Today’s Rational Exuberance
What many analysts still see as a temporary bubble, pumped up by artificial and unsustainable monetary stimulus, is maturing into a structural expansion of economic activity, profits, and employment that probably has many more years to run. There are at least four reasons for such optimism.
LONDON – With share prices around the world setting new records almost daily, it is tempting to ask whether markets have entered a period of “irrational exuberance” and are heading for a fall. The answer is probably no.
What many analysts still see as a temporary bubble, pumped up by artificial and unsustainable monetary stimulus, is maturing into a structural expansion of economic activity, profits, and employment that probably has many more years to run. There are at least four reasons for such optimism.
First and foremost, the world economy is firing on all cylinders, with the United States, Europe, and China simultaneously experiencing robust economic growth for the first time since 2008. Eventually, these simultaneous expansions will face the challenge of inflation and higher interest rates. But, given high unemployment in Europe and spare capacity in China, plus the persistent deflationary pressures from technology and global competition, the dangers of overheating are years away.
Without hard evidence of rapid inflation, central bankers will prefer to risk over-stimulating their economies rather than prematurely tightening money. There is thus almost no chance of a quick return to what used to be considered “normal” monetary conditions – for example, of US short-term interest rates rising to their pre-crisis average of inflation plus roughly 2%.
Instead, very low interest rates will likely persist at least until the end of the decade. And that means that current stock-market valuations, which imply prospective returns of 4% or 5% above inflation, are still attractive.
A second reason for confidence is that the financial impact of zero interest rates and the vast expansion of central bank money known as “quantitative easing” (QE) are now much better understood than they were when introduced following the 2008 crisis. In the first few years of these unprecedented monetary-policy experiments, investors reasonably feared that they would fail or cause even greater financial instability. Monetary stimulus was often compared to an illegal performance drug, which would produce a brief rebound in economic activity and asset prices, inevitably followed by a slump once the artificial stimulus was withdrawn or even just reduced.
Many investors still believe the post-crisis recovery is doomed, because it was triggered by unsustainable monetary policies. But this is no longer a reasonable view. The fact is that experimental monetary policy has produced positive results. The US Federal Reserve, which pioneered the post-crisis experiments with zero interest rates and QE, began to reduce its purchases of long-term securities at the beginning of 2014, stopped QE completely later that year, and started raising interest rates in 2015 – all without producing the “cold turkey” effects predicted by skeptics.
Instead of falling back into recession or secular stagnation, the US economy continued growing and creating jobs as the stimulus was reduced and then stopped. And asset prices, far from collapsing, hit new highs and accelerated upward from early 2013 onwards – exactly when the Fed started talking about “tapering” QE.
The Fed’s policy experimentation points to a third reason for optimism. By demonstrating the success of monetary stimulus, the US has provided a roadmap that other countries have followed, but with long and variable lags. Japan started full-scale monetary stimulus in 2013, five years after the Fed. Europe lagged by seven years, starting QE in March 2015. And in many emerging economies, monetary stimulus and economic recovery only began this year. As a result, business cycles and monetary policy are less synchronized than in any previous global expansion.
That is good news for investors. While the Fed is raising interest rates, Europe and Japan are planning to keep theirs near zero at least until the end of the decade, which will moderate the negative effects of US monetary tightening on asset markets around the world, while European unemployment and Asian overcapacity will delay the upward pressure on prices normally created by a coordinated global expansion.
This suggests the fourth reason why the global bull market will continue. While US corporate profits, which have been rising for seven years, have probably hit a ceiling, the cyclical upswing in profits outside the US has only recently started and will create new investment opportunities. So, even if US investment conditions become less favorable, Europe, Japan, and many emerging markets are now entering the sweet spot of their investment cycles: profits are rising strongly, but interest rates remain very low.
All of these cyclical reasons for optimism are, of course, challenged by long-term structural anxieties. Can low interest rates really compensate for rising debt burdens? Is productivity really falling, as implied by most economic statics, or accelerating, as technological breakthroughs suggest? Are nationalism and protectionism poised to overwhelm globalization and competition? Will inequality be narrowed by job creation or widen further, causing political upheaval?
The list could go on and on. But these structural questions all have something in common: We will not know the true answers for many years. One thing we can say with confidence, however, is that market expectations about what may happen in the long term are strongly influenced by short-term cyclical conditions that are visible today.
During recessions, investor opinion is dominated by long-term anxieties about debt burdens, aging, and weak productivity growth, as has been true in the period since 2008. In economic upswings, psychology shifts toward the benefits of low interest rates, leverage, and technological progress.
