Bitcoin and the U.S. Growth Problem
Bitcoin and economic growth are the only reasonable ways out of this debt problem.
Swan Private Insight Update #15
This report was originally sent to Swan Private clients on September 12th, 2022. Swan Private guides corporations and high net worth individuals globally toward building generational wealth with Bitcoin.
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Houston, we have a debt problem.
The U.S. federal debt-to-GDP currently sits at 124%, after peaking at 136% in 2020. These are the highest debt levels in the United States since World War II.
This is a problem because when debt reaches excessive levels like this, it starts to become a drag on economic growth. In a recent literature review of 24 studies, half of the studies concluded that once debt exceeds 75-100% debt-to-GDP, the debt has a negative relationship with economic growth.
Probably the most famous study on the topic was done by Reinhart and Rogoff (2012) when they considered 26 episodes in which developed country debt exceeded 90% of GDP since World War II. In the study, they concluded that economies with debt-to-GDP >90% averaged 1.2% lower annual growth than developed countries without large debt burdens.
To be clear, debt is not inherently bad. Debt is a reallocation of capital from those who have a surplus of it, lenders, to those have a deficiency of it, borrowers. If used wisely, debt allows individuals and businesses to increase their spending, allocate resources efficiently, and become more productive, thus driving more economic growth and improving their standard of living. It is only when debt reaches excessive levels and is used unproductively, like it is today, that it becomes a problem. With high debt burdens, newly issued debt is used to pay entitlements and interest payments on existing debt obligations instead of being used to spur economic growth. In other words, the debt becomes unproductive.
So what happens historically when debt-to-GDP gets to the level we’re at today? According to another study by Reinhart and Rogoff, in the last 200 years, of all the countries that hit 130% debt-to-GDP, 51 out of 52 defaulted on their debt. Below is a chart that shows a few examples.
The moral of the story is history shows us that excessive debt levels often lead to economic stagnation and calamity.
Now a debt default can come in a variety of different forms. When debt-to-GDP gets to these levels there are essentially five ways for governments to reduce their debt burden:
Cut spending (austerity)
Outright default or debt restructring
Currency devaluation (soft default)
Financial repression (soft default)
So what’s the likely course of action for the United States today?
Options #2 and #3 would be the most painful and politically unfavorable. Politicians are showing no signs of introducing austerity measures. The CBO estimates that the U.S. deficit will be around 4% of GDP this year, and that’s if 1) they don’t spend any more and 2) GDP growth doesn’t drop below the CBO’s expectations. An outright default would be deflationary, cause the unemployment rate to soar, and would likely result in a catastrophic global debt crisis that would make the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 look like a walk in the park. I think we can safely cross both of these options off the list.
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We could certainly try option #3 and print our way out of this by devaluing the currency. But with inflation already at multi-decade highs, the risk is this would cause a rapid decline in purchasing power of the dollar, people would lose faith in the currency, and a hyperinflationary event would unfold. Not ideal.
So instead what the Federal Reserve has decided to do is option #5 — keep interest rates relatively low to the level of growth and CPI inflation. This is called financial repression. CPI inflation has far exceeded the nominal Federal Funds rate even after the recent string of interest rate hikes. The real federal funds rate currently sits at -6.19%.
As the real federal funds rate remains negative, this devalues the debt in real terms and effectively melts it away over time; however, this comes at a cost. Inflation is a tax felt by every business and individual in the economy, but it’s especially painful for savers and the lowest income brackets who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Furthermore, inflation compounds, so the longer this financial repression goes on, the more painful things will get. The real risk of maintaining this financial repression for a prolonged period of time is it could lead to rising populism and civil unrest.
But there is another option — option #1 — economic growth. I don’t know about you, but growing our way out of this debt problem sounds like the best option by far. But how realistic is it? Is it even possible for the U.S. with debt-to-GDP this high?
Call me an irrational optimist, but I would argue yes — it is technically possible.
