to G.D.P. The Labor Department could change the monthly jobs report to give more attention to other unemployment numbers. It could also provide more data on wages, rather than only broad averages. The Federal Reserve, for its part, could publish quarterly estimates of household wealth by economic class.
These changes may sound technocratic. They are technocratic. But they can still be important. Over time, they can subtly shift the way that the country talks about the economy.
“As someone who advises policymakers, I can tell you there is often this shock: ‘The economy is growing. Why aren’t people feeling it,’” Boushey says. “The answer is: Because they literally aren’t feeling it.” She argues — rightly, I think — that the government should not focus on creating wholly new statistics. It should instead change and expand the ones that are already followed closely. Doing so could force the media and policymakers to talk about economic well-being at the same time that they are talking about economic indicators.
It’s worth remembering that the current indicators are not a naturally occurring phenomenon. They are political creations, with the flaws, limitations and choices that politics usually involves.
Take the unemployment rate. It dates to 1878, when a former Civil War officer and Massachusetts politician named Carroll D. Wright was running the state’s Bureau of the Statistics of Labor. Wright thought that the public had an exaggerated sense of the extent of unemployment after the Panic of 1873. He called it “industrial hypochondria.”
So Wright asked town assessors and police officers to count the number of people in their area who were out of work. But he added a caveat that he knew would hold down the number, as Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard historian, has written. Wright wanted the count to include only adult men who “really want employment.” He specifically called for the exclusion of the many men who had effectively given up searching for work because they didn’t think that they could find a job that paid as much as their previous job. Not surprisingly, Wright’s count produced a modest number that, he happily announced, had proved the “croakers” wrong.
Several years later, he received a promotion. He was named the first head of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, a job he would hold for 20 years. His original methods from Massachusetts influenced the way that the federal government began calculating unemployment data, and still do to this day. The fact that the official rate ignores millions of discouraged workers is — although Wright wouldn’t have used this phrase — a feature not a bug.
There is no mystery about what a better set of indicators would look like. For the most part, the indicators already exist. They tend to be obscure, however. Some are calculated only once a year or less frequently. Others appear monthly or quarterly, but the media and politicians tend to ignore them. These numbers include: the overall share of working-age adults who are actually working; pay at different points on the income distribution; and the same sort of distribution for net worth (which includes stock holdings, home values and other assets and debts).
The whole point of statistics is to describe reality. When a statistic no longer does so, it’s time to find a new one — not to come up with a convoluted rationale that tries to twist reality to fit the statistic.
The notion that our most prominent economic indicators are problematic has been around for a long time. Kuznets himself, the economist who invented G.D.P. as we know it, cautioned people not to confuse it with “economic welfare.” Most famously, Robert F. Kennedy liked to say during his 1968 presidential campaign that G.D.P. measured everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”
After all these years, though, we haven’t solved the problem. Maybe it takes a financial crisis to do so.
Economy keeps pumping, but now the Fed wants to let out some air
The cost of borrowing money in the U.S. is going up this week thanks to the Federal Reserve — and
a pumped-up economy.
The central bank on Wednesday is all but certain to lift a key short-term interest rate to a range of 2% to 2.25%, putting it at the highest level in a decade. Many loans for things such as mortgages and autos are tied to the so-called fed funds rate.
The Fed has been steadily raising rates to keep the U.S. from growing so fast that inflation gets out of hand. There’s more of a danger of that now, even if just a small one, with the economy expanding at a rapid pace and inflation hitting the highest level in six years.
The news on the economy has been so good, in fact, that the Dow Jones Industrial Average
and the S&P 500
both busted through to fresh all-time highs last week. Investors have decided to ignore an escalating trade fight between the U.S. and China because corporate earnings are so strong.
“Markets care more about profits than politics,” strategists at the investment firm Voya Global Perspectives told clients.
A barrage of reports this week on the health of the economy are likely to underscore precisely why the Fed is taking out some insurance, so to speak. Chief among them are business investment, consumer spending and inflation.
Taking advantage of the first corporate tax cuts in 31 years and a Trump administration push to roll back regulations, businesses have opened the spigots on investment.