When this optimistic shift goes too far, asset valuations rise exponentially and the bull market reaches a dangerous climax. Some speculative assets, such as cyber currencies, have already reached this point, and shares in even the best public companies are bound to experience temporary setbacks if they run up too fast. But for stock markets generally, valuations are not yet excessive, and investors are far from euphoric. So long as such cautiousness continues, asset prices are more likely to rise than fall.
Complacency Will Be Tested in 2018
Despite seemingly robust indicators, the world economy may not be nearly as resilient to shocks and systemic challenges as the consensus view seems to believe. In particular, the absence of a classic vigorous rebound from the Great Recession means that the global economy never recouped the growth lost in the worst downturn of modern times.
NEW HAVEN – After years of post-crisis despair, the broad consensus of forecasters is now quite upbeat about prospects for the global economy in 2018. World GDP growth is viewed as increasingly strong, synchronous, and inflation-free. Exuberant financial markets could hardly ask for more.
While I have great respect for the forecasting community and the collective wisdom of financial markets, I suspect that today’s consensus of complacency will be seriously tested in 2018. The test might come from a shock – especially in view of the rising risk of a hot war (with North Korea) or a trade war (between the US and China) or a collapsing asset bubble (think Bitcoin). But I have a hunch it will turn out to be something far more systemic.
The world is set up for the unwinding of three mega-trends: unconventional monetary policy, the real economy’s dependence on assets, and a potentially destabilizing global saving arbitrage. At risk are the very fundamentals that underpin current optimism. One or more of these pillars of complacency will, I suspect, crumble in 2018.
Unfortunately, the die has long been cast for this moment of reckoning. Afflicted by a profound sense of amnesia, central banks have repeated the same mistake they made in the pre-crisis froth of 2003-2007 – over staying excessively accommodative monetary policies. Misguided by inflation targeting in an inflationless world, monetary authorities have deferred policy normalization for far too long.
That now appears to be changing, but only grudgingly. If anything, central bankers are signaling that the coming normalization may even be more glacial than that of the mid-2000s. After all, with inflation still undershooting, goes the argument, what’s the rush?
Alas, there is an important twist today that wasn’t in play back then –central banks’ swollen balance sheets. From 2008 to 2017, the combined asset holdings of central banks in the major advanced economies (the United States, the eurozone, and Japan) expanded by $8.3 trillion, according to the Bank for International Settlements. With nominal GDP in these same economies increasing by just $2.1 trillion over the same period, the remaining $6.2 trillion of excess liquidity has distorted asset prices around the world.
Therein lies the crux of the problem. Real economies have been artificially propped up by these distorted asset prices, and glacial normalization will only prolong this dependency. Yet when central banks’ balance sheets finally start to shrink, asset-dependent economies will once again be in peril. And the risks are likely to be far more serious today than a decade ago, owing not only to the overhang of swollen central bank balance sheets, but also to the overvaluation of assets.
That is particularly true in the United States. According to Nobel laureate economist Robert J. Shiller, the cyclically adjusted price-earnings (CAPE) ratio of 31.3 is currently about 15% higher than it was in mid-2007, on the brink of the subprime crisis. In fact, the CAPE ratio has been higher than it is today only twice in its 135-plus year history – in 1929 and in 2000. Those are not comforting precedents.
As was evident in both 2000 and 2008, it doesn’t take much for overvalued asset markets to fall sharply. That’s where the third mega-trend could come into play – a wrenching adjustment in the global saving mix. In this case, it’s all about China and the US – the polar extremes of the world’s saving distribution.
China is now in a mode of saving absorption; its domestic saving rate has declined from a peak of 52% in 2010 to 46% in 2016, and appears headed to 42%, or lower, over the next five years. Chinese surplus saving is increasingly being directed inward to support emerging middle-class consumers – making less available to fund needy deficit savers elsewhere in the world.
By contrast, the US, the world’s neediest deficit country, with a domestic saving rate of just 17%, is opting for a fiscal stimulus. That will push total national saving even lower – notwithstanding the vacuous self-funding assurances of supply-siders. As shock absorbers, overvalued financial markets are likely to be squeezed by the arbitrage between the world’s largest surplus and deficit savers. And asset-dependent real economies won’t be too far behind.
In this context, it’s important to stress that the world economy may not be nearly as resilient as the consensus seems to believe – raising questions about whether it can withstand the challenges coming in 2018. IMF forecasts are typically a good proxy for the global consensus. The latest IMF projection looks encouraging on the surface – anticipating 3.7% global GDP growth over the 2017-18 period, an acceleration of 0.4 percentage points from the anemic 3.3% pace of the past two years.