For evidence, look no further than the last time the U.S. debt was hovering around these levels. Although it was slightly below the 130% threshold mentioned above, U.S. debt-to-GDP was still very high at 119% after World War II. Yet by 1955, we somehow managed to cut the debt-to-GDP nearly in half to 64%! In only a decade, America had escaped its debt overhang.
So how did we accomplish this?
Well first, the Federal Reserve implemented the same financial repression playbook that it is using today, albeit much more explicitly.
Upon the entry of the US into World War II, the Federal Reserve assisted the Treasury in financing its large debt expansion by implementing Yield Curve Control, capping short-term interest rates at 0.375% and long-term interest rates at 2.5%.
The Fed performed Yield Curve Control from 1941 to 1951, keeping the interest rates pinned at those levels as CPI inflation ran higher. All told, consumer price inflation averaged about 6.5% annually from 1946 to 1951. During this post-war period of financial repression via negative real interest rates, the debt burden was gradually reduced by 2 to 4% per year. This, in turn, inflated away a decent chunk of the government’s debt.
But it wasn’t only financial repression that contributed to the shrinking of the debt burden during this time. After 1946, the United States experienced the greatest boom in economic and productivity growth this country has ever seen. Not only was the growth explosive in magnitude, but the growth was also shared equally across income brackets. After the Great Depression of the 1930s followed by a world war, this explosion in growth took many by surprise and still baffles economists today. Many describe this recovery as an economic miracle.
There have been many theories about the cause of this leap in growth in the decade after WWII. Some attribute it to the increase in household savings accumulated during the war often called the “pent-up demand” theory. This theory argues that these accumulated savings gave the middle class the ability to spend and purchase durable consumer goods, driving the economy forward. Others say that the post-war growth primarily came from an increase in the size of the labor force as the young men returning from the war entered the workforce. Another theory is that the environment of war became the mother of invention. War demanded efficiency and this resulted in improved production techniques and increased labor productivity.
After the war ended, these new techniques and procedures were not forgotten. This wartime progress led to a high level of post-war productivity made possible by advancements in hand-held power tools and the quality and power of machines that were repurposed from wartime manufacturing to peacetime manufacturing. Said differently, the war drove innovation, which drove productivity, which drove economic growth.
Regardless of how it happened, it did happen. After a decade of abysmal growth during the Great Depression and a large debt expansion to finance World War II, America did what many felt was impossible at the time, it grew its way out of its debt burden.
The question is, can America do the unthinkable again?
In many ways, our current growth picture has a lot of similarities to the 1930s and 1940s. The 2010s are considered the decade of a soaring stock market and low unemployment. Asset prices rose rapidly across the board, and people on Wall Street were having a great time. But under the surface, the economy never received the invitation to the party.
In short, the debt keeps growing as growth keeps slowing.
Real GDP growth since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis has been well below historical trends despite the rise in asset prices. It has led to some analysts referring to the 2010s as the “Lost Decade” or as Emil Kalinowski calls it the “Silent Depression.” In fact, Kalinowski’s work shows that real GDP per capita growth from 2007 to 2020 was below both of the previous economic depressions in the United States.
Real GDP per capita has grown at an average annual rate of 2.0% from 1973-2007, but from 2007 to 2019 the growth rate has been well below the trend at 0.9%.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, the trend in real GDP per capita has gotten even worse. We have yet to reclaim the below-average trend line of 1.6% since 2009 despite massive amounts of fiscal stimulus.
If the debt is the problem, well then this is the consequence. This growth trend should concern every American regarding the economy and living standards that future generations will experience if we do not figure out how to reverse it.
So is it possible for the United States to wake up from its growth-hibernation and grow its way out of this debt problem?
Let’s start with the basics.
Since real GDP is the most frequently cited measure of economic growth, we will focus on this metric for now. Real GDP is the total value of all goods and services that have been produced in an economy, adjusted for inflation.
Real GDP per capita is real GDP divided by a country’s population, or the output per person. This is often used as a proxy for the prosperity of a nation or the rate of improvement in the standard of living.
Real GDP per capita = (size of the active labor force) x (labor productivity).
In other words, output per worker = (hours per person) x (output per hour)
So when using this metric, economic growth can be broken down into two variables: the size of a labor force and the productivity of that labor force. That’s simple enough.
