Last week’s non-farm payroll figures convinced many analysts that the US economy is once again headed back into recession. That would not be a surprise for many Americans who are not much more confident about the economy than they were back in 2009. Author Daniel Gross wrote a much talked about piece in Newsweek back in 2010 talking about the forthcoming rebound in the US economy. Gross, now at Yahoo Finance, has as a book out Bigger, Stronger, Faster…The Myth of American Decline . . . and the Rise of a New Economy in which he discusses the many (small) ways in which the US economy is in fact stronger than many people believe.
While the book will be an interesting read for economic optimists it is probably a more valuable read for any one who thinks that the American economy is in some permanent downward economic spiral. I recently had a chance to ask Gross a handful of questions. We published the first half of our Q&A yesterday. Below is the second half of our Q&A.
AR: Are our economic statistics failing us? You note in the book the many ways in which companies, governments and individuals are becoming more efficient over time. Often in some small and subtle ways. A recent example that jumped out at me was a post by Michael Mandel on Dropbox and how a “free service” is in fact providing many consumers with real benefits, some of which are likely not getting picked up in traditional economic numbers.
DG: Our economic statistics are what they are – with all their seasonal variation and revisions and tweaking. As an analyst – and as an investor – you have to go to work with the tools you are given. So I tend to focus much more on year-over-year comparisons rather than month-to-month. I try not to make too much out of one single data point. I look to history – I studied history in grad school before getting into journalism full-time – to get a handle on how innovations and investment spread.
It’s interesting. The internet came along 18 years ago, and there’s still this sense that the whole thing was a bubble. That extends to Facebook, as well. Ross Douthat of the New York Times wrote a column asking “where is all the internet money?” After all, Facebook’s revenues aren’t that high. That’s a really idiotic way to look at things. I see the internet money everywhere: When Peapod (an internet grocer now owned by Stop’n’Shop) rolls up to my house twice a week, when I cash my paycheck from Yahoo! every two weeks, when I pay a bill online, when I use a website to troubleshoot my Weber gas grill instead of sitting on hold for 20 minutes, when I see my kids communicating with their camp friends on Facebook, when my book is sold on Amazon.com, when my wife, who is a lawyer, sends documents by email instead of copying them and using FedEx. You have to really be willfully blind *not* to see all the ways in which businesses and consumers are using IT, free and paid services, in economically beneficial ways. It is, however, tough to quantify. But that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – impact things like retail sales and factory orders.
AR: I particularly liked Chapter 12 on “The Efficient Consumer.” (Kind of like a smaller version of a A. J. Jacobs book.) Were you surprised how much money you could save and how much other consumers were saving by spending in a more conscious fashion.
DG: Yes I was. When it comes to saving money, technology can be our friend but it can also be our enemy. We sign up for automatic payment of certain bills because it’s convenient. But then you forgot to turn it off – or the company makes it difficult to turn it off. I kind of forgot that I was paying $50 annually for a Costco membership, and I haven’t been to a Costco store in five years. I discovered, to my embarrassment, that I was still paying $300 per year for my old AOL account. By taking advantage of a $75 energy assessment offered by the state of Connecticut, I was able to knock several hundred dollars off my energy bill every month. I think people who are comparatively well off frequently spend money without thinking about it too much. So it’s just a matter of being conscious. I mean we’ve all read the personal finance articles about making your own coffee instead of going to Starbuck’s. But too few of us are really truly attentive across-the-board when it comes to all our expenses. I monitor and have worked hard on my household energy consumption, but on food, or travel – not so much.
U.S. companies work extremely hard on efficiency. They have in-house people and service providers who advise on logistics, on materials, on compensation, on purchasing insurance – you name it. But we don’t have something similar for consumers. And even sophisticated consumers don’t have the time or energy to think about it too much.
AR: You touch on the topic of energy in the book, especially in relation to North Dakota. Are we currently underestimating or overestimating the potential impact of lower natural gas (and crude oil) prices on the American economy?
DG: I think we’re underestimating the impact of natural gas. So much of the attention has focused on fracking – the environmental impact, the boom it is setting off in areas like the Marcellus shale, the leasing of big properties. But that’s just the beginning of the economic impact. The discoveries of natural gas are instigating a lot of infrastructure investment – pipelines, gas terminals, etc. The discoveries are creating a new commodity that the U.S. can export, which is also stimulating investment in infrastructure. Some of the outfits that built terminals to import LNG in the past decade, are now investing billions to make them bi-directional.
But even that is just the beginning. Cheap and plentiful natural gas is spurring electricity generating companies to use it to much a greater degree, and that is lowering the price of electricity for lots of consumers. So it’s a form of stimulus.
There’s more. Natural gas is a feedstock for factories. In the past decade, plastics and chemicals companies set up shop in the Persian Gulf, where there was plentiful natural gas they could burn to make their products. Now some are investing to build new plants in the U.S., to take advantage of this comparatively landlocked resource.
There’s more. Compressed natural gas can be used as a transportation fuel. It’s already used by hundreds of thousands of vehicles around the U.S. But this is a big potential theme. Trucking fleets, municipalities, and entrepreneurs are converting vehicles to run on natural gas, building engines and vehicles that can run on natural gas, and investing to build networks of fueling stations. So that’s stimulating an awful lot of investment in productive capacity by companies large and small.
If you missed part one make sure you check it out. Thanks to Dan for answering our questions. You can check out Bigger, Stronger, Faster…The Myth of American Decline . . . and the Rise of a New Economy at Amazon.