However, it is a stretch to call this a vigorous global growth outcome. Not only is it little different from the post-1965 trend of 3.8% growth, but the expected gains over 2017-2018 follow an exceptionally weak recovery in the aftermath of the Great Recession. This takes on added significance for a global economy that slowed to just 1.4% average growth in 2008-2009 – an unprecedented shortfall from its longer-term trend.
The absence of a classic vigorous rebound means the global economy never recouped the growth lost in the worst downturn of modern times. Historically, such V-shaped recoveries have served the useful purpose of absorbing excess slack and providing a cushion to withstand the inevitable shocks that always seem to buffet the global economy. The absence of such a cushion highlights lingering vulnerability, rather than signaling newfound resilience – not exactly the rosy scenario embraced by today’s smug consensus.
A quote often attributed to the Nobel laureate physicist Niels Bohr says it best: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” The outlook for 2018 is far from certain. But with tectonic shifts looming in the global macroeconomic landscape, this is no time for complacency.
Three Scenarios for the Global Economy
The International Monetary Fund, which in recent years had characterized global growth as the “new mediocre,” recently upgraded its World Economic Outlook. But is the IMF right to think that the recent growth spurt will continue over the next few years, or is a temporary cyclical upswing about to be subdued by new tail risks?
NEW YORK – For the last few years, the global economy has been oscillating between periods of acceleration (when growth is positive and strengthening) and periods of deceleration (when growth is positive but weakening). After over a year of acceleration, is the world headed toward another slowdown, or will the recovery persist?
The current upswing in growth and equity markets has been going strong since the summer of 2016. Despite a brief hiccup after the Brexit vote, the acceleration endured not just Donald Trump’s election as US president, but also the heightening policy uncertainty and geopolitical chaos that he has generated. In response to this apparent resilience, the International Monetary Fund, which in recent years had characterized global growth as the “new mediocre,” recently upgraded its World Economic Outlook.
Will the recent growth spurt continue over the next few years? Or is the world experiencing a temporary cyclical upswing that will soon be subdued by new tail risks, like those that have triggered other slowdowns in recent years? It is enough to recall the summer of 2015 and early 2016, when investor fears of a Chinese hard landing, an excessively fast exit from zero policy rates by the US Federal Reserve, a stall in US GDP growth, and low oil prices conspired to undercut growth.
One can envision three possible scenarios for the global economy in the next three years or so. In the bullish scenario, the world’s four largest, systemically important economies – China, the eurozone, Japan, and the United States – implement structural reforms that boost potential growth and address financial vulnerabilities. By ensuring that the cyclical upswing is associated with stronger potential and actual growth, such efforts would produce robust GDP growth, low but moderately rising inflation, and relative financial stability for many more years. US and global equity markets would reach new heights, justified by stronger fundamentals.
In the bearish scenario, the opposite happens: the world’s major economies fail to implement structural reforms that boost potential growth. Rather than using this month’s National Congress of the Communist Party as a catalyst for reform, China kicks the can down the road, continuing on a path of excessive leverage and overcapacity. The eurozone fails to achieve greater integration, while political constraints limit national policymakers’ ability to implement growth-enhancing structural reforms. And Japan remains stuck on its low-growth trajectory, as supply-side reforms and trade liberalization – the third “arrow” of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic strategy – fizzle out.
As for the US, the Trump administration, in this scenario, continues to pursue a policy approach – including a tax cut that overwhelmingly favors the rich, trade protectionism, and migration restrictions – that may well reduce potential growth. Excessive fiscal stimulus leads to runaway deficits and debt, which results in higher interest rates and a stronger dollar, further weakening growth. Trigger-happy Trump could even end up in a military conflict with North Korea – and, later, Iran – diminishing America’s economic prospects further.
In this scenario, the lack of reform in major economies will leave the cyclical upswing constrained by low trend growth. If potential growth remains low, easy monetary and credit policies could eventually lead to goods and/or asset inflation, eventually causing an economic slowdown – and possibly an outright recession and financial crisis – when asset bubbles burst or inflation rises.
The third – and, in my view, most likely – scenario lies somewhere between the first two. The cyclical upswing, in both growth and equity markets, continues for a while, driven by the remaining tailwinds. Yet, while major economies pursue some structural reforms to improve potential growth, the pace of change is much slower, and its scope more modest, than is needed to maximize potential.
