The long-term outlook for the US economy

Dr. M. Ray Perryman is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Perryman Group He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.

The U.S. economy is on fairly solid ground, and our latest forecast calls for moderate growth over the long-term horizon. There are several areas of concern, and business cycles are inevitable, but on balance, I expect improvement in the years to come.

Unemployment rates continue to trend downward, though the pace of hiring has slowed to some extent in recent months and the economy is at or near levels traditionally designated as “full employment.” Even so, long-term unemployment (defined as persons jobless for 27 weeks or more) remains stubbornly high, as does the number of workers employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers). However, through 2040, employment is forecast to grow at a pace faster than population expansion, leading to tighter labor markets (and potentially, higher wages) in the future.

On the domestic front, the Federal Reserve is expected to slowly raise target interest rates in response to growth in the U.S. economy. However, if conditions deteriorate, the normalization of monetary conditions will take longer. It is important that the Federal Reserve proceed with caution in raising rates, as too much too fast could stifle future growth. At the same time, there is a need to move toward normalcy to improve the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet and ensure inflation remains under control. It is a delicate balancing act, which will affect long-term economic performance.

The aging of the U.S. workforce will be an ongoing trend as the large baby boom generation continues to retire. Skills gaps in some professions and trades are likely to emerge, which could impair future growth, although this risk may be overcome by technological advances.

In addition, labor force participation will be a persistent problem, and over time, the situation could affect standards of living. Currently, almost 95 million Americans over the age of 16 are neither working nor looking for a job. The labor force participation rate (the proportion of the civilian labor force either employed or unemployed, but looking) has been falling for years and currently stands at 62.6 percent, according to June 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). With a large and growing percentage of the population not working, pressure will increase for those who do have jobs to generate output, income and tax receipts.
Wage stagnation and the larger issues of income inequality and wealth concentration will also cause future problems if not addressed. However, incentivizing corporations to invest in employees is challenging, and forcing the issue could make the problem worse.

From an international perspective, economies around the world are struggling with sluggish growth. Recent projections from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicate very slow expansion through the near term for industrialized nations and only slightly better performance for emerging markets. The large Chinese economy continues to slow, though the pattern has stabilized to some extent. Recessions are affecting Russia and Brazil.

In addition to sluggish economic performance, tensions remain high in several areas, with terrorist attacks and other incidents increasing uncertainty. Middle Eastern economies are working to adjust to the current low oil price environment, which is causing some dislocations. The stability of the European Union is another source of downside risk, as debt, deficits, a refugee crisis and unrest among key member nations weigh on the region and, hence, its major trading partners (including the U.S.).

Looking out through 2040, my latest projections indicate that U.S. economic output will more than double from the current level. Long-term growth in real gross product is forecast to be about 3.08 percent per year, which would generate expansion of some $18.6 trillion and a 2040 level of $34.9 trillion.
I am estimating that employment will grow by 1.46 percent per year over the period. This projected rate would result in expansion in U.S. wage and salary employment from 141.9 million to 204.0 million, a gain of about 62.1 million net new jobs by 2040.

It looks like consumer prices will increase slightly, but inflation will remain under control. Interest rates will likely trend upward (due in part to Federal Reserve policy normalization, as noted above). Real personal incomes are projected to grow by about 2.57 percent per annum over the long term.

Although I see significant risks from both domestic and international issues, I feel better about growth prospects than in the not-so-distant past. For one thing, we are finally working through some of the fallout from the Great Recession and the housing market problems. In addition, the economy has shown notable stability in the face of significant upheaval both in the U.S. and across the globe. All in all, my latest forecast leaves me cautiously optimistic, with the hope that reductions in uncertainty can improve ultimate performance.

Dr. Ray Perryman is president and CEO of The Perryman Group in Waco.