May 23rd 2017

Understanding Today’s Stagnation


NEW HAVEN – Ever since the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009, the world’s major central banks have kept short-term interest rates at near-zero levels. In the United States, even after the Federal Reserve’s recent increases, short-term rates remain below 1%, and long-term interest rates on major government bonds are similarly low. Moreover, major central banks have supported markets at a record level by buying up huge amounts of debt and holding it.

Why is all this economic life support necessary, and why for so long?

It would be an oversimplification to say that the Great Recession caused this. Long-term real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates did not really reach low levels during the 2007-2009 period. If one looks at a plot of the US ten-year Treasury yield over the last 35 years, one sees a fairly steady downward trend, with nothing particularly unusual about the Great Recession. The yield rate was 3.5% in 2009, at the end of the recession. Now it is just over 2%.

Much the same is true of real interest rates. During the Great Recession, the ten-year Treasury Inflation-Protected Security yield reached almost 3% at one point, and was almost 2% at the recession’s end. Since then, the ten-year TIPS yield has mostly declined and stayed low, at 0.5% in May 2017.

The fact that people are willing to tie up their money for ten years at such low rates suggests that there has been a long trend toward pessimism, reflected in the recent popularity of the term “secular stagnation” to describe a perpetually weak economy. After former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers used the term in a November 2013 speech at the International Monetary Fund, the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman picked it up, and it went viral from there.

Although secular stagnation became a meme five years after the 2008 financial crisis, the term itself is much older. It first appeared in Harvard University economist Alvin Hansen’s presidential address to the American Economic Association, in December 1938, and in his book published the same year.

Hansen described the “essence of secular stagnation” as “sick recoveries which die in their infancy and depressions which feed on themselves and leave a hard and seemingly immovable core of unemployment.” When Hansen delivered his speech, he expected the US economy’s economic stagnation to persist indefinitely. The depression that had started with the stock-market crash of 1929 was approaching its tenth year, and World War II had not yet arrived. Only after the war began, in 1939, did the stagnation end.

Hansen’s Great Depression-era theory of secular stagnation was based on an observation about the US birth rate, which was unusually low in the 1930s, after having already declined dramatically by the late 1920s. Fewer births perpetuated the stagnation, Hansen surmised, because people did not need to spend as much on children, and felt less need to invest in the future. Indeed, according to World Bank statistics, the global average birth rate has also fallen since the 2008 financial crisis. But low fertility had nothing to do with that crisis in particular, given that birth rates have been steadily declining for the better part of a century.

Another explanation is that the 2008 crisis is lingering in our minds, in the form of heightened fear that rare but consequential “black swan” events could be imminent, despite moderately strong consumer-confidence measures and relatively low financial-market volatility (with some exceptions). A recent paper by New York University’s Julian Kozlowski, Laura Veldkamp, and Venky Venkateswaran argues that it is rational to harbor such fears, because once a formerly unthinkable event actually occurs, one is justified in not forgetting it.

My own theory about today’s stagnation focuses on growing angst about rapid advances in technologies that could eventually replace many or most of our jobs, possibly fueling massive economic inequality. People might be increasingly reluctant to spend today because they have vague fears about their long-term employability – fears that may not be uppermost in their minds when they answer consumer-confidence surveys. If that is the case, they might increasingly need stimulus in the form of low interest rates to keep them spending.

A perennial swirl of good news after a crisis might instill a sort of bland optimism, without actually eliminating the fear of another crisis in the future. Politicians and the media then feed this optimism with rosy narratives that the general public is in no position to sort through or confirm.

Since around 2012, the equity and housing markets have been hitting new records. But the same sort of thing happened regularly in the Great Depression: the news media were constantly reporting record highs for one economic indicator or another. A Proquest “News and Newspapers” search for the 1930-1939 period finds 10,315 articles with the words “record high.” Most of these stories are about economic variables. In 1933, at the very bottom of the depression, record highs were reported for oil production; wheat, gold, and commodity-exchange-seat prices; cigarette consumption; postal deposits; sales or profits of individual companies; and so forth.

Such rosy reports may give people some hope that things are improving overall, without allaying the fear that they could still suffer an economically catastrophic event. Barring exceptionally strong stimulus measures, this sense of foreboding will limit their spending. Narrative psychology has taught us that there is no contradiction: people can maintain parallel and conflicting narratives at the same time. When people are imagining disaster scenarios, policymakers must respond accordingly.


