A view of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors seal BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Heightened Risks of a US Downturn

The US economy has experienced nine recessions during the last 50 years. What makes the current situation unusual and more worrying than in the past is the low level of short-term interest rates and the high (and rising) level of federal debt, which will limit policymakers' ability to provide the stimulus needed to counter a recession.

CAMBRIDGE – The United States’ economy is roaring ahead, and above-trend GDP growth looks set to continue in 2018 and 2019. Although the expansion is in its ninth year, there is no sign of an imminent slump.

The greatest risk to the economic expansion is the fragility of the financial sector. A decade of excessively low interest rates has pushed asset prices to extreme heights. The real yield on ten-year Treasury bonds is approximately zero. The price-earnings ratio of the S&P 500 share index is about 70% above its historic average. If these and other asset prices reverted to their historic benchmarks, investors would suffer losses in excess of $10 trillion, leading to declines in consumer spending and business investment.

Economic activity could also slow as a result of international conflict in Korea, heightened trade disputes, or domestic political events in the US.

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