Secular stagnation: the dark cloud hanging over the world economy

A dark mood is overtaking those who contemplate the world economy. Today Britain’s Chancellor George Osborne will join a growing chorus of worry. Weak outlook in emerging economies is undermining efforts to revive developed ones like Britain’s. So far the prognosis is stagnation rather than economic disaster – a mood caught by the FT’s Martin Wolf, who tells us not to be too pessimistic. But these are dark clouds and policymakers would do well to prepare for rough waters.

Mr Wolf bases his relative optimism on the fact that world economy has being growing steadily for some two centuries, and with particular steadiness since 1945. Until the potential for further growth is exhausted, which he doesn’t think is anywhere near the case, that growth will carry on. But macroeconomics has changed profoundly in the last ten to twenty years. And even orthodox economists are starting to appreciate this.

The leading piece of evidence is that in the developed world central bank interest rates are stuck at very low levels, even though the recession of 2008-2009 was over five years a go, and there has been steady recovery since. And inflation, as it relates to pay and consumer prices, remains low. What had once been seen as a special case and compounded by policy mistakes, Japan after 1989, has become general. The Economist’s Free Exchange column has run a couple of articles on this. Orthodox economists had simply assumed that the way out of economic doldrums was through conventional short-term policies, such as loose monetary or fiscal policy. Japan’s problem, a whole queue of people, such as Paul Krugman, said, was simply a matter of a “liquidity trap” – when interest rates become too low to reduce. By the time I was studying Economics at UCL in 2005-2008, this was literally in the textbooks. Mr Krugman suggested that the solution was to raise inflation expectations in what seemed to me, even then, as a case macroeconomics gone mad.

But even Mr Krugman now thinks something deeper is afoot. Larry Summers was the first orthodox economist to raise the alarm, and he gave the problem a name: “Secular Stagnation” – or rather he resurrected a theory of that name that had long been treated as a theoretical curiosity. The world economy is profoundly out of balance. This is because the amount people want to save is more than what people want to invest, causing aggregate demand to drain out of the system. This is an idea that Maynard Keynes made famous in the 1930s – but he assumed that such an imbalance was temporary, and specifically a feature of recessions. But what happens if the imbalance continues right through the cycle? We find that attempts to stimulate growth through monetary or fiscal policy run out of steam, and simply lead to asset price bubbles, as surplus money chases the same assets round in circles.

What is causing this imbalance? Unfortunately, notwithstanding the large number of brilliant minds devoted to economics, the massive computing firepower at their fingertips, and the size of what is at stake, there is practically no quantitative evidence. Indeed, macroeconomists actually know little about what is actually happening in the world behind the artificial creations of their aggregated statistics. Instead we have a series of speculations which people gravitate towards depending on political preferences. Here the main ones:

  1. Inequality – the popular explanation on the left, including Mr Krugman and Robert Reich. A greater share of income is going to a very wealthy minority, or is stuck in corporate balance sheets. This is saved rather than spent, contributing to a surplus of savings.
  2. Trade surpluses. China, Germany and (until recently) some oil states have been running up structural trade surpluses, which again creates surplus savings globally. This makes people like Mr Wolf hot under the collar.
  3. Excessive levels of private debt. This theory is favoured by heterodox economists like Steve Keen. Private borrowing as a ratio to income has been steadily rising and is at record levels. Bank balance sheets are clogged so they can’t lend to fund new investment. Meanwhile private individuals are spending too much on debt repayments and interest to spend on consumption.
  4. Modern businesses require less capital, reducing demand for investment. Microsoft and Google required no bank loans and little new capital to develop their businesses, unlike the industrial giants of old. This may be a function of technology, or simply “Baumol’s disease” – the fact that productivity improvements are tilted towards particular industries, whose weight diminishes as they become more efficient. Mr Summers seems to incline towards this explanation, while not dismissing the others.
  5. Demographics. The proportion of workers compared to retired people is diminishing in the developed world and some other countries, like China. This squeezes the supply side of the economy and hence investment.  It also undermines any benefits of productivity growth, the traditional engine of economic advance. This was clearly a factor in Japan, which led the trend.