A proxy for how much companies are investing, known as core capital-goods orders, has climbed almost 9% in the past year. By contrast, these orders were mostly low or outright negative from 2012 to 2016.
The latest read on investment included in August orders for durable goods is expected to be weak, but it might just be a blip. Investment surged over the summer and is due for a breather.
Consumer spending, meanwhile, is forecast to show a solid gain in August. Ditto for incomes.
Want to know why the economy has strengthened considerably? That’s why. More people are working than ever and now they’re earning better pay, creating a virtuous cycle that keeps the economy expanding.
“The U.S. economy is in a good place right now,” said Scott Anderson, chief economist of Bank of the West.
It certainly is — except for the small matter of rising inflation.
From being almost virtually zero a few years ago, inflation has climbed to nearly 3% yearly pace based on the consumer price index. The Fed’s preferred PCE index has risen by a somewhat smaller 2.3% in the past year, but that’s still above the central bank’s 2% target.
The PCE inflation index is forecast to rise slightly in August, keeping inflation at or above the 2% trendline.
Though still quite low by historical standards, inflation could rise even further in the months ahead.
The U.S. labor market is so tight companies are being forced to boost pay to attract new workers, for one thing. The cost of critical raw materials such lumber have also been inflated by tariffs or strong demand. And just finding enough truckers to transport goods has become a costly headache.
If that happens, the Fed is going to step harder on the gas pedal.
Bruce Flatt of Brookfield on owning the backbone of the global economy
It is a windy Tuesday in London and from a Canary Wharf skyscraper, Bruce Flatt, chief executive of Brookfield Asset Management, surveys a corner of his global empire.
Close by is Newfoundland, 62-storeys of homes for rent beside the Thames. In the distance, nestled among City of London towers, is 100 Bishopsgate, a 37-floor office building under construction. To the right, in fashionable Shoreditch, the 50-storey residential Principal Tower is taking shape.
What about the West End, which is studded with cranes? No, nothing there is big enough for Brookfield. “The sites are small and our advantage is scale,” says Mr Flatt.
Toronto-based Brookfield keeps a low profile but its scale is vast. In 20 years under Mr Flatt, it has become one of the largest real estate and infrastructure investors, with a footprint in 35 countries.
On the scale of its $285bn portfolio, even Canary Wharf, which Brookfield bought with Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund for £2.6bn three years ago, looks small. In just one of Brookfield’s megadeals this year, it took the US mall operator GGP private for $15bn. Many countries are too small to have any assets worth Brookfield’s time. “We paid nearly $12bn for a real estate company [Forest City Realty Trust] in the US. Some countries, their entire investment stack is not $12bn,” says Mr Flatt.
Now, Mr Flatt is on a mission to acquire infrastructure, with Brookfield at the centre of a global shift as indebted governments transfer assets to the private sector.
“We’re in a 50-year transformation of the infrastructure world. We’re 10 years in; we have 40 left to go. By the end of that 50 years most infrastructure in the world will be transferred to private hands,” he says.
A rough calculation indicates that about $100tn could go private over that 50 years, Mr Flatt says, adding that only “maybe 10 per cent” has transferred. In developing countries, existing assets are being sold; in developing markets, new infrastructure is being built by the private sector. That is a huge opportunity for Brookfield, he believes.
“We’re in the business of owning the backbone of the global economy. [But] what we do is behind the scenes. Nobody knows we’re there, and we provide critical infrastructure to people that somebody pays a small amount for . . . the road you drive on, most people think it’s owned by the government. Even if it is a toll road, they wouldn’t actually know who owned it,” says Mr Flatt.
At first sight, billionaire Mr Flatt appears understated: a pale figure in a suit and sober tie. As with his company, though, his discretion belies immense ambition. Overall, he expects group assets to double to between $500bn and $600bn in five to 10 years, including more than $100bn in India and China.
Mr Flatt began his career at Canadian conglomerate Brascan. It foundered in the early 1990s, forcing a fire sale. Mr Flatt bought stock cheaply and helped rebuild it. The collapse of Olympia & York — a Canadian company felled by losses on Canary Wharf, where we now sit — gave an opportunity to acquire prime US real estate assets through buying its debt.
