Friday, August 1, 2014
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The Debt Delusion

WASHINGTON, DC -- A second big American interest-rate cut in a fortnight, alongside an economic stimulus plan that united Republicans and Democrats, demonstrates that US policymakers are keen to head off a recession that looks like the consequence of rising mortgage defaults and falling home prices. But there is a deeper problem that has been overlooked: the US economy relies upon asset price inflation and rising indebtedness to fuel growth.

Therein lies a profound contradiction. On one hand, policy must fuel asset bubbles to keep the economy growing. On the other hand, such bubbles inevitably create financial crises when they eventually implode.

This is a contradiction with global implications. Many countries have relied for growth on US consumer spending and investments in outsourcing to supply those consumers. If America’s bubble economy is now tapped out, global growth will slow sharply. It is not clear that other countries have the will or capacity to develop alternative engines of growth.

America’s economic contradictions are part of a new business cycle that has emerged since 1980. The business cycles of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush share strong similarities and are different from pre-1980 cycles. The similarities are large trade deficits, manufacturing job loss, asset price inflation, rising debt-to-income ratios, and detachment of wages from productivity growth.

The new cycle rests on financial booms and cheap imports. Financial booms provide collateral that supports debt-financed spending. Borrowing is also supported by an easing of credit standards and new financial products that increase leverage and widen the range of assets that can be borrowed against. Cheap imports ameliorate the effects of wage stagnation.

This structure contrasts with the pre-1980 business cycle, which rested on wage growth tied to productivity growth and full employment. Wage growth, rather than borrowing and financial booms, fuelled demand growth. That encouraged investment spending, which in turn drove productivity gains and output growth.

The differences between the new and old cycle are starkly revealed in attitudes toward the trade deficit. Previously, trade deficits were viewed as a serious problem, being a leakage of demand that undermined employment and output. Since 1980, trade deficits have been dismissed as the outcome of free-market choices. Moreover, the Federal Reserve has viewed trade deficits as a helpful brake on inflation, while politicians now view them as a way to buy off consumers afflicted by wage stagnation.

The new business cycle also embeds a monetary policy that replaces concern with real wages with a focus on asset prices. Whereas pre-1980 monetary policy tacitly aimed at putting a floor under labor markets to preserve employment and wages, it now tacitly puts a floor under asset prices. This is not a matter of the Fed bailing out investors. Rather, the economy has become so vulnerable to declines in asset prices that the Fed is obliged to intervene to prevent them from inflicting broad damage.

All these features have been present in the current economic expansion. Wages have stagnated despite strong productivity growth, while the trade deficit has set new records. Manufacturing has lost 1.8 million jobs. Prior to 1980, manufacturing employment increased during every expansion and always exceeded the previous peak level. Between 1980 and 2000, manufacturing employment continued to grow in expansions, but each time it failed to recover the previous peak. This time, manufacturing employment has actually fallen during the expansion, something unprecedented in American history.

The essential role of asset inflation has been especially visible as a result of the housing bubble, which also highlights the role of monetary policy. Despite the massive tax cuts of 2001 and the increase in military and security spending, the US experienced a prolonged jobless recovery. That compelled the Fed to keep interest rates at historic lows for an extended period, and rates were raised only gradually because of fears about the recovery’s fragility.

Low interest rates eventually jump-started the expansion through a house price bubble that supported a debt-financed consumer-spending binge and triggered a construction boom. Meanwhile, prolonged low interest rates contributed to a “chase for yield” in the financial sector that resulted in disregard of credit risk.

In this way, the Fed contributed to creating the sub-prime crisis. However, in the Fed’s defense, low interest rates were needed to maintain the expansion. In effect, the new cycle locks the Fed into an unstable stance whereby it must prevent asset price declines to avert recession, yet must also promote asset bubbles to sustain expansions.

So, even if the Fed and US Treasury now manage to stave off recession, what will fuel future growth? With debt burdens elevated and housing prices significantly above levels warranted by their historical relation to income, the business cycle of the last two decades appears exhausted.

It is not enough to deal only with the crisis of the day. Policy must also chart a stable long-term course, which implies the need to reconsider the paradigm of the past 25 years. That means ending trade deficits that drain spending and jobs, and restoring the link between wages and productivity. That way, wage income, not debt and asset price inflation, can again provide the engine of demand growth.

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