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5 things to know about the US economy during Trump’s State of the Union

The US economy is growing steadily under Trump, just like it did in the last two years of Obama’s presidency. That may change in 2019.

A man cleans a sidewalk in front of the luxury jeweler Cartier in Manhattan on September 28, 2017 in New York City. The Trump administration released their long awaited tax reform plan yesterday and it quickly drew attention for the benefits it would give
A man cleans a sidewalk in front of the luxury jeweler Cartier in Manhattan on September 28, 2017, in New York City.
Getty Spencer Platt/Getty Images

During the State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump tried to persuade Americans that the US economy is booming — and that it’s all thanks to him.

“In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom, a boom that has rarely been seen before. There has been nothing like it,” Trump said at the beginning of his speech. “An economic miracle is taking place in the United States.”

By the end of his speech, he’ll likely point to the low unemployment rate and robust job growth as evidence of his business skills. He’ll probably remind Americans that the US stock market had a great month in January — even though 2018 was the worst year for stocks in a decade. (He’ll also definitely leave out the fact that manufacturing jobs are far from “roaring back to life” as a result of his new trade deals.)

Here’s the truth: The US economy under Trump is doing just fine. The president has overseen a slow but steady economic expansion, albeit one that started under President Barack Obama.

There is one major problem, though — that growth has mostly benefited the wealthiest Americans, while average workers have barely seen their paychecks grow.

Taking that into account, it’s no surprise that many Americans are concerned. Nearly half —48 percent — of Americans say they believe economic conditions are worsening, up from 45 percent in December and 36 percent in November, according to a January poll by Gallup, a Washington, DC-based consulting firm.

Businesses have mostly welcomed the president’s hands-off approach to government regulation, but not all of them are benefiting from his agenda. The US steel industry is making handsome profits from steep tariffs his administration placed on imported steel and aluminum last year. So are aluminum factories. Yet Trump’s obsession with taxing foreign goods has inadvertently hurt farmers and US automakers that export their products overseas.

Even the GOP’s signature economic policy achievement, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, did little to boost wages and business investment.

However, the economy isn’t contracting, so things could be a lot worse. And it’s possible they might get that way. Wall Street banks are already preparing for the US economy to slow down in 2019. The International Monetary Fund also expects the global economy to cool down this year, partly because of the trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies: the United States and China.

So, sure, Trump can take credit for overseeing steady economic growth during his first two years in the White House. But the story is more complicated than that. And warning signs are flashing.

Here are five things to know about the state of the US economy.

The GOP’s tax cuts are ... meh

If there’s one economic policy Trump and his fellow Republicans in Congress oversold, it was the idea that cutting taxes would propel US economic growth into outer space.

In November 2017, the president assured Americans that slashing taxes on corporations and private businesses would provide the “rocket fuel our economy needs to soar higher than ever before.” And when Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on December 22, 2017, in the Oval Office, he also promised that businesses would invest those tax savings in their businesses and give “billions and billions of dollars away to their workers.” He pointed to a handful of big companies that promised to raise wages and give employees $1,000 cash bonuses — among them Walmart, Bank of America, and Comcast.

More than a year later, economic data shows that the tax bill’s benefit to workers was largely a mirage.

The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute recently crunched compensation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing that the much-touted bonuses did little to boost workers’ paychecks. In the past 12 months, cash bonuses only gave workers an extra 2 cents in average hourly compensation, adjusted for inflation. (This does not include bonuses tied to productivity goals.)

Instead, US companies have spent a record amount of money this year buying back shares of company stock, an effort to inflate their value for shareholders. US corporations have announced spending $1 trillion on stock buybacks so far this year. That’s a 64 percent increase from 2017, according to CNN Business. So it’s no mystery why the savings from the GOP tax bill didn’t trickle down to workers. Only a handful of companies (34 from the Fortune 500) said they are using the tax savings to invest in US operations.

Economists do believe the tax bill helped boost overall economic growth — for a little while, at least. The economy was growing at about 2.2 percent a year since the end of the recession in 2009, and then hit 4.2 percent in the second quarter of 2018, right after the tax cuts went into effect. The third quarter was also strong, with a 3.5 percent increase. By the end of 2018, however, annual economic growth fell to 2.6 percent. Economists expect growth to slow even more in 2019 and fall even further in 2020.

Congressional Budget Office

So to recap, instead of rocket fuel, the tax cuts were more like a sugar high. They gave the US economy a brief jolt while triggering an $800 billion hole in the federal budget.

The stock market is ... yikes

Trump’s favorite measure of US economic health, the stock market, has been wildly unstable in recent months. The president loves to take credit when the stock market is roaring, but stays silent when it falls.

That’s exactly what happened in 2018.

Trump bragged as the major stock indices reached record highs early in the year, insisting that the market was “smashing one record after another.” But in the last few months of 2018, things went downhill, fast. It was, in fact, the worst year for stocks since 2008 — the year the country sank into the Great Recession.

As Vox’s Emily Stewart explained, some of the factors behind the slide had to do with Trump, and some didn’t:

The current economic expansion and stock market run (until recently) has been going on for so long — and so much longer than many economists expected — that investors have been wondering for quite some time when that luck would run out. It looks like a combination of global and domestic events are starting to convince Wall Street that time is now.

Trump’s trade war with China is causing a variety of concerns, ranging from its impact on US farmers to its potential to raise consumer prices to its economic effects in both China and the US. Economic growth has slowed in Europe and is expected to slow in China next year. Drama over Brexit is also causing ripples, as are signals from the US Fed that it will continue to hike interest rates, potentially dampening the stock market and economy.

