Economy in Perspective, an 85-Year One

Doing a post on the economy in 2013 got me thinking about how current environment compares to prior decades.  I tried to focus on a very small number of indicators that are truly representative of the national situation and not get bogged down in a forest of minute details.  The numbers in the tables and charts below are averages of the annual data for each decade.

Exhibit 1 presents eight indicators with the highest number for each row highlighted in green, while the lowest is highlighted in orange.  Not surprisingly, the 1930s stand out quite a bit as crappy time to be around.  If we make an argument that 1930s and 40s were “anomalies” what with the Great Depression and World War II, things look a bit different (Exhibit 2).  The 1950s was a model boom decade with a roaring stock market, low interest rates, fast-growing economy, relatively low inflation and a population “baby boom”.  Both the unemployment rate and budget deficit were very low, while the high WWII debt was being paid off.

On the flip side, the 2010s have been pretty crappy so far as indicated by the dominance of highlighted numbers in that column.  Attractive stock market returns are the major exception here.  Of course, we are only 4 years into the decade and things might look quite a bit better down the road.

Exhibit 1 – Important Metrics by Decade (1930s to 2010s)


Exhibit 2 – Important Metrics by Decade (1950s to 2010s)


Now let’s take a look at these metrics one by one in a bar chart form.  These are averages of the annual data for each decade.  Stock market returns have been remarkably attractive for a majority of the 20th century decades, save for 1930s and 2000s (Exhibit 3).  The negative returns for the 2000s certainly help to explain continued investors’ reluctance to invest in equities.  Although fund flows for 2013 show that this might be changing.  Interest rates look like a bell-shaped curve rising in mid-century and culminating in double digits in the 1980s.  From there we began the 30-year decline in rates with a coincident bull market in bonds.  What this chart looks like say 50 years from now is anybody’s guess, but there is not much room left to the downside in interest rates.

Exhibit 3 – Stock Market Returns & Interest Rates


World War II and the subsequent rebuilding led to an economic boom in mid-20th century (Exhibit 4).  Real GDP (adjusted for inflation) is still growing albeit at a slower pace.  Speaking of inflation, after peaking in 1970s (which led to high interest rates in Exhibit 3), it has been steadily declining.  In fact, despite massive “money printing” by the Fed as well as ballooning federal debt and budget deficit (Exhibit 6), inflation in this decade has been the lowest since 1930s.

Exhibit 4 – GDP Growth & Inflation


There is a reason the post-war period was nicknamed “baby boom” with strong population growth (Exhibit 5).  With a booming economy, there was plenty of work to go around leading to low unemployment rates.  Once more, 2010s have been a rather tough time to be looking for work.

Exhibit 5 – Population Growth & Unemployment Rate


Finally, the federal debt and budget deficit have seen major changes over the last few decades (Exhibit 6).  During World War II, the government borrowed heavily to support war effort, but slowly reduced the debt burden into 1970s.  The 1990s and 2000s saw a relatively stable debt load, but it increased markedly after the “Great Recession”.  Similarly, current budget deficits are quite high by historical standards (although last few years have trended down).

Exhibit 6 – Federal Debt and Budget Deficits


This piece is meant to put current environment into historical perspective and is something I will likely refer to quite a bit in future posts as well as my work with clients.

A few words about methodology:

Depending on the data series being cumulative or oscillating, some averages were calculated as geometric means or CAGR (S&P 500 Return, Real GDP Growth, Inflation, Population Growth),  while others are arithmetic means (10 Year Treasury Rate, Unemployment Rate, Debt to GDP, Budget Deficit to GDP).


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