The threat of secular stagnation has not gone away

May 6th, 2018

The economy is prone to sluggish growth — if the past few years are anything to go by

Unemployment in the US is below 4 per cent and growth in the economy is accelerating. By recent standards growth in Europe and Japan is also strong. In these circumstances many believe the idea of secular stagnation can be written off.

Certainly if the phenomenon is defined as the fatalistic view that the economies of the industrialised world are condemned to suffer permanent stagnation with high unemployment, then we are obviously not in a moment of secular stagnation.

However, this is not what Alvin Hansen intended when he coined the phrase, nor what I had in mind when I sought to revive the concept in 2013. Rather the idea of secular stagnation is that the private economy — unless stimulated by extraordinary public actions especially monetary and fiscal policies and, or, unsustainable private sector borrowing —will be prone to sluggish growth caused by insufficient demand.

On this interpretation, the past few years have confirmed the hypothesis.

In the US the Congressional Budget Office forecast, which is comfortably in the mainstream, calls for annual growth of 2.5 per cent over the next three years with growth of 3.3 per cent during 2018. But what is necessary to support this growth? As far as fiscal policy is concerned, the CBO projects growth in actual budget deficits of more than 1 per cent of gross domestic product in 2017-2019, with substantial further increases over time and the most rapid increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio during peak business cycle times than has ever been seen in peacetime.

In terms of monetary policy, indexed bond markets imply that real interest rates will be kept well below 1 per cent for the next 30 years. Meanwhile the economy has been supported by a stock market that has returned 22 per cent in 2017 and an average of 16 per cent over the past five years. This while private sector debt has grown relative to GDP.

If budget deficits had been at normal levels and not growing relative to the economy, real long-term interest rates had been steady in their customary range above 2 per cent and an extra $10tn in wealth had not been created by abnormal stock market returns, it is hard to believe that the US economy would be growing much at all. And it is almost inconceivable that it would be near its 2 per cent inflation target.

Elsewhere in the industrial world Japan’s economy is supported by a government debt-to-GDP ratio that hovers around 250 per cent and long-term real rates of less than minus 1 per cent. Europe has seen a reduction in the ratio of government debt to GDP in recent years but like Japan has received extraordinary stimulus from sub minus 1 per cent real interest rates and increases in the flow of private sector credit. Even with this stimulus Europe and Japan have struggled to achieve 2 per cent inflation.

What we are seeing is the achievement of fairly ordinary growth with extraordinary policy and financial conditions. Something similar took place in the years before the Great Recession.

Whether this is sustainable depends on several factors, not least whether private sector demand will autonomously increase as the financial crisis recedes so growth can be maintained with less unorthodox policy and exuberant financial conditions. Perhaps it can, but it is more likely that a combination of rising inequality, slow labour force and productivity growth, and greater competition from developing countries will keep private sector demand subdued.

There is also a question over whether the current policy mix and financial conditions can be maintained indefinitely. This is doubtful for fiscal policy especially in the US. Monetary policies involving low or negative real interest rates may be sustainable over the long term but they are likely to encourage financial risk, unsound lending and asset bubbles with potentially serious implications for medium-term stability.

The greatest concern remains over whether the next downturn can be handled. Traditionally the response to recession in the industrial world has been fiscal expansion and a 500 basis point cut in interest rates. But the fiscal cannon has already been fired in much of the industrial world leaving policymakers short on ammunition.

So secular stagnation as an issue remains very much alive. Current palliatives are appropriate but unlikely to be long-term solutions. The industrial world can hope that investment demands increase and saving needs decline. But policymakers must turn their attention to demand as well as supply issues going forward.