In China, this muddle-through scenario means doing just enough to avoid a hard landing, but not enough to achieve a truly soft one; with financial vulnerabilities left unaddressed, distress becomes all but inevitable over time. In the eurozone, this scenario would entail only nominal progress toward greater integration, with Germany’s continued rejection of true risk-sharing or fiscal union weakening incentives for struggling member countries to undertake tough reforms. In Japan, an increasingly ineffective Abe administration would implement minimal reforms, leaving potential growth stuck below 1%.
In the US, Trump’s presidency would remain volatile and ineffective, with a growing number of Americans realizing that, despite his populist pretense, Trump is merely a plutocrat protecting the interests of the rich. Inequality rises; the middle class stagnates; wages barely grow; and consumption and growth remain anemic, at barely close to 2%.
But the risks of muddling through extend far beyond mediocre economic performance. This scenario represents not a stable equilibrium, but an unstable disequilibrium, vulnerable to economic, financial, and geopolitical shocks. When such shocks eventually emerge, the economy will be tipped into a slowdown or, if the shock is large enough, even recession and financial crisis.
In other words, if the world does simply muddle through, as seems likely, it could, within three or four years, face a more bearish outlook. The lesson is clear: either political leaders and policymakers demonstrate the leadership needed to secure a better medium-term outlook, or downside risks will materialize before long – and do serious damage to the global economy.
The Global Economy in 2018
The global economy will confront serious challenges in the months and years ahead, and looming in the background is a mountain of debt that makes markets nervous – and that thus increases the system's vulnerability to destabilizing shocks. Yet the baseline scenario seems to be one of continuity, with no obvious convulsions on the horizon.
HONG KONG – Economists like me are asked a set of recurring questions that might inform the choices of firms, individuals, and institutions in areas like investment, education, and jobs, as well as their policy expectations. In most cases, there is no definitive answer. But, with sufficient information, one can discern trends, in terms of economies, markets, and technology, and make reasonable guesses.
In the developed world, 2017 will likely be recalled as a period of stark contrast, with many economies experiencing growth acceleration, alongside political fragmentation, polarization, and tension, both domestically and internationally. In the long run, it is unlikely that economic performance will be immune to centrifugal political and social forces. Yet, so far, markets and economies have shrugged off political disorder, and the risk of a substantial short-term setback seems relatively small.
The one exception is the United Kingdom, which now faces a messy and divisive Brexit process. Elsewhere in Europe, Germany’s severely weakened chancellor, Angela Merkel, is struggling to forge a coalition government. None of this is good for the UK or the rest of Europe, which desperately needs France and Germany to work together to reform the European Union.
One potential shock that has received much attention relates to monetary tightening. In view of improving economic performance in the developed world, a gradual reversal of aggressively accommodative monetary policy does not appear likely to be a major drag or shock to asset values. Perhaps the long-awaited upward convergence of economic fundamentals to validate market valuations is within reach.
In Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping is in a stronger position than ever, suggesting that effective management of imbalances and more consumption- and innovation-driven growth can be expected. India also appears set to sustain its growth and reform momentum. As these economies grow, so will others throughout the region and beyond.
When it comes to technology, especially digital technology, China and the United States seem set to dominate for years to come, as they continue to fund basic research, reaping major benefits when innovations are commercialized. These two countries are also home to the major platforms for economic and social interaction, which benefit from network effects, closure of informational gaps, and, perhaps most important, artificial-intelligence capabilities and applications that use and generate massive sets of valuable data.
Such platforms are not just lucrative on their own; they also produce a host of related opportunities for new business models operating in and around them, in, say, advertising, logistics, and finance. Given this, economies that lack such platforms, such as the EU, are at a disadvantage. Even Latin America has a major innovative domestic e-commerce player (Mercado Libre) and a digital payments system (Mercado Pago).
In mobile online payments systems, China is in the lead. With much of the country’s population having shifted directly from cash to mobile online payments – skipping checks and credit cards – China’s payments systems are robust.
Earlier this month on Singles’ Day, an annual festival of youth-oriented consumption that has become the single largest shopping event in the world, China’s leading online payment platform, Alipay, processed up to 256,000 payments per second, using a robust cloud computing architecture. There is also impressive scope for expanding financial services – from credit assessments to asset management and insurance – on the Alipay platform, and its expansion into other Asian countries via partnerships is well underway.
In the coming years, developed and developing economies will also have to work hard to shift toward more inclusive growth patterns. Here, I anticipate that national governments may take a back seat to businesses, subnational governments, labor unions, and educational and non-profit institutions in driving progress, especially in places hit by political fragmentation and a backlash against the political establishment.