Robert J. Shiller, a 2013 Nobel laureate in economics and Professor of Economics at Yale University, is co-author, with George Akerlof, of Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 1st 2024
EXTRACT: "The lesson is that laws and regulatory structures are critical to state activities that produce local-level benefits. If citizens are to push for reforms and interventions that increase efficiency, promote inclusion, and enable entrepreneurship, innovation, and long-term growth, they need to recognize this. The kind of effective civil society Nilekani envisions thus requires civic engagement, empowerment, and education, including an understanding of the rights and responsibilities implied by citizenship."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: " Consider, for example, the ongoing revolution in robotics and automation, which will soon lead to the development of robots with human-like features that can learn and multitask the way we do. Or consider what AI will do for biotech, medicine, and ultimately human health and lifespans. No less intriguing are the developments in quantum computing, which will eventually merge with AI to produce advanced cryptography and cybersecurity applications."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell." ----- "As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACTS: "According to estimates by the United Nations, China’s working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline by nearly 220 million by 2049. Basic economics tells us that maintaining steady GDP growth with fewer workers requires extracting more value-added from each one, meaning that productivity growth is vital. But with China now drawing more support from low-productivity state-owned enterprises, and with the higher-productivity private sector remaining under intense regulatory pressure, the prospects for an acceleration of productivity growth appear dim."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "When Chamberlain negotiated the notorious Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, The Times did not oppose the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany without Czech consent. Instead, Britain’s most prestigious establishment broadsheet declared that: “The volume of applause for Mr Chamberlain, which continues to grow throughout the globe, registers a popular judgement that neither politicians nor historians are likely to reverse.” "
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Another Trump presidency, however, represents the greatest threat to global stability, because the fate of liberal democracy would be entrusted to a leader who attacks its fundamental principles." ------"While European countries have relied too heavily on US security guarantees, America has been the greatest beneficiary of the post-war political and economic order. By persuading much of the world to embrace the principles of liberal democracy (at least rhetorically), the US expanded its global influence and established itself as the world’s “shining city on a hill.” Given China and Russia’s growing assertiveness, it is not an exaggeration to say that the rules-based international order might not survive a second Trump term."
Dec 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "For the most vulnerable countries, we must create conditions that enable them to finance their climate-change mitigation" ........ "The results are already there: in two years, following the initiative we took in Paris in the spring of 2021, we have released over $100 billion in special drawing rights (SDRs, the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset) for vulnerable countries.By activating this “dormant asset,” we are extending 20-year loans at near-zero interest rates to finance climate action and pandemic preparedness in the poorest countries. We have begun to change debt rules to suspend payments for such countries, should a climate shock occur. And we have changed the mandate of multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, so that they take more risks and mobilize more private money."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "....if AI causes truly catastrophic increases in inequality – say, if the top 1% were to receive all pretax income – there might be limits to what tax reforms could accomplish. Consider a country where the top 1% earns 20% of pretax income – roughly the current world average. If, owing to AI, this group eventually received all pretax income, it would need to be taxed at a rate of 80%, with the revenue redistributed as tax credits to the 99%, just to achieve today’s pretax income distribution; funding the government and achieving today’s post-tax income distribution would require an even higher rate. Given that such high rates could discourage work, we would likely have to settle for partial inequality insurance, analogous to having a deductible on a conventional insurance policy to reduce moral hazard."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACT: "Shocks are here to stay, and our task is not to predict the next one – although someone always does – but to sharpen our focus on resilience. Staying the course of politically mandated policies while minimizing the inevitable dislocations is easier said than done. But that is no excuse to fall for the myth of being victimized by the unprecedented."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACTS: "A new world is indeed emerging. It will be characterized not only by more interdependencies, but also by more insecurity, danger, and war. Stability in international relations will become a foreign concept from a bygone age – one that we did not fully appreciate until it was gone."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "Yet one must never forget that Putin is first and foremost an intelligence officer whose dominant trait is suspicion."
Dec 2nd 2023
EXTRACTS: "In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf trots out the specter of a 'public-debt disaster,' that recurrent staple of bond-market chatter. The essence of his argument is that since debt-to-GDP ratios are high, and eminent authorities are alarmed, 'fiscal crises' in the form of debt defaults or inflation “loom. And that means something must be done.' ----- "If, as Wolf fears, 'real interest rates might be permanently higher than they used to be,' the culprit is monetary policy, and the real risk is not rich-country public-debt defaults or inflation. It is recession, bankruptcies, and unemployment, along with inflation." ---- "Wolf surely knows that the proper remedy is for rich-country central banks to bring interest rates back down. Yet he doesn’t want to say it. He seems to be caught up, possibly against his better judgment, in bond vigilantes’ evergreen campaign against the remnants of the welfare state."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all." ---- "Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride,"
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I interviewed Wilders in 2005 " ---- "Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond?" ----- "His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian" ----- "Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders." ---- "Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria." ---- "Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007." ---- "A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "It would be naive to hope that the Russian government or US diplomatic outreach would prevent nuclear war in the event of a serious threat to Putin’s political survival. The risk that Russia’s Ukraine misadventure could culminate in nuclear nihilism demands nothing less than a systemic review of America’s options."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: " Hamas’s barbaric massacre of at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza to eradicate the group, has introduced four geopolitical scenarios bearing on the global economy and markets. As is often the case with such shocks, optimism may prove misguided."
Nov 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The last two years have been catastrophic for investors in US Treasury bonds. By one measure, 2022 was the worst year for such investors since 1788. Bond prices are poised to fall again in 2023, making this the first time in US history that they declined for three consecutive years. But now the “smart money” is jumping back in."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "China’s economic slowdown could lead the CPC to embrace a militant form of Chinese nationalism in an effort to maintain public loyalty. This would spell trouble for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and China itself in the long run. Given the threat posed by China’s assertiveness, it is no surprise that Japan is increasing its defense budget and that other countries have decided to follow America’s lead and explore ways to support Asia’s liberal democracies." .... "The difference between China’s and Japan’s economic trajectories raises the question: Can a corrupt Leninist regime outperform a free society? Whatever the answer, China is facing an uphill battle."