Brookfield did not buy Canary Wharf itself until 2015, but the Olympia & York assets formed the core of a new real estate division: Mr Flatt was on the road to taking control of Brascan and turning it into Brookfield. In a complex structure, the parent company has four listed affiliates handling property, renewables, infrastructure and private equity.
Buying where there is distress, whether companies or countries, remains Brookfield’s hallmark. “There’s a lot of stress in the banking market in India . . . and we’ve been finding the opportunity to buy virtually in all of our sectors [there]. Over the past 36 months . . . there was an enormous void of foreign direct investment into Brazil, therefore we bought a lot of things at what we deemed to be fractions of the replacement cost,” says Mr Flatt.
In Brazil, for example, a consortium led by Brookfield bought a gas pipeline network from state-run Petrobras for $5.2bn.
Mr Flatt admits that Brookfield has made mistakes, including in its early years on projects in the US and Australia. Volatile currencies in emerging markets such as Brazil are also a risk. “If you earn a 35 per cent IRR [internal rate of return] but you lost 35 per cent on the currency, you got zero,” he says.
This year in the US, home to half the group’s assets, Brookfield’s private equity division bought Westinghouse Electric, the nuclear services company, out of bankruptcy for $4bn; the group took control of two subsidiaries of the bankrupt solar group SunEdison for $1.4bn. Last month it struck a deal for control of 666 Fifth Avenue, the Manhattan tower owned by the Kushner family, now represented in the White House by Jared Kushner, son-in-law of US president Donald Trump.
Mr Flatt deflects questions about the chance of success for Mr Trump’s $1.5tn infrastructure programme. “Not much is happening in infrastructure in the US,” he says deftly.
He would not say whether infrastructure is a bigger opportunity than real estate: “It is like [asking] which of your children you like better.”
Brookfield was overtaken three years ago by Blackstone as the world’s largest real estate investor. The arch-rivals must now hunt for property assets in a late-cycle environment, following almost a decade of rising prices.
GGP, the mall group of which Brookfield already owned a third, was under pressure as the crisis in the retail sector hit demand for physical stores. “We don’t buy into the thesis that all retail is going to go online,” says Mr Flatt. The GGP purchase is primarily a redevelopment play, he says, “concentrating these shopping centres with apartments and all these other things”.
Is Brookfield preparing for a crash? “We’re almost 10 years into a recovery, which means that the recovery or the expansion may last for one year, two years, three years, four years more. Four years would be maybe a record . . .[so], just because we’re very conservative people, our view is we should hold more cash, be more conservative,” says Mr Flatt.
He recalls 2007 when Brookfield “began preparing” for a downturn. Brookfield is once again increasing its cash holdings. At the end of June, in its latest results, Brookfield Asset Management held almost $6bn of cash and equivalents, almost double the figure at the end of 2016.
“It’s when enormous dislocations happen and you can buy, and the only way one can do that is be prepared,” he says. “I wouldn’t want this to come across that we’re preparing for Armageddon.”
Mr Flatt is understandably reluctant to compare a potential downturn with the financial crisis of 2008. But September 11, the day we meet, marks a different disaster. By the time of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Brookfield owned the World Financial Center, now Brookfield Place, across the street from the Twin Towers, along with One Liberty Plaza next to the World Trade Center.
Mr Flatt was in Toronto when the attacks occurred. With flights grounded, he drove for 10 hours to reach Manhattan. “I got there September 12 at 1am and went downtown. We didn’t know whether our people were OK. Only later did we find that out,” he recalls.
The glass in Brookfield’s buildings shattered up to 30 storeys; there were fears that One Liberty Plaza could collapse. However, Brookfield found that all its staff had survived and the buildings reopened two months later.
Initially many employees were too traumatised to return. “I, in fact, was the only person I think down there two months later on my phone, phoning people . . .[who] came back slowly. Today, leaving aside the whole tragedy, the remake of Lower Manhattan was enabled because of the tragedy,” he says.
The following year, Mr Flatt became chief executive. What did this experience teach him? He pauses before concluding: “Make sure you’re at the wheel.”
