December 15, 2013 8:41 pm
Second, manifestly unsustainable bubbles and loosening of credit standards during the middle of the past decade, along with very easy money, were sufficient to drive only moderate economic growth. Third, short-term interest rates are severely constrained by the zero lower bound: real rates may not be able to fall far enough to spur enough investment to lead to full employment.
Fourth, in such situations falling wages and prices or lower-than-expected are likely to worsen performance by encouraging consumers and investors to delay spending, and to redistribute income and wealth from high-spending debtors to low-spending creditors.
The implication of these thoughts is that the presumption that normal economic and policy conditions will return at some point cannot be maintained. Look at Japan, where gross domestic product today is less than two-thirds of what most observers predicted a generation ago, even though interest rates have been at zero for many years. It is worth emphasising that Japanese GDP disappointed less in the five years after the bubbles burst at the end of the 1980s than the US has since 2008. In America today, GDP is more than 10 per cent below what was predicted before the financial crisis.
If secular stagnation concerns are relevant to our current economic situation, there are obviously profound policy implications (and I will address them in a subsequent column). But before turning to policy, there are two central issues regarding the secular stagnation thesis that have to be addressed.
First, is not a growth acceleration in the works in the US and beyond? There are certainly grounds for optimism: note recent statistics, the strong stock markets and the end at last of sharp fiscal contraction. One should also recall that fears of secular stagnation were common at the end of the second world war and were proved wrong. Today, secular stagnation should be viewed as a contingency to be insured against – not a fate to which we ought to be resigned.
Yet, it should be recalled that the achievement of escape velocity has been around the corner in consensus forecasts for several years and we have seen several false dawns – just as Japan did in the 1990s. More fundamentally, even if the economy accelerates next year, this provides no assurance that it is capable of sustained growth at normal real interest rates. Europe and Japan are forecast to have grown at levels well below the US. Across the industrial world, inflation is below target levels and shows no signs of picking up – suggesting a chronic demand shortfall.
The writer is Charles W Eliot university professor at Harvard and a former US Treasury secretary