The red line in the chart above plots retail spending in real terms in the United States from 1992 to 2013. We want to get a sense of the trend in spending so we plot spending on a logarithmic scale, and we subtract off the 1992 level to start the line at zero. A logarithmic scale is informative because a straight line in the chart would imply that spending was growing at a constant rate in real terms.
Why aren’t we getting back to trend? One answer often given is that the housing boom artificially boosted spending from 2002 to 2006, and so the trend we were on was an unrealistic benchmark that could not be sustained.
But the data contradict that story. There is no evidence that spending was above trend from 2002 to 2006. In the chart above, the red line doesn’t go above the black dots during the housing boom. Further, there is no evidence that the economy was overheating in terms of capacity from 2002 to 2006. House prices were booming, but other measures of inflation were steady.
Instead, the chart above may be evidence corroborating the worrisome “secular stagnation” view.
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