To determine the probability that we can experience a boom in economic growth in the future, let’s start by looking at the first part of the equation, the size of the labor force.
Some of the increases in economic growth after WWII are attributed to an increase in the labor force as young men returned from the war and entered the workforce. Additionally, these same men were responsible for the baby boom that occurred between 1946 to 1964. The baby boom generation would drive economic growth forward in the latter part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century. Another large addition to the labor force was the influx of women that entered the workforce after 1970. This nearly doubled the labor force, but this one-time event was effectively completed by 1995.
When people talk about demographic headwinds to growth what they mean is instead of large swaths of the population entering the U.S. workforce like in the past, we now have the opposite occurring. Baby boomers are starting to leave the workforce as they retire. Social security allows retirement ages at 62, 66, and 70, which means that the effects of baby boom retirement are spread out, starting in 2008 and extending to 2034. One in every four American workers is a baby boomer, and it is estimated that around 10,000 baby boomers retire daily. Furthermore, according to Pew Research Center, baby boomers are retiring at a more accelerated rate since the pandemic, with almost 29 million boomers retiring in 2020 — compared to just over 26 million in 2019.
This trend can be observed in the Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) which is the proportion of the working-age population to the total population that is either working or actively looking for work. LFPR estimates the economy’s labor resources available to produce goods and services. When looking at the LFPR, it has been in a steady decline since 2008, and ~50% of this decline can be attributed to baby boomers retiring.
Because the working-age population represents ~250 million people, a decline in LFPR by 3.8% (66.2% to 62.4%) implies a loss of approximately 9.5 million workers from 2008 to 2022. This trend is obviously a negative regarding the U.S.’s economic growth prospects.
I always appreciated demographic data because it’s set in stone, which is a rarity in the world of economics. We will not be making any more babies 20 years ago, and we will not change the fact that aging baby boomers are beginning to exit the workforce to enjoy their retirements. So what the future size of the U.S. labor force ultimately depends on is 1) birth rate and 2) immigration policy.
U.S. birth rates have been steadily declining since 2007, dropping 20% from 2007 to 2020.
According to the NCHS, we did see a small tick-up in both the number of live births and fertility rates in 2021, the first annual increase since 2014 after both data points dropped to record lows in 2020.
The decline in birth rates in the U.S. has been ongoing for 15 years now and is correlated to the average total number of children a woman has. An average of 2.1 births per woman is widely considered the replacement rate that would keep the U.S. population stable, America is now well below that, at an average of 1.6 births per woman. If this rate continues to decline, it could lead to a smaller workforce and an older population which negatively impacts economic growth.
This decline in U.S. birth rates cannot be explained by demographic, economic, or policy changes. Some say it’s due to a rise in infertility rates, while others say it results from changes in young people’s preferences compared to prior generations. Personally, I believe that a logical explanation is that many young people feel they cannot afford to start families due to the rising cost of living and stagnation in real wages. No matter the cause, it doesn’t bode well for the future economic outlook of America.
Immigration is another way to influence the size of a country’s labor force. The United States has had around 1 million immigrants enter the U.S. annually since 2000. Yet over the last decade, we have seen that number drop off as policy has become more restrictive with the United States government becoming more protective of its borders.
During the pandemic, immigration numbers understandably dropped 50% from the year before, its lowest level on record, +245,000. But when you observe the chart above, the net international migration has been declining every year since 2016 and this past decade’s average annual rate was below the 1 million/year historical trend.
At a time when we need working immigrants more than ever to help increase the size of the labor force and boost economic growth, our policymakers are turning them away. Immigrants have been especially vital to U.S. population growth since 1970, and now that trend appears to be reversing too.
One can clearly see the total drop in the U.S. population growth over the last decade when observing both net migration and the natural increase in population (births — deaths) highlighted in the chart below.
According to the Census Bureau, last year the U.S. population grew 0.1%, the slowest rate since 1776. In the last decade, the U.S. population grew at its lowest rate since the Great Depression and the second-lowest rate for any 10-year period since the country’s founding. Baby boomers retiring, declining birth rates, dropping life expectancy, and plummeting immigration have all contributed to a decline in the size of the labor force.
