United States: Economy

The US has the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world, with a per capita GDP of $46,900. In this market-oriented economy, private individuals and business firms make most of the decisions, and the federal and state governments buy needed goods and services predominantly in the private marketplace. US business firms enjoy greater flexibility than their counterparts in Western Europe and Japan in decisions to expand capital plant, to lay off surplus workers, and to develop new products. At the same time, they face higher barriers to enter their rivals' home markets than foreign firms face entering US markets.

US firms are at or near the forefront in technological advances, especially in computers and in medical, aerospace, and military equipment; their advantage has narrowed since the end of World War II. The onrush of technology largely explains the gradual development of a "two-tier labor market" in which those at the bottom lack the education and the professional/technical skills of those at the top and, more and more, fail to get comparable pay raises, health insurance coverage, and other benefits. Since 1975, practically all the gains in household income have gone to the top 20% of households.

The war in March-April 2003 between a US-led coalition and Iraq, and the subsequent occupation of Iraq, required major shifts in national resources to the military. Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage in the Gulf Coast region in August 2005, but had a small impact on overall GDP growth for the year. Soaring oil prices between 2005 and the first half of 2008 threatened inflation and unemployment, as higher gasoline prices ate into consumers' budgets. Imported oil accounts for about two-thirds of US consumption.

Long-term problems include inadequate investment in economic infrastructure, rapidly rising medical and pension costs of an aging population, sizable trade and budget deficits, and stagnation of family income in the lower economic groups. The merchandise trade deficit reached a record $840 billion in 2008 before shrinking to $450 billion in 2009. The global economic downturn, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, investment bank failures, falling home prices, and tight credit pushed the United States into a recession by mid-2008. GDP contracted till the third quarter of 2009, making this the deepest and longest downturn since the Great Depression.

To help stabilize financial markets, the US Congress established a $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in October 2008. The government used some of these funds to purchase equity in US banks and other industrial corporations. In January 2009 the US Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a bill providing an additional $787 billion fiscal stimulus to be used over 10 years - two-thirds on additional spending and one-third on tax cuts - to create jobs and to help the economy recover. Approximately two-thirds of these funds will have been injected into the economy by the end of 2010. In March 2010, President Obama  signed a health insurance reform bill into law that will extend coverage to an additional 32 million American citizens by 2016, through private health insurance for the general population and Medicaid for the impoverished.

Sources:

CIA World Factbook (October 2011)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( October 2011)

Glossary