Is this just a developed world problem? Surely, with so many countries still poor, there are opportunities to raise productivity, and hence global growth in poorer countries? The growth of developing East Asian economies, starting with Japan, and latterly dominated by China, has been an important component of recent world growth. And yet there are few signs than other developing economies can move much beyond exporting natural resources, while China is picking up some distinctly developed world issues. India may be an exception, but the jury is out there.

So what is the solution? That, of course depends on how important each of the above factors is. But there is a big question behind this. Most economists assume that economic growth is a natural state of being, and simply want to remove obstacles to future growth, by raising the level of investment, for example. Others feel that slowing growth is part of a bigger development cycle and something we had better get used to. I incline to this second view.

But the way forward surely does not lie in grand, sweeping policies based on a single, overarching theory. We have to tackle smaller problems as they arise, bearing in mind the overall sense of direction. With that in mind, I think these are the main areas to watch:

  • Private debt. You don’t have to subscribe to Mr Keen’s ideas to understand that growing levels of debt are part of the problem, whether symptom or cause.
  • Big business. These are accumulating too much power, and skewing the distribution of resources.
  • Asset values. In much of the world, excessive asset values, especially land values, are a sign of economic dysfunction. This is especially the case in Britain. This is not a simple matter of supply and demand – excessive debt is part of the problem.
  • Migration. This is one of the ways that economic pressures can be relieved. But as we know all too well, a host of problems follow in its wake.
  • Government debt. In the short to medium term, for most developed economies, high levels of government debt will be much easier to sustain than conventional wisdom suggests. And yet in the long term this could lead to economic breakdown, as is happening in some South American economies.  The left have a strong theoretical case in opposing austerity, but undermine it by opposing almost any reform designed to improve economic efficiency and promote sustainability.

It is also important to point out the dogs that won’t bark. These are things that economists bang on about which don’t matter so much in our “new normal”:

  • Free trade. Free trade is an important part of the current global system, and it won’t help to reverse it. But the rapid globalisation of supply chains which was such a feature of the last two decades, is going into reverse, as the East Asian economies mature. This is one reason why growth is slowing – but it is the reversal on a phenomenon that was always going to be temporary. Further liberalisation of trade poses challenging questions, as TTIP and TPP are demonstrating, and may simply benefit big business.
  • Inflation. It used to be thought that inflation was a matter of managing expectations by the central bank, and of paramount importance. This is still true in some less developed economies. But in those exposed to global trade this is an entirely unhelpful way of looking at things. More powerful forces are keeping prices stable and inflation is less and less an issue that central banks need to act on.
  • Interest rates. These are set to stay low for a long time yet. The betting is that the recent rise in the US will be just one of a long line of failed jail-breaks, started by the Bank of Japan in the 1990s.

We live in interesting times.

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Secular stagnation: the dark cloud hanging over the world economy”

  1. The British Chambers of Commerce is clear that the UK economy is way off track (http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/press-office/press-releases/bcc-make-2016-a-year-of-action,-not-more-wasted-opportunities.html + the interview with the BCC Director on BBC Radio Four “Today” this morning). He emphasised how the Tories, like an alcoholic picking up the bottle again, have no real policies beyond fuelling consumer spending and debt (already, as you point out, at record levels) and basically hoping that,as promoting the UK as “China’s Best Friend in Europe” (honest!) “something will turn up”. “The March of the Makers”, “rebalancing the economy”, reviving world-class manufacturing, developing educational provision to ensure young people actually have the SKILLS and attitudes to take up employment (e.g. in construction, where we are facing a skills shortage which is absolutely nothing other than a national disgrace) have all gone the way of “hug a hoody”, “husky sledge rides” and “the greenest government ever”. What we have facing instead is months and months of division and vitriol over the EU (virtually in melt-down in terms of the the vision devised by the Mandarins of Brussels since the 1980s in any case (and likely to implode entirely if the UK does vote to leave ( > massive, massive boost to the likes of le Pen in France, AfD in Germany, Catalonian separatists (via SNP), Orban in Hungary etc. etc. and monumental threat to what is still the largest single market in the world).

    1. The typical reaction of national governments to world economic problems is to try and be amongst the minority who buck the trend, mainly be exporting more. This is in pieces in the UK. But I think the critical thing about the UK economy is the stratospheric level of property prices in the SE. The government has no answer to this apart from hoping that prices do not fall…

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