Such fragmentation is likely to intensify. Automation is set to sustain, and even accelerate, change on the demand side of labor markets, in areas ranging from manufacturing and logistics to medicine and law, while supply-side responses will be much slower. As a result, even if workers gain stronger support during structural transitions (in the form of income support and retraining options), labor-market mismatches are likely to grow, sharpening inequality and contributing to further political and social polarization.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. For starters, there remains a broad consensus across the developed and emerging economies on the desirability of maintaining a relatively open global economy.
The notable exception is the US, though it is unclear at this point whether President Donald Trump’s administration actually intends to retreat from international cooperation, or is merely positioning itself to renegotiate terms that are more favorable to the US. What does seem clear, at least for now, is that the US cannot be counted on to serve as a principal sponsor and architect of the evolving rules-based global system for fairly managing interdependence.
The situation is similar with regard to mitigating climate change. The US is now the only country that is not committed to the Paris climate agreement, which has held despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal. Even within the US, cities, states, and businesses, as well as a host of civil-society organizations, have signaled a credible commitment to fulfilling America’s climate obligations, with or without the federal government.
Still, the world has a long way to go, as its dependence on coal remains high. The Financial Times reports that peak demand for coal in India will come in about ten years, with modest growth between now and then. While there is upside potential in this scenario, depending on more rapid cost reductions in green energy, the world is still years away from negative growth in carbon dioxide emissions.
All of this suggests that the global economy will confront serious challenges in the months and years ahead. And looming in the background is a mountain of debt that makes markets nervous and increases the system’s vulnerability to destabilizing shocks. Yet the baseline scenario in the short run seems to be one of continuity. Economic power and influence will continue to shift from west to east, without any sudden change in the pattern of job, income, political, and social polarization, primarily in the developed countries, and with no obvious convulsions on the horizon.
Financial Investors’ Wish List for 2018
Given how well investors have been doing lately, many are probably hoping for more of the same in the coming year. But what they should really be wishing for is that economic and policy fundamentals improve to the point that they validate existing asset prices, while laying a foundation for greater gains.
NEWPORT BEACH – If financial investors were to write letters to Santa Claus this Christmas, they would probably be tempted to ask for the continuation of the unusual combination of factors that has dominated over the last year: ultra-low market volatility, booming financial-asset values, correlations that lower the cost of portfolio risk mitigation, and promising new opportunities (such as Bitcoin). But before making their wish list, investors should consider the longer-term risks associated with the decoupling of financial markets from economic and policy fundamentals.
Investors could be forgiven for hoping for more of the same. After all, with less than a month to go, 2017 is on course to be a hugely, if not historically rewarding year for them. As of December 12, global stock markets, and in particular the S&P index, had returned around 20% for the year – and this on top of an already-strong multi-year run. Add to that unusually low volatility – in the US, 2017 so far has shown the lowest daily loss in the entire history of the S&P 500 index – and there has been little to keep investors up at night.
Usually, such strong stock returns are accompanied by lower prices for government bonds – the so-called negative correlation between risky and safe assets. Not so in 2017. Despite the impressive equity rally, the price of longer-term US Treasury bills was higher at the beginning of December than at the start of the year.
And then there is the precipitous rise of the crypto-currency Bitcoin. With its price having surged by an eye-popping amount this year (from around $1,000 to over $16,000 as of December 12), even a small allocation of Bitcoin has made a material difference in investors’ portfolios.
Five main factors have enabled this unusual situation.
· A synchronized pickup in global economic growth, which continues to strengthen.
· Progress in the United States on pro-growth policies.
· Skillful normalization of monetary policy (which is still ongoing) by the US Federal Reserve.
· Passive investment products attracting large inflows.
· Continued large liquidity injections from three big central banks – the Bank of Japan (BOJ), the European Central Bank (ECB), the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) – which, together with cash-rich corporate balance sheets, have served to lower funding costs for a significant set of households and corporates.
Now for the less exuberant news: without continued economic and policy improvements, the factors that have delighted investors in 2017 risk generating an unpleasant reversal of fortune. This year’s strong performance has, after all, been buoyed significantly by “borrowed” returns from future years.
With regard to mitigating portfolio risk, the increase in government bond prices leaves little room for this traditionally safe asset to compensate for a possible decline in stocks. Given how many value-at-risk-based models work, the persistence of low volatility has resulted in a crowded trade in a number of areas, which could turn out to be technically fragile.