Overall, it looks like a boost in America’s economic growth is unlikely to come from increasing the size of its labor force unless we reform our immigration policies and young people start making more babies. That means that if we are to experience a boom in economic growth over the next decade, it will have to come from increasing our productivity.
Thinking back to the equation of real GDP per capita, if we are not likely to see an increase in the size of the labor force any time soon, then that means any chance we have for a sustained increase in growth will come down to whether or not we can increase our labor productivity.
If we can’t significantly increase the quantity of our labor force, then we need to improve the quality of our labor force.
Increased productivity means getting more out of each worker than in years prior. In other words, you get more economic output for each labor hour worked.
To put it simply, productivity gains can happen when:
Workers become more skilled and educated.
When more capital is invested to improve their efforts.
When an overall increase in productivity occurs from innovative technology.
Unfortunately, this year U.S. labor productivity sank -4.6% annually in Q2 after falling -7.4% annually in Q1, the weakest back-to-back quarter readings since the 1940s.
This drop in labor productivity growth in 2022 is a continuation of a trend that has been occurring over the course of the last century.
From 1920 to 1970, labor productivity grew a whopping 2.8% per year. Since then, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, labor productivity has slowed, and overall it has grown at an average rate of 2.1% annually from 1947 to 2018.
One can observe below how labor productivity growth has been far below this average trend in the past decade.
From 2009 to 2018, labor productivity has grown at a measly 0.8% annually.
Education is one variable that can be used to improve this trend. A decrease in the value of the education impacts the composition of the labor force over time. We want a highly skilled and educated workforce that can solve the hardest problems and generate innovative ideas and technologies that push our economy to new heights. It starts with the quality and accessibility of our education.
The progress in America’s education has been lackluster at best. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures the level of 15-year-olds’ reading, mathematics, and science knowledge and compares it to nearly 80 countries every 3 years. In the latest PISA results in 2018, the United States ranked 13th in reading, 37th in mathematics, and 18th in science. Learning has stagnated in America.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for the nation’s 17-year-olds, there have been minimal gains in literacy since the 1970s, and minimal gains in mathematics since the 1990s. In addition, the NAEP reports that reading and math scores for both 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds saw unprecedented reversals since the pandemic began.
These discouraging test results come as we are seeing a slow down in the number of Americans who complete high school, or some college.
Education is an area that the United States can definitely improve on and should be a key policy focus moving forward to boost the productivity of its labor force.
However, education and capital investment are not the most important factors in terms of increasing productivity growth, the most important variable — by far — is innovation.
Economists have estimated that approximately 50% of the U.S. annual real GDP growth can be attributed to innovation. On a long time horizon, neither changes to the labor composition nor capital investment can drive labor productivity growth. Both fluctuate with the business cycle, and adding more machines, more education, or more training can only create so much growth. Innovation is what drives long-term, robust improvements in the standard of living and economic growth.
Total Factor Productivity (TFP) is how economists historically have measured the amount that innovation is driving productivity growth. It is a metric that accounts for all the productivity gains after subtracting all the labor and capital inputs. In short, when you see “TFP” think “innovation.”
Below is a chart that estimates the contributions of increases in labor productivity growth since 1948. One can see how TFP was the main contributor to the productivity boom that occurred after World War II.
One can observe how we have not seen the same contribution from TFP in productivity growth in the recent decade. If we have any chance to grow our way out of this debt burden, we will need to harness the technologies we have at our disposal and support new ideas that will result in improved labor productivity.
The fact that innovation has not contributed to productivity growth in recent years may surprise some readers. We have experienced an acceleration in technology and the digitization of our economy over the last 20 years. The World Wide Web has revolutionized the way we communicate and interact with one another, has made knowledge more accessible, and has made business processes more efficient across every sector of the economy. We have mini personal computers in our pockets with applications for seemingly everything, we can video call each other from halfway around the world, and we have Inspector Gadget-style watches, but yet, productivity growth has remained slow.
Economist Robert Solow famously said in 1987 that, “the computer age was everywhere except for the productivity statistics.” This phenomenon became known as the Solow Paradox.
Entrepreneur and Author Jeff Booth argues that it is not that the productivity gains from these technological advances haven’t occurred, it’s that they have been stolen from a majority of the population via inflation.
One only needs to look at this chart that compares productivity gains and real median hourly compensation growth to see that this is true. Since 1980, these two metrics have completely decoupled from one another.
Notice how productivity and income growth grew in concert in the post-WWII era. One can argue that productivity gains were broadly distributed during this time period because that era was relatively free of central bank intervention in the currency.
Since 1970, we have had central banks manipulating their currencies and printing money to create inflation to keep a credit-based monetary system alive that requires ever-expanding growth to prevent its collapse.
This can also be observed by looking at the trend in wealth and income inequality that we have experienced over the last several decades. The share of U.S. aggregate income and wealth held by the middle and lower classes have been on a downward trajectory as the upper class share has sky-rocketed.
Our workers have never been more productive and never had better tools to work more efficiently, but only a select few have benefitted from this.
This is a result of man-made inflation that siphons productivity gains from the many and concentrates it into the hands of the few. The stagnation in median real wages and the widening gap in wealth and income inequality as productivity has soared are signs that the productivity gains are not being broadly distributed.
The problem is that our credit-based monetary system requires ever-increasing GDP while at the same time technological advancements decrease GDP. Technology decreases GDP because it reduces the number of goods we purchase, the time and workers it takes to produce them, and the labor required to deliver them.
This means innovation should result in decreased prices and more abundance for everyone. Instead, we have rising prices via inflation and scarcity in all of the things we need which only leads to more inequality and more civil unrest. The productivity gains are concentrated in the hands of the few as the standard of living gradually drops for the American middle and lower classes.
Someone might ask, well why is real GDP below trend if we have all these productivity gains from innovation that supposedly are being stolen via inflation?
The answer is that using real GDP tends to understate productivity growth from technology. It does not take into account the value that a new invention provides consumers. The excerpt below from economist Robert J. Gordon’s landmark book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth” explains this idea well:
Therefore, it’s important to be aware that new inventions provide value to households and businesses well beyond what is captured by real GDP growth.
The other answer to the question is that these inflationary policies result in a redistribution of wealth away from middle and lower-income households to upper-income households. This reduces their ability to spend in the economy, which drags on economic growth as measured by real GDP. Furthermore, the worsening inequality results in underinvestment in education and health within low and middle-income households and leads to rising populism and civil unrest, which retards economic growth.
There are many technologies today that have the potential to increase productivity and economic growth including 3D printing, self-driving cars, robotics, artificial intelligence, AR/VR, nuclear fusion, and more. All of these technologies will likely converge and contribute, but only Bitcoin has the ability to allow our society to move away from a monetary system that concentrates these productivity gains into the hands of the few at the expense of the many. Bitcoin is an innovation in money itself, and as a result, it could unlock more growth for our economy than all of the other technologies mentioned above.
The key point to understand here is that a productive society does not require inflation — only the credit-based monetary system that relies on never-ending growth requires this. Currencies are manipulated to create inflation and artificial GDP growth to combat the natural deflationary forces of human progress. This results in inequality and civil unrest and tears at the very fabric of our society — discouraging people from being productive and pursuing large life milestones like starting a family.
We need a new monetary system that is aligned with our technological progress so that productivity gains from innovation can be shared by all. Enter Bitcoin.
A consequence of inflation is people are unable to save. Because inflation is used to keep GDP elevated and combat the deflationary effects of technology, this results in money losing its purchasing power over time. Inflation destroys individuals’ ability to save in money, so they search for money proxies like stocks and real estate to protect their savings from devaluation.
The issue is roughly 50% of Americans don’t own any stocks, and approximately 40% of Americans do not own any real estate. This means returns from technology and the production of real value in the economy largely go to shareholders and the top 1% because these returns are concentrated in the stock market and other assets that are not easily affordable or accessible. However, Bitcoin changes the game.