Education 1986: University of Manitoba, bachelor of commerce
Career 1987: Chartered accountant, EY
1990: Corporate finance, Brascan (predecessor of Brookfield Asset Management)
1993: Chief financial officer, Brookfield Properties
1998: President and chief executive, Brookfield Properties
2002: Senior managing partner and chief executive, Brookfield Asset Management
Brookfield Asset Management
Founded Traces roots to 1899
Ownership Publicly traded on NYSE and TSX; Partners have ownership of 20%
Despite the economic recovery, student debtors' 'monster in the closet' has only worsened
In many ways, Daniel Strong is happy with his life. He owns a three-bedroom ranch-style house in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he lives with his wife and 3-year-old son, Benjamin. He recently made the last payment on his silver, Toyota Tacoma. He likes his job.
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But there’s one problem that won’t go away.
Strong and his wife owe more than $350,000 for their bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“The huge monster in the closet for me are these student loans that keep getting bigger and bigger,” said Strong, 36. When they graduated, they were faced with monthly bills of around $800 each and have since struggled to keep up.
“It’s so stressful to think about the fact that you’re probably going to have to work until you drop dead at work because of your student loans,” Strong said.
Ten years after the 2008 financial crisis, there are headlines of record low unemployment and a booming economy. Yet one area has only worsened over the decade and threatens that recovery: student debt. Average debt at graduation is currently around $30,000, up from $10,000 in the early 1990s. The country’s outstanding student loan balance is projected to swell to $2 trillion by 2022, and experts say a large portion of it is unlikely to ever be repaid; nearly a quarter of student loan borrowers are currently in a state of delinquency or default. Because of these loans, many Americans are unable to buy houses and cars, start businesses and families, save or invest.
Borrowing is unlikely to slow any time soon, as the cost of an education in this country is only rising. State funding for public colleges fell by $9 billion between 2008 and 2017, and schools have filled the gap with tuition hikes. Last year, for the first time, half of all states relied more heavily on tuition than on government appropriations to fund higher public education. On average, Americans now spend $30,000 per student a year, twice as much as the average developed country.
Has the student loan market become a bubble? That’s a fair question, said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
“Cost escalation, which would normally be met with consumer resistance, is being facilitated by the easy availability of credit,” Nassirian said. “It’s disturbingly similar to what happened to tank the mortgage market.”
In his mid-50s, Claude Richardson returned to college in the hopes of finding himself a new career. He attended two for-profit schools — the University of Phoenix online, and the New England Institute of Art. He said the education at both schools proved disappointing, and he never found a job in his field of study, information technology.
Instead, the 65-year-old man works 60 hours a week as a driver for a transportation company. He makes $8 an hour. He can’t remember the last time he took a vacation. He doesn’t pay for cable, since he has no free time to relax in front of a television.
He feels helpless when he looks at his student loan balance of more than $160,000. He has defaulted multiple times. “If I could pay, I would,” Richardson said.
The student loan default rate more than doubled between 2003 and 2011, according to Education Department data. Forty percent of student borrowers are expected to default on their loans by 2023, according to the Brookings Institute.
“There’s over 8 million people who are currently in default on their federal loans — it continues to be a large number, despite other improvements in the economy,” said Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.
In a recent study, two researchers sought to understand why the student loan default rate has risen so sharply. Half of the uptick, they found, could be explained by the simultaneous rise in nontraditional students, like Richardson — or those who attended for-profit institutions. Many for-profit colleges have come under scrutiny for their high costs and poor outcomes, and half of their student loan borrowers default.
The share of nontraditional students rose by 17 percent from 2006 to 2009. Meanwhile, the percentage of federal financial aid going to for-profit colleges nearly doubled between 1996 and 2012. Today, these schools take in around 15 percent of the government’s financial aid, down from a high of 19 percent.
“Predatory colleges target the same low-income populations that the subprime mortgage boom targeted by offering a similar promise of white picket fences and higher education as part of the American middle class dream,” Toby Merrill, director of the Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, said in a recent interview.
The Obama administration cracked down on for-profit schools, but the Education Department under President Donald Trump has taken a friendlier approach. The current administration’s proposals include making it harder for former students who claim they’ve been defrauded by their schools to get their debt canceled and relaxing the standards for-profit schools must meet to keep their federal funding.
The result of rolling back rules meant to protect borrowers and drive better value is predictable, said James Kvaal, president of The Institute for College Access & Success. “Defaults will go up,” he said.