As for Bitcoin, its vertiginous rise – fueled in part by the growing participation of institutional investors – may imply that it is on the path toward broad acceptance. But it may also turn out to be little more than a large financial bubble, implying serious damage when it inevitably collapses.
What, then, should investors really be hoping for in the coming year? In general, the top priority must be improvement in economic and policy fundamentals to the point that they better validate existing elevated asset prices, while laying a foundation for greater gains over time.
Achieving this would require, in the US, the expansion of pro-growth policies, which, as recently announced by Donald Trump’s administration, would include adding an infrastructure plan to deregulation and tax measures. European countries should also pursue more focused pro-growth measures at the national level, while supporting stronger regional efforts, facilitated by a reinvigorated reform-minded Franco-German leadership and a relatively orderly Brexit process.
As for Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should take advantage of his commanding majority in the Diet, won in October’s snap general election, to implement the third “arrow” of Abenomics: pro-growth structural reforms. Finally, to promote stable growth, all of the world’s systemically important central banks – notably, the Fed, the BOJ, the ECB, and the PBOC – would need to continue coordinating their strategies, with a view to ensuring consistent monetary-policy stances.
Only with such efforts can the current pickup in global growth develop the structural roots that are needed to make it durable, balanced, and inclusive over the medium term. This is all the more critical at a time of fluid geopolitical risk and uncertain productivity, wage, and inflation dynamics.
However tempting it may be to focus our holiday wishes on our own immediate desires, it is imperative this year that investors’ wish lists take into account the big economic and policy picture.
Ready or Not for the Next Recession?
Policymakers normally respond to recessions by cutting interest rates, reducing taxes, and boosting transfers to the unemployed and other casualties of the downturn. But, for a combination of economic and political reasons, the US, in particular, is singularly ill-prepared to respond normally.
COPENHAGEN – A sunny day is the best time to check whether the roof is watertight. For economic policymakers, the proverbial sunny day has arrived: with experts forecasting strong growth, now is the best time to check whether we are prepared for the next recession.
The answer, for the United States in particular, is a resounding no. Policymakers normally respond to recessions by cutting interest rates, reducing taxes, and boosting transfers to the unemployed and other casualties of the downturn. But the US is singularly ill-prepared, for a combination of economic and political reasons, to respond normally.
Most obviously, the US Federal Reserve’s target for the federal funds rate is still only 1.25%-1.5%. If no recession is imminent, the Fed may succeed in raising rates three times by the end of the year, to around 2%. But that would still leave little room for monetary easing in response to recessionary trends before the policy rate hits zero again.
In the last three recessions, the Fed’s cumulative interest-rate cuts have been close to five full percentage points. This time, because slow recovery has permitted only gradual normalization of interest rates, and because there appears to have been a tendency for interest rates to trend downward more generally, the Fed lacks room to react.
In principle, the Fed could launch another round of quantitative easing. In addition, at least one of US President Donald Trump’s nominees to the Federal Reserve Board has mooted the idea of negative interest rates. That said, this Fed board, with its three Trump appointees, is likely to be less activist and innovative than its predecessor. And criticism by the US Congress of any further expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet would be certain and intense.
Fiscal policy is the obvious alternative, but Congress has cut taxes at the worst possible time, leaving no room for stimulus when it is needed. Adding $1.5 trillion more to the federal debt will create an understandable reluctance to respond to a downturn with further tax cuts. As my Berkeley colleagues Christina and David Romer have shown, fiscal policy is less effective in countering recessions, and less likely to be used, when a country has already incurred a high public debt.
Instead of stimulating the economy in the next downturn, the Republicans in Congress are likely to respond perversely. As revenues fall and the deficit widens even faster, they will insist on spending cuts to return the debt trajectory to its previous path.
Congressional Republicans will most likely start with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food to low-income households. SNAP is already in their sights. They will then proceed to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The burden of these spending cuts will fall on hand-to-mouth consumers, who will reduce their own spending dollar for dollar, denting aggregate demand.
For their part, state governments, forced by new limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes to pare their budgets, are likely to move further in the direction of limiting the duration of unemployment benefits and the extent of their own food and nutrition assistance.
Nor will global conditions favor the US. Foreign central banks, from Europe to Japan, have similarly scant room to cut interest rates. Even after a government in Germany is finally formed, policymakers there will continue to display their characteristic reluctance to use fiscal policy. And if Germany doesn’t use its fiscal space, there will be little room for its eurozone partners to do so.
