2018: Trouble is brewing between Germany and Italy and between China and the US

Prediction is a mug’s game; you are more likely to miss something important than demonstrate insight. And yet it is the only good way to put your insights to the test. Science may be mostly about gathering and reviewing evidence, but the true test of its worth is prediction. And so, in line with tradition for this time of year, I feel I must have a go.

When I started to think about it, my feelings about 2018 were anticlimactic. The British political deadlock will continue: there will be no election and no change of PM. The Brexit negotiations will somehow manage to put off the more difficult problems yet again, probably through a transition deal that will look very like staying in the Single Market. The investigation into the Trump’s campaign’s connections to Russia may snare members of his team but not the man himself; he will stay in office. The Democrats may take the House of Representatives, but they won’t manage to retake the Senate. And so on. Things will limp on much as they are now.

But none of that is very brave. It just guessable, keep-your-head-down fare that does not put my understanding of the world under any real stress. And yet proposing something more exciting is a matter of luck, especially if I am confining my predictions to a twelve month period. I need to look at things another way. Where do I see trouble brewing, even if the chances of something breaking in 2018 is less than 50%?

Let’s start with the world financial system. There is something unstable about it, even if it does not look as dangerous as it did in 2007 – it is more like the tech bubble of 2001. Asset prices look too high, largely because there is more saving than than the system is able or willing to convert into productive investment. This applies to the West, where too many assets are piling up in the hands of businesses and rich individuals, while many forms of investment are commercially unattractive to most people. And it applies to China, where there is something not right about the volume of money invested, especially through state owned businesses; a lot of useless assets don’t seem to have been written off.  But what will be the proximate cause of a financial crisis? A Chinese banking breakdown? Inflation breaking out in the US? A panic in the property markets? And when will the crisis strike? Personally I feel that government bonds are a better bet than other asset classes in the medium term, though that would not be the case if inflation got going. But that is more of a threat in America than it is in Europe or Japan.

And there is something not right with the capitalist system. Technology has changed the way it works, and our political systems have not caught up – rather like the mid 19th Century world in which Marx wrote Das Kapital. Most conventional economists really haven’t grasped this or it implications. The answer will be political change, but what? Without answers, political pressures will build up, and not just in the developed world. It is fashionable to suggest that liberal democracy is in danger, but the situation in the autocracies of China, Russia and Turkey, to name but three, don’t actually look any less tractable. But where will the political system crack? Governments have become better at repression. And there is no convincing alternative to sell. Yet.

What of Britain? The Conservatives look to be in deep disarray, but they have a lot of strengths – especially the widespread fear of the alternative, and the substantial funding that could unlock. We need to remember how close Theresa May came to a triumph, with the coherent ideology of Nick Timothy behind her – she might have destroyed Labour’s working class base. Their introversion did for them in the end. Can a new leadership revive their fortunes? I see similar strengths and weaknesses in Labour. Are they peddling new or old wine in their old bottles? I suspect more new than their critics give them credit for, which will make them a much stronger proposition. But there is an introversion too. The leadership is not sharing its thinking about what to do with this country; it just wants disparate people to project their hopes onto their vague pronouncements, so that they can gain power; only then might they share their real thinking with us. Meanwhile, the tensions within British society – the stagnation of the left-behind places, the squeezed funding for public services and benefits – will serve to increase frustration. Something spectacular could break the deadlock. But what and when?

And Europe? This looks like another deadlock. The populist xenophobes may have stalled a bit in 2017, but they are alive and well. It is striking that Poland’s ruling party remains very much in control, in spite of the fact that many Poles do not share their paranoia – their economic policies, which involve widespread cash handouts, are popular, and may not be as disastrous for the economy as many critics suggest. Economics is at the heart of politics – and politics is at the heart of economics. But the biggest threat to European stability comes from Italy, where elections are to be held in 2018. We might well get a strong pushback from that country against the way the Eurozone is run, at a time when German politics is being pushed in the direction of more conservatism on the Euro, and not putting Germany’s savings surplus to constructive work across the zone. That conflict could cause the system to break. But maybe the French can intermediate to give the Italians what they want while making the Germans feel they have won?

In America I see a strange mix of euphoria and anger. The tax reforms passed before Christmas were a big win for the Republicans, and it will give them real momentum. While the Administration, and the tax reforms, are generally unpopular, relentless propaganda from the many rich winners may baffle floating voters for a bit. That could be good for the Republicans in the congressional elections. It is a tall order for the Democrats to take either house, especially the Senate, where Republicans have plenty of opportunity to win back seats lost at Barack Obama’s high point. But the Administration’s malign neglect of the healthcare system could bite back.

Perhaps more significant for the world as a whole is the thought that China and the USA are on a collision course. Donald Trump is itching to start a trade war with China, to reverse what he sees as America being ripped off. China’s ambitions are increasingly global. At the moment the two have come to an uneasy accommodation, with North Korea a joint focus of attention. But this looks unsustainable; China will not stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, as only a military intervention of some kind will achieve that, and China surely does not have the appetite for that. But a trade war between China and the USA would be an attack on one of the central economic and political pillars of the early 21st Century world. It would be extremely destabilising economically and politically. China still needs exports to the US to sustain its economy; the US still requires to be bankrolled by Chinese money. This is surely the most likely source of a financial crisis.

And then there is the risk of war. North Korea is determined to develop a genuine nuclear threat to America, and this is a huge provocation. It’s not a happy situation when we seem to be relying on military men to provide the restraint on the President.

So to summarise: the two critical developments to watch are a clash between Germany and Italy over the economic management of the Eurozone, and a clash between the US and China over trade. Either or both could precipitate a global financial crisis resulting in a substantial reduction in asset values and the banking woes that would follow from that. I am cautiously optimistic that the problems of the first of these will be contained; I am not at all optimistic on the second.


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.