I've been a close observer of the bond market for over 25 years, and it continues to amaze me with its ability to see the future of inflation and real economic growth.
I've been featuring the above chart for a long time, using it to argue that the market was quite pessimistic about the prospects for economic growth. My theory is that real interest rates ought to track the market's expectations for real growth, and indeed they have. Real growth and growth expectations were very strong in the late 1990s, and real yields on TIPS were very high. Since then, the economy has slowed down and real yields have fallen. 5-yr real yields on TIPS have been telling us for the past year that the market was braced for real economic growth to be as low as 1% or so. With today's revision to Q1/14 GDP growth, real growth over the past 2 years has been an anemic 1.4%. In effect, the bond market saw this slump coming a year ago. Needless to say, if the economy's prospects are going to improve going forward, we ought to first see real yields on TIPS rise to at least 1%.
The extent of the weakness in Q1/14 growth can be appreciated in the above chart. We haven't seen such negative numbers for real and nominal GDP growth without being in a recession. Yet I'm pretty sure we aren't in a recession, since the preponderance of evidence suggests the economy continues to grow, albeit relatively slowly: e.g., business investment is rising, bank lending to business is strong, residential construction is rising, unemployment claims are very low, jobs are growing about 2% per year, industrial production is rising, monetary policy is accommodative, government spending has shrunk meaningfully relative to GDP, the yield curve is positively sloped, and real short-term interest rates are negative, to name just a few. All of these are consistent with an ongoing business cycle expansion. The first quarter weakness was most likely a by-product of terrible weather.
We are very likely still in a recovery, but the problem—as illustrated in the chart above—is that the economy is more than 10% below where it could or should be if long-term growth trends are extrapolated. This is without doubt and by far the weakest recovery in history. I think the reasons for this weak growth are a huge increase in regulatory burdens (e.g., Obamacare), a significant increase in top marginal tax rates, a hugely burdensome, complicated, and distorting tax code, and the developed world's highest corporate tax rates. Accommodative monetary policy is probably a contributing factor as well, since five years of extremely low and negative real short-term interest rates have likely created disincentives to save. In short, the economy has been growing in spite of all the government's "help," not because of it. Lift the burden of a smothering fiscal sector and we'll most likely see a much stronger economy.