More than that, scope for the kind of international cooperation that helped to halt the 2008-2009 contraction has been destroyed by Trump’s “America First” agenda, which paints one-time allies as enemies. Other countries will work with the US government to counter the next recession only if they trust its judgment and intentions. And trust in the US may be the quantity in shortest supply.
In 2008-2009, the Fed extended dollar swap lines to foreign central banks, but came under congressional fire for “giving away” Americans’ hard-earned money. Then, at the London G20 summit in early 2009, President Barack Obama’s administration made a commitment to coordinate its fiscal stimulus with that of other governments. Today, almost a decade later, it is hard to imagine the Trump administration even showing up at an analogous meeting.
The length of an economic expansion is not a reliable predictor of when the next downturn will come. And the depth and shape of that recession will depend on the event triggering it, which is similarly uncertain. The one thing we know for sure, though, is that expansions don’t last forever. A storm will surely come, and when it does, we will be poorly prepared for the deluge.
Giddy Markets and Grim Politics
Economists have endless debates about whether culture or institutions lie at the root of economic performance. But there is every reason to be concerned that the recent wave of populism is a threat to both.
CAMBRIDGE – Economic growth worldwide picked up in 2017, and the best guess is that the global economy will perform strongly in 2018 as well. At the same time, a rising tide of populism and authoritarianism poses a risk to the stable democratic institutions that underlie long-term growth. And yet headlines seeming to portend political instability and chaos have not prevented stock markets from soaring. What gives?
First, the good news. Surely the largest single factor in the synchronized global upswing is that the world economy is finally leaving behind the long shadow of the 2008 financial crisis. Part of today’s good fortune is payback for years of weak demand. And the rebound is not over, with business investment finally picking up after a decade of slack, thereby laying a foundation for faster growth and higher productivity gains in the future.
True, economic growth in China is slowing somewhat as authorities belatedly try to contain a credit bubble, but many other emerging markets – notably including India – are set to grow faster this year. Rising stock and housing markets may fuel inequality, but they also drive increased consumer spending.
Investors and policy wonks are also cheered by the resilience of central bank independence in the major economies. US President Donald Trump has not only largely spared the Federal Reserve the not-so-tender mercies of his wee-hour tweets; he has also nominated highly qualified individuals to fill Fed vacancies. Meanwhile, the German right has failed to pull the plug on European Central Bank policies that have helped prop up Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and the ECB remains by far the most respected and influential eurozone institution.
Elsewhere, things are pretty much the same. In the United Kingdom, British Prime Minister Theresa May, early in her tenure, once took a swipe at the Bank of England, but quickly retreated. As Mohamed A. El-Erian has noted, many investors regard central banks as “the only game in town,” and they are willing to overlook a lot of political noise as long as monetary-policy independence is upheld.
But while politics is not, at least for now, impeding global growth nearly as much as one might have thought, the long-run costs of political upheaval could be far more serious. First, post-2008 political divisiveness creates massive long-term policy uncertainty, as countries oscillate between governments of the left and the right.
For example, the recent US tax overhaul has been advertised as a surefire way to boost corporate spending on long-term investment projects. But will it live up to its billing if businesses fear that the legislation, passed by a thin partisan majority, will ultimately be reversed?
Part of the case for trying to secure bipartisan agreement on major long-term policy initiatives is precisely to ensure stability. And policy uncertainty in the United States is nothing compared to the UK, where businesses face the twin disruptions of Brexit and (potentially) a Labour government led by the far-left Jeremy Corbyn.
Harder to assess, but potentially far more insidious, is the erosion of public trust in core institutions in the advanced economies. Although economists have endless debates about whether culture or institutions lie at the root of economic performance, there is every reason to be concerned that the recent wave of populism is a threat to both.
Nowhere is this truer than in the US, where Trump has engaged in unrelenting attacks on institutions ranging from the mainstream media to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not to mention adopting a rather cavalier attitude toward basic economic facts. At the same time, the left seems eager to portray anyone who substantively disagrees with its proposals as an enemy of the people, helping fuel both economic illiteracy and a hollowing out of the center.
Beyond existential risks, there are near-term risks. One, of course, is a potential sharp growth slowdown in China, which more than any other major economy in the world today seems vulnerable to a significant financial crisis. Perhaps the number one risk to the global economy in 2018, however, is anything that leads to a significant rise in real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates.