Bitcoin is an innovation that allows people to save in a money that is impossible to inflate, is easily accessible, and its divisibility makes it affordable for everyone. Bitcoin is money built for the current age not just because it is digital, but also because it is deflationary monetary technology, making it the perfect savings instrument for a naturally deflationary world driven by innovation.
In a hard money deflationary world, people will save with money rather than with financial assets. Thus, Bitcoin, not financial assets, will absorb much of our global productivity returns. Since anyone can hold Bitcoin, it essentially democratizes our civilization’s returns.
In our current monetary system, productivity gains go to entrepreneurs and existing asset holders. In a Bitcoin monetary system, productivity gains go to entrepreneurs and money holders. Assets are mostly held by the top 1%, but money is held by every economic actor. Bitcoin creates a much more equitable society where productivity gains from innovation can be shared which would create a world of abundance.
An important point here is that Bitcoin allows individuals to save in money again. This leads to a far greater question: what is the best measurement of economic growth? Is it the amount of spending and production in an economy, or is it the huge amount of savings and investment in an economy?
People do question whether or not real GDP growth is the best measure of economic growth. Does producing ever-more products and services really capture the level of real economic growth occurring in a debt and stimulus-fueled economy? Some would argue that something like real savings of households and businesses is a better metric to track because savings and investment are what ultimately drive innovation and thus long-term economic growth, not consumer spending.
I empathize with this viewpoint because by improving peoples’ ability to save, people can start to think more long term and think about how they can build the future they would like to see. This leads to individuals investing their savings in new ideas and long-term projects that can lead to increased productivity or new inventions that had never been considered before. Today, people have stopped making big bets with their savings because the money is broken and they feel they need to invest in passive indexes just to protect their savings. Bitcoin has the ability to increase the savings rate of households and businesses, which results in larger investments, which leads to more capital formation and a higher rate of sustainable economic growth.
This is ultimately why Bitcoin’s ability to allow individuals to save, free of inflation, is so important to the future outlook of American economic growth. Bitcoin is what historians and economists would call a “General Purpose Technology” in that it will impact every industry in the economy. Bitcoin is a monetary innovation that will unleash all of the productivity gains from all other technologies equally across our society, potentially breaking America out of this period of below-average economic growth in the process.
America is at a fork in the road. The fiat currency regime of ever-increasing debt and inflation has made earning and saving the national currency a bad personal choice. This has led to workers becoming poorer over time and losing their motivation to work, to have kids, to fully apply themselves and more. This is what needs fixing at the most fundamental level.
The old approach of trying to paper over reduced engagement and productivity through issuing debt has run its course. If we continue on this path our future looks bleak.
However, we have an alternative — A path of innovation, productivity and hope.
By studying previous growth and productivity booms in the past, it is my conclusion that embracing innovation is the single most important thing we can do today as a country if we have any chance in growing our way out of this debt burden.
This will likely require a confluence of technologies to succeed including Bitcoin, which could provide a more accessible way for individuals to save free of inflation so that productivity gains can be shared by all classes of society instead of just the top 1%. Bitcoin could be the key to unlocking the productivity gains that technological advancements provide because it cannot be inflated and it is accessible for everyone regardless of socioeconomic class.
America has seen hard times in the past, but we have always overcome. Now is not a time to concede defeat or take the easy way out through debasement or default. It is the time to come together, build, and do the work necessary to pull our country out of this period of sluggish growth.
It’s time for us to build. It’s time for us to innovate. It’s time for us to produce real value for ourselves, for our economy, and for the future American generations to come.
“The American is, by nature, optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly.” — President John F. Kennedy
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Sam Callahan is a Bitcoin Analyst and educator at Swan Bitcoin. He graduated from Indiana University with degrees in Biology and Physics before turning his attention towards the markets. He writes the popular “Running the Numbers” section in the monthly Swan Private Insight Report. Sam’s analysis is frequently shared across social media, and he’s been a guest on popular podcasts such as The Investor’s Podcast and the Stephan Livera Podcast.
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