As the market plummeted from October through December, Trump was silent.

But he inadvertently showed what a bad year 2018 was for US investors in a tweet he posted last week, celebrating that the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 25,000 points.

As Vox’s Aaron Rupar and Javier Zarracina point out in this chart, Trump tweeted the same milestone a year ago. Which means that the Dow gained no overall value in the past year.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

January, on the other hand, has been a much better month for the stock market, so it’s almost certain that Trump will brag about that during his address to Congress. He’ll likely ignore the rest.

Trump’s trade wars are ... ouch

When Trump arrived in the White House, he promised to upend free trade, which he blamed for the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs. He definitely disrupted international trade, but his restrictions have done more harm than good.

Over the past year, America has placed about $200 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, in part to make Chinese products more expensive so Americans don’t buy them. The administration has also placed steep tariffs on all imported steel, angering other major US trade partners.

The idea was to level out the trade deficit with China and make China buy more US goods, but, as expected, China responded by slapping its own tariffs on American imports.

Trump’s protectionist trade agenda ended up hitting American farmers the hardest, with foreign countries levying tens of billions of dollars in retaliatory tariffs on the American agricultural industry. China, Mexico, and Canada have responded to the Trump administration’s taxes on imported steel, aluminum, and electronics with taxes on American soybeans, dairy, pork, apples, and potatoes, among other American goods.

American farmers are desperate.

A total of 84 farms in the Upper Midwest filed for bankruptcy between July 2017 and June 2018, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. That’s more than double the number of Chapter 12 filings during the same period in 2013 and 2014 in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana.

Farms that produce corn, soybeans, milk, and beef were suffering due to low global demand and low prices, according to economists, and Trump’s trade war is making the problem even worse.

The problem has gotten so bad that the Trump administration launched a $12 billion aid package for US farmers coping with retaliatory tariffs that foreign countries have imposed on their products. In September, the government cut $25 million worth of bailout checks to the agriculture industry.

But even the bailout may not be enough to keep farms open. Bankers in the Midwest are worried that too many farmers are falling behind on loan payments.

In short, Trump’s strategy has been to try to cripple the Chinese economy at all costs, while disregarding the impact on the US economy. Now the trade imbalance between the two countries is worse.

In September, America’s trade deficit with China reached a new high: $34.1 billion. That’s a 13 percent increase compared to last year. Ford, America’s second-largest car company, said in August that Trump’s tariffs cost the company $1 billion, and the company now expects massive layoffs. On Monday, GM began laying off 4,000 workers in Ohio, placing part of the blame on Trump’s steel tariffs.

Trump’s trade war might help the small US steel industry, but it’s hurting nearly every other sector of the economy. And now taxpayers are stuck with the bill of Trump’s $12 billion bailout.

Job opportunities are ... pretty good

Employers added an average of 223,000 jobs a month last year — far more than the 170,000 expected.

But that’s largely because Trump inherited a healthy economy and job growth from the Obama administration. During President Obama’s last two years in office, the economy added 5 million jobs, compared with 4.8 million in the first two years of the Trump White House.

The job numbers do show a promising trend: the US economy created more factory jobs in 2018 than any other year since 1997. The president will surely tout the 284,000 new manufacturing jobs —and he should— but they’re hardly a sign that US manufacturing is “roaring back to life.” Compare that to the 1.2 million factory jobs that have disappeared since the Great Recession began a decade ago, and to the other 8 million factory jobs lost before that.

However, overall unemployment is no longer a problem. The US unemployment rate has been on a steady downward trend since the end of the Great Recession, dropping from 9.8 percent in January 2010 to 4.8 percent when Obama left office. Under Trump, unemployment hit a low of 3.7 percent in September, though it has started to tick up in recent months.

One thing Trump will surely try to take credit for is the super-low unemployment rate for African-American workers.

In September, the black unemployment rate fell to 6 percent for the first time, setting a new record that suggests progress is being made toward closing a longstanding employment gap between black and white workers. The black unemployment rate has since ticked up to 6.8 percent, but that’s still low by historical standards.

As Vox’s P.R. Lockhart points out, the falling unemployment rate lacks context:

Trump’s claims about the black unemployment rate are somewhat misleading. While it’s undeniable that the rate has hit a new low, it is also true that black unemployment began declining during the Obama administration and has been falling steadily for the past several years.

In sum, job numbers under Trump are great. But they were also great before he took office.

Paychecks are ... blah

Slow income growth has been the most persistent problem afflicting the US economy since the recession ended around 2010. Wages have barely kept up with the cost of living, even as the unemployment rate dropped and the economy expanded.

In January, private sector workers (excluding farmworkers) got an average 3-cent hourly raise, adding up to an average hourly pay of $27.56. In the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have only increased 85 cents, or 3.2 percent, and that doesn’t even take inflation into account.

January’s 3-cent average hourly wage hike suggests that the trend has not really shifted.

It’s true that wages are rising faster than they have in a decade, which Trump will likely point out, but that’s only because the US economy collapsed 10 years ago. Comparing current wage growth to recession-era wage growth sets a pretty low standard.

And over the past year, prices rose, so paychecks had to stretch further. When the 1.9 percent inflation rate is taken into account (based on the Consumer Price Index), workers’ wages only grew about 1.3 percent within the past year — a pathetic amount compared to the sky-high payouts to corporate CEOs.

Frustration over stagnant wages is also the major underlying factor behind widespread worker strikes across the country in places like California, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Congressional Republicans had promised that their massive corporate tax cuts would help the average worker, but the gains have been meager.

Don’t expect Trump to bring that up.

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