Low interest rates and easy monetary policy have papered over a multitude of financial vulnerabilities around the world, from Italian and Japanese government debt to high corporate dollar debt in many emerging markets, and perhaps account for political support for trillion-dollar deficits in the US. Admittedly, markets see little chance of any significant rise in global interest rates in 2018. Even if the Fed raises rates another four times in 2018, other major central banks are unlikely to match it.
But market confidence that interest rates will remain low is hardly a guarantee. A plausible pickup in business investment in the US and northern Europe, combined with a sudden slowdown in Asian economies with surplus savings, could in principle produce an outsize rise in global rates, jeopardizing today’s low borrowing costs, frothy stock markets, and subdued volatility. Then, suddenly, the economy’s seeming disconnect from politics might end, and not necessarily in a happy way.
The World Economy in 2018
In the tenth year since the start of the global financial crisis, the US economy reached a new high-water mark, and the global economy exceeded expectations. But whether these positive trends continue in 2018 will depend on a variety of factors, from fiscal and monetary policymaking to domestic politics and regional stability.
STANFORD – All major macroeconomic indicators – growth, unemployment, and inflation – suggest that 2017 will be the American economy’s best year in a decade. And the global economy is enjoying broad, synchronized growth beyond what anyone expected. The question now is whether this strong performance will continue in 2018.
The answer, of course, will depend on monetary, fiscal, trade, and related policies in the United States and around the world. And yet it is hard to predict what policy proposals will emerge in 2018. There are relatively new heads of state in the US, France, and the United Kingdom; German leaders still have not formed a governing coalition since the general election in September; and the US Federal Reserve has a new chair awaiting confirmation. Moreover, major changes in important developing economies such as Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil have made the future outlook even murkier.
Still, we should hope for the best. First and foremost, we should hope that synchronized global growth at a rate of just under 4% will continue in 2018, as the International Monetary Fund projected in October. Growth not only raises incomes, but also makes vexing problems such as bad bank loans and budget deficits more manageable. As former US President John F. Kennedy famously said in an October 1963 speech in which he promoted his proposed corporate and personal tax reductions, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
For my part, I predict that the global recovery will continue, but at a slightly slower growth rate of around 3.5%. The two most obvious risks to keep an eye on will be Europe, where a cyclical upturn could stall, and the oil-rich Middle East, where tensions could flare up once again.
Second, let us hope that the Fed, guided by the steady hand of its new chair, Jerome “Jay” Powell, will continue or even accelerate its monetary-policy normalization, both by raising its benchmark federal funds rate, and by shrinking its engorged balance sheet. And we should hope that economic conditions allow the other major central banks, especially the European Central Bank, to follow suit.
On this front, I predict that the major central banks will continue to normalize monetary policies more gradually than is necessary. The biggest risk here is that markets may try to test the Fed under its new leadership, for example, if inflation rises faster than anticipated.
Third, let us hope that the Republican tax package will, if enacted, deliver on its promise of increased investment, output, productivity, and wages over the coming decade. Here, I predict that the legislation will pass, and that investment in the US over the next few years will be relatively higher than if no action had been taken.
To be sure, whether investment will rise from its currently subdued level will depend on many other factors than the corporate-tax rate. But the tax package can still be expected to boost output, productivity, and wages. The question is not if, but when.
If the full effects of the legislation are not felt before the 2018 or 2020 elections, that lag could prove politically consequential. The biggest danger is that its benefits will be delayed, and that its key provisions will be reversed whenever the Democrats are back in power.
Fourth, let us hope that governments everywhere begin to address the looming crisis in public-pension and health-care costs, which have been rising for decades. As social programs become costlier, they crowd out government expenditures on necessities such as defense, while generating ever more pressure to impose higher growth-suppressing taxes.
Europe, in particular, must not let its cyclical rebound lull it into complacency. Many European Union member states still need to reduce their government debt, and the eurozone needs to resolve its “zombie bank” crisis. Beyond that, structural labor-market reforms of the kind French President Emmanuel Macron is pursuing would be most welcome.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid that progress on structural reforms will be sporadic, at best. The danger is that slow growth will not lead to sufficient wage gains and job creation to defuse the ticking time bomb of high youth unemployment in many countries. Another risk is that reform attempts could provoke a political backlash that would be harmful to long-term investment.
Fifth, let us hope that the eurozone can avoid a currency crisis. This will depend largely on whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel can form a coalition government and restore political stability to Europe’s largest economy.
Sixth, we should hope that the EU and the UK can agree on a reasonable Brexit deal that will preserve fairly strong trade relations. The main risk here is that localized declines in trade could spill over and cause broader harm.
And, beyond Europe, let us hope that negotiations between the US, