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American Pie in the Sky

NEW YORK – While the risk of a disorderly crisis in the eurozone is well recognized, a more sanguine view of the United States has prevailed. For the last three years, the consensus has been that the US economy was on the verge of a robust and self-sustaining recovery that would restore above-potential growth. That turned out to be wrong, as a painful process of balance-sheet deleveraging – reflecting excessive private-sector debt, and then its carryover to the public sector – implies that the recovery will remain, at best, below-trend for many years to come.

Even this year, the consensus got it wrong, expecting a recovery to above-trend  annual GDP growth – faster than 3%. But the first-half growth rate looks set to come in closer to 1.5% at best, even below 2011’s dismal 1.7%. And now, after getting the first half of 2012 wrong, many are repeating the fairy tale that a combination of lower oil prices, rising auto sales, recovering house prices, and a resurgence of US manufacturing will boost growth in the second half of the year and fuel above-potential growth by 2013.

The reality is the opposite: for several reasons, growth will slow further in the second half of 2012 and be even lower in 2013 – close to stall speed. First, growth in the second quarter has decelerated from a mediocre 1.8% in January-March, as job creation – averaging 70,000 a month – fell sharply.

Second, expectations of the “fiscal cliff” – automatic tax increases and spending cuts set for the end of this year – will keep spending and growth lower through the second half of 2012. So will uncertainty about who will be President in 2013; about tax rates and spending levels; about the threat of another government shutdown over the debt ceiling; and about the risk of another sovereign rating downgrade should political gridlock continue to block a plan for medium-term fiscal consolidation. In such conditions, most firms and consumers will be cautious about spending – an option value of waiting – thus further weakening the economy.