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The World Economy’s Impossible Demand

WARSAW – The global economy’s glory days are surely over. Yet policymakers continue to focus on short-term demand management in the hope of resurrecting the heady growth rates enjoyed before the 2008-09 financial crisis. This is a mistake. When one analyzes the neo-classical growth factors – labor, capital, and total factor productivity – it is doubtful whether stimulating demand can be sustainable over the longer term, or even serve as an effective short-term policy.

Consider each of those growth factors. Over the next 15 years, demographic changes will reverse, or at least slow, labor-supply growth everywhere except Africa, the Middle East, and South Central Asia. Europe, Japan, the United States, and eventually China and East Asia will face labor shortages.

Although large-scale migration from labor-surplus regions to deficit regions would benefit recipient economies, it would almost certainly trigger popular resistance, especially in Europe and East Asia, making it difficult to support. Increasing the labor-force participation rate, especially among women and the elderly, might ease tight labor markets, but this alone would be insufficient to counter the decline in working-age populations.

The world economy cannot count on higher investment levels either. The global investment/GDP ratio, especially in advanced economies, has been gradually declining over the past 30 years, and there is no obvious reason why it would pick up again in the medium to long-term. Until recently, falling investment in the developed world had been offset by rapid increases in investment in emerging markets, mostly in Asia. But high rates of investment there are also unsustainable. As in Japan, China’s investment rate (running at almost 50% of GDP since 2009) will decline as its per capita income rises.

The third engine of growth, total factor productivity, will also be unable to maintain the relentless gains witnessed from the late 1990’s to the mid-2000’s. During this time, the global economy benefited from the confluence of several unique developments: an information and communications revolution; a “peace dividend” resulting from the end of the Cold War; and the implementation of market reforms in many former communist and other developing economies. Moreover, global growth received a further boost from the completion of the Uruguay Round of free-trade negotiations in 1994 and the overall liberalization of capital flows.

It is difficult to point to any growth impetus of similar magnitude – whether innovation or public policy – in today’s economy. No new technological revolution appears to be on the horizon. The World Trade Organization produced only a limited agreement in Bali in December, despite 12 years of negotiations, while numerous bilateral and regional free-trade agreements might even reduce world trade overall.

Worse, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, sluggish growth and high unemployment in developed countries have fueled demands for more protectionism. Thus, the financial liberalization of the 1990’s and early 2000’s is also under threat.

The far-reaching macroeconomic and political reforms of the post-Cold War era also seem to have run their course. The easy gains have already been banked; any further structural change will take longer to agree and be tougher to implement.

Thus, with supply-side factors no longer driving global growth, we must reassess our expectations of what monetary and fiscal policies can achieve. If actual growth is already close to potential growth, then continuing the current fiscal and monetary stimulus will only create more bubbles, exacerbate sovereign-debt problems, and, by reducing the pool of global savings available to finance private investment, undercut long-term growth prospects.

Instead, policymakers should focus on removing their economies’ structural and institutional bottlenecks. In advanced markets, these stem largely from a declining and aging population, labor-market rigidities, an unaffordable welfare state, high and distorting taxes, and government indebtedness.

The list of growth obstacles in emerging markets is even longer: corruption and weak rule of law, state capture, organized crime, poor infrastructure, an unskilled workforce, limited access to finance, and too much state ownership. In addition, markets of all sizes and levels of development continue to suffer from protectionism, restrictions on foreign capital flows, rising economic populism, and profligate or poorly targeted welfare programs.

If these problems can be addressed, both globally and at the national level, we can end the dangerous fiscal and monetary expansionism on which the world economy has come to rely and allow growth to be sustained over the long term – though at lower rates than in recent years.