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.




Inequality should be at the heart of the economic debate

Today the eminent US economist Larry Summers writes in the FT. His subject is the US economy, but the problem he addresses affects most developed economies in some shape or form, and the British economy quite closely. Unfortunately, so many economists of his generation, an obsession with short-term macroeconomic theory means that he doesn’t seem to get the big picture. Inequality lies at the heart of our economic malaise.

This debate is being conducted by academic economists in their own language, but it matters to all of us. I will summarise. Mr Summers’s starting proposition is that the US economy is suffering from “secular stagnation”. What this means is that the economy is stuck in a pattern of slow growth that does not fulfil the potential that population growth and advances in productivity should give it. This certainly seems to be true, though I think that the ability of developed economies to grow consistently at 2% per annum, the “trend rate”, must be subjected to critical analysis, rather than simply assuming it can be continued indefinitely because it has been achieved in the second half of the 2oth Century.

Mr Summers then says that there are three basic ways of trying to tackle this. First is “supply side” reforms; this means trying to fix fundamental bottlenecks in the economy, such as education. Worthy though he says these ideas are, the problem with this is that it does not fix a lack of demand in the economy; there is no point in producing more if nobody buys. This line of reasoning is very much behind the Keynesian critique of austerity economics. While there is a certain logic to it, it sounds too much like saying these problems are too much effort to fix, so let’s try something else – which is a road to nowhere. It used to be that economists blamed politicians for being too short-termist; now it is the other way around.

The second strategy is to loosen monetary policy. The problem is that monetary policy in the US (and the UK) is technically very loose as it is. I say technically, because in some respects monetary policy is quite tight in fact (because banks are reducing their balance sheets) – though there is little the authorities can do about it. Further loosening of policy (as advocated by the likes of Paul Krugman, for example) will simply inflate bubbles and get us back to the fix we found ourselves in 2007. He is surely right here – though I would add that I think that monetary policy is massively over-rated as a policy instrument by conventional economists anyway.

The third strategy is to use government spending to keep up demand, preferably by spending on infrastructure, that will be of long term benefit to the economy. He also says that governments should try to persuade the private sector to spend more, by which he mainly seems to mean the corporate sector to invest more.

The problem I have with this is its superficiality. The “secular stagnation” problem Mr Summers describes is a serious malfunction of the economic machine. This can be seen most clearly if you follow Mr Krugman’s logic. He says that the way out is to reduce interest rates to the point at which investment gets stimulated. And since interest rates are currently low, that means that we should have an effectively negative rate by stoking up inflation a bit. In other words, he is saying that the problem is that profitable investment is impossible, so we need to encourage investment that is marginally unprofitable. How on earth can an economy grow on that formula?

Surely we need to spend a bit more time getting to the bottom of exactly why are in this fix, and then trying to direct public policy to fixing it. Here I follow another prominent US economist: Joseph Stiglitz (or I think I do). The culprit for lack of demand in the economy is quite clear: it is lack of investment, especially from the private sector. You can make up for this shortage of investment by running government deficits, but you are in trouble if this is more than a temporary measure. The problem is that there is systemic reason for the shortage of private sector investment, which running government deficits does nothing to fix. It is rising inequality. Big surpluses are accumulating in some parts of the economy: in the personal wealth of the very rich, and on company balance sheets. This is not being spent on investment, but being held in cash to spend later, or chasing a merry go round of assets, real estate and shares, whose overall quantity is not expanding.

There are two problems here: inequality and the fact that savings are not translated into proper investments. The first of theses is the more fundamental. The Economist published an interesting article on the subject, reviewing the work of a French economist, Thomas Piketty. They point out that the inequality problem has been with us before: in the period up to 1914, giving rise to the critique of Karl Marx, amongst others. Mr Piketty thinks that developed economies are reverting to the 19th century type. The problem is slowing population growth, combined with technology that makes it easy to substitute people with machines. If he is right, the problem is not about to go away. It is the central political question of our time.

So what are the answers? First of all we need to tax the rich harder. Given that so much wealth ends up in slippery multinational networks, this means international cooperation. It also means rebalancing industry and jobs so that we are less over-supplied with unskilled workers. The pressure on the finance industry, especially investment banking, needs to be maintained. All this means reversing the conventional wisdom of the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher years – but not a recreation of the failed policies that preceded them.

This is an agenda of the left. It will be vigorously opposed by the right. Perhaps at long last the consensus that has ruled developed world politics will break up. But economists like Mr Summers do us no favours by concentrating on palliatives rather than solutions.

The glorious irrelevance of Paul Krugman

The economic crisis that started in 2007 exposed deep flaws in conventional macroeconomics. This was wonderfully exposed by Adair Turner, as I have posted before. But many of the macroeconomics’s big beasts seem to plough on regardless. Most shameless of these is Nobel Laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. This has become apparent in the latest kerfuffle to take the world of macroeconomists: the idea of “secular stagnation”.

This can get very technical very quickly (indeed the technicality of it is something of a hiding place), and I will try to spare my readers of these technical details. The idea of secular stagnation that is the natural rate of interest in many developed economies is less than zero, and has been for some time; since about 2003 according to some, or the 1990s to others. The natural rate of interest is that which is required to balance the supply of savings with their consumption in investment projects. If this rate is negative, then actual interest rates are doomed to be above this rate, and hence not enough investment happens. And because of this, growth rates are dragged down to stagnation levels, while the surplus savings are pumped into assets, creating bubbles, or else excessive debt-fuelled consumption occurs. If you want to read more about there is this excellent article by Gavyn Davies in the FT. This is behind the FT paywall. More accessible in is the speech by Larry Summers, another big beast of old macroeconomics, that set the whole fuss off, which is on YouTube. Unfortunately this takes quite a bit of reading between the lines to understand its implications. And then there is Mr Krugman, who weighs in after the speech with this blog post. This much the most accessible article in all senses – Mr Krugman is one of the best people at explaining economics ideas there is.

Mr Krugman says that his idea encapsulates what he has being saying or feeling for years; and having read him for years, I have no reason to doubt him on that. mr Krugman’s main interest is in an  old battle: that between his own liberal-inclined system of “Neo-Keynesian” theory, and the “Neo-Classical” approach favoured by conservatives. To him the crisis and its aftermath simply proves that the Neo-Classicists were wrong. He is right there, but that’s a very old story.

The interesting point is that neo-Keynesianism failed too. It failed for two main reasons. First was that it ignored the implications of the financial system, and levels of debt, in particular. And second it stuck to a theory of money and monetary policy that had barely moved on from the days when most transactions were settled in notes and coins. This blinded them to the scale of the crisis that was building, and blinds them still to the effectiveness of different policy options. In particular they place too much faith in the usefulness of a loose monetary policy, and an obsession with the rate of inflation. Their support for loose fiscal policy is much better grounded. There is not a hint of these problems in Mr Krugman’s writing.

There is something very striking about Mr Krugman’s article. He doesn’t seem that bothered about the forces that driving the economic statistics. There is a bit of speculation that it is something to do with an aging population, but no attempt to get behind the implications of this. Instead he obsesses with good old-fashioned fiscal and monetary policy: the idea being that we need to fix short term problems, and that the more fundamental, structural issues, such as inequality, finance and the efficiency of government, can be fixed in due course later. His signature policy idea is that the rate of inflation should be raised deliberately so that negative real interest rates can rise, which will then help the economy back to growth. Mr Krugman has long advocated just such a policy for Japan and feels entirely vindicated that the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now following his advice.

This insouciance towards the details of what is happening to economies is quite wrong-headed, though. He is right that growth rates in the developed world are stagnating, and that this problem dates back to well before the crisis of 2007. But we need to have a better idea of why. If it is for fundamental reasons, such as demographics and the changed nature of technological innovation, what is the point trying to take the economy to a place that it cannot go sustainably? And surely policy solutions must be sensitive to the complexities of an evolving economy? If labour markets work in a very different way, thanks to technological change and globalisation, then the old assumptions about inflation could be wrong. We are in danger of misreading the implications of a low inflation rate, and policies designed to increase its level could have malign effects. In Japan, employers are refusing to raise wages in the face of increased inflation expectations, so Mr Abe’s policy is starting to unravel.

Mr Krugman comes through as gloriously irrelevant to modern policymakers. Right some of the time, wrong on other occasions, and with nothing to say on many crucial questions, his ideas are so disconnected from the realities of the modern economy that they have become quite useless. Macroeconomics needs to learn and move on. The likes of Mr Krugman and Mr Summers should either embrace new ideas or bow out.