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Schools of questionable quality are hardly the only problem driving the rise in defaults. Also to blame is an unfortunate confluence of rising tuition and wage stagnation, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of SavingForCollege.com.
“Family income has been flat, so their ability to pay for college has not changed even as college costs have increased,” he said. As a result, more families take on loans to cover the bills.
“Starting salaries have not grown as fast as average debt at graduation,” he said. “This causes debt-to-income ratios to increase, a sign that more borrowers are graduating with more debt than they can easily afford to repay.”
Colette Simone borrowed $200,000 in private and federal loans to attain her doctorate degree at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology in the early 2000s.
After graduation, her student loan bill was around $1,600. She tried to make those payments, but with entry level salaries it was difficult. She repeatedly postponed the loan payments, causing the balance to grow even more, thanks to interest. At one point, her bill was as high as $5,000 a month. She eventually stopped paying her private loans. “They wouldn’t negotiate beyond a certain amount,” Simone said, “which I didn’t have.”
She has paid around $90,000 of the debt by now, but it has ballooned to more than $400,000. The 65-year-old woman fears the government will soon garnish a portion of her Social Security.
She says the whole ordeal has left her disillusioned with the country. “If you want to get ahead, you have to go into debt,” Simone said. “And then the whole debt structure is rigged to make sure you’re never going to get out of it.”
Many student loan borrowers today express resentment and distrust toward their lenders and the companies that administer federal loan programs.
A recent government report found that some schools hire companies that don’t present student loan borrowers with their best options. Meanwhile, one of the largest student loan servicers — Navient, is being sued by five states and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for allegedly misleading borrowers. The bureau accuses Navient of steering struggling borrowers toward multiple postponements of their loans instead of into income-driven repayment plans, which cap monthly payments at a percentage of the borrower’s income. (Navient disputes all allegations.)
“Navient’s conduct is estimated to have added $4 billion to the national student loan debt,” said Attorney General Jim Hood of Mississippi, one of the states suing the loan servicer. “Students are the future of our state, and the presence of companies in Mississippi that knowingly take advantage of students who need the money to continue their education will not be allowed under my watch.”
National Consumer Law Center’s Yu said the distrust borrowers express is often well-founded.
“Servicing issues is something that is very much similar to the mortgage crisis,” Yu said. “In both circumstances we have consumers getting bad information.”
There is some math that haunts Dallas Benson, a 48-year-old mother of two.
The monthly rent for her two-bedroom house in Zebulon, North Carolina, is around $1,100. She has lived there for just four years, and has already paid her landlord about $50,000. She recently checked the home’s value: it’s only worth about $100,000. “It’s heart-breaking,” Benson said. “If that could have gone into me owning the house, life would be incredibly different.”
But with $600,000 in student loans, finding a landlord who would rent to her was hard. Benson and her ex-husband’s student debt, which started at around $150,000 in the 1990s, has ballooned from interest and late fees. She studied sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and now is a government property manager.
The massive debt has pushed her credit score down to the low 400s. (The lowest possible score is 300). And it has harmed more than just her chances at home-ownership, she said.
“Buying a car is too difficult. I have nothing saved up for retirement at all,” Benson said. “I look to the future, and I feel like I’m going to be that 80-year-old woman saying ‘Hi, welcome to Walmart.'”
The damage of the financial crisis in 2008 reverberated across financial institutions and triggered the failure of major banks. The damage of student debt is more personal and insidious, said Constantine Yannelis, assistant professor of finance at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
“The fact that we’re not going to have a Lehman Brothers’ moment doesn’t mean that there aren’t tremendously important effects of student debt on the broader, macro economy and on growth,” Yannelis said.
A growing body of research examines how student debt hinders people financially. A recent analysis by the Urban Institute found that a 1 percent increase in student debt decreases the likelihood of owning a house by 15 percentage points. As student debt rises, young entrepreneurship is also falling. By the time college graduates reach age 30, the ones without student loans are predicted to have double the amount saved for retirement as those with them, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
“This goes beyond the simple matter of family finances for a small subset of the population,” said Nassirian, at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “It’s going to be very consequential for the future of the country.”
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