The equality problem

A nasty problem stalks those who think about public policy, especially here in Britain, and in the US.  It goes under the general name of “inequality” and is mainly about the growing disparity between the very rich and everybody else.  There is a lot of anger (think of the Occupy protests) and shaking of heads, little convincing analysis and and even less in the way of convincing policy ideas.  It’s worth everybody taking a few steps back and asking themselves what is going on.

Of course the debate about the justice of inequality is as old as political philosophy. But two new factors have changed the whole nature of the debate.  The first is that the people in the middle of the wealth distribution are getting left behind.  Depending on the stats and country the median family’s wealth is hardly growing at all, or stagnating, even as the economy as a whole grows (well, until 2007 anyway).  So long as the median family is doing nicely the political heat can be contained – people can ask whether the problem really matters.  But these stats make it appear that the country is being run for the benefit of a tiny elite – which makes it politically much more awkward.

The second new fact is that mobility between different levels of wealth appears to be declining.  If you start life wealthy, you are increasingly likely to stay that way, and if not, you are less likely to break the barrier into a wealthier world.  The traditional divide between those who are concerned about equality of opportunity and those who worry about equality of outcome is becoming a lot less significant.  Both lots are angry.

There remains much to debate about how bad for us all this growing inequality really is.  But you don’t have to be an equality extremist (like, or so I’m told, the authors of the popular book, the Spirit Level, which I’m afraid I haven’t read) to be worried about all this.  The political consent upon which our democratic society is founded is being undermined – and indeed the extreme polarisation of US politics is perhaps one aspect of this.

Why is this happening?  For all the quantities of research poured in to economics and the social sciences, there is rather little that is known.  Economists don’t like thinking about the distribution of wealth as opposed to those comfortable aggregates that conceal so much.  Mathematically it is an entirely different type of problem to the ones they are used to dealing with.  I have seen one valiant attempt to grapple with the maths, under concept of “wealth condensation“, which did a good job of modelling the sort of power distributions so characteristic of wealth patterns, but this was not by an economist.  Professional economists preserve their elite status through the gratuitous use of advanced mathematics; no doubt they feel very uncomfortable in dealing with problems that require sorts of maths they aren’t good at, or even no maths at all (e.g. through the use mass agent computer modelling).  What we get is some rather airy stuff about the impact of technological change and immigration, with the former usually being fingered as the more important baneful influence.

One fact is quite well understood, though, which is the winner takes all effect of mass communications.  Thus entertainment stars tend to win big or not at all – and similar can be said of sports stars.  The mass market seems to concentrate its attention on a small world elite, ignoring anybody that hasn’t quite made it.  This, of course, will increase inequality.  But it is a retail phenomenon which ill explains why bankers and big corporate execs do so well.

Because we so ill understand it, it is unsurprising that our solutions seem so inadequate.  In Monday’s FT the prominent American economist and policy person Larry Summers (paywall), after moaning about the problem, was pretty lame about what to do next.  He suggested looking at three things: challenging the privileged status of the well off (especially the effects of the massive lobbying power of big corporations), a bit of tax reform (which is as much about not making things worse by rolling back estate taxes, etc) and state intervention to even things up, especially through education funding.  All worthy, but it is difficult to think that it would have anything more than a marginal effect.  The anti-capitalists aren’t any more convincing, of course.  It’s the baby and bathwater problem.

Politically there seem to be two distinct poles of argument.  The right wing idea is that it is the excesses of the state that is holding back the middle, and if we taxed and regulated more lightly an entrepreneurial boom would help the middle catch up with the top.  I have to admit I haven’t seen this line of argument clearly articulated anywhere, but some such logic must lie behind the popularity of the American Tea Party, whose appeal goes well beyond the elite.  On the left people seem to think the answer is in a bigger state, which intervenes to help the less well off, cracks down on excessive wealth, and drags pay up by creating masses of comfortable public sector jobs.  A bit like Sweden before its economy collapsed in the 1980s.  Neither course looks very encouraging to a liberal.

So what to think?  I am not really any further forward than Mr Summers.  But it would help if we better understood why so many in our society are being left behind.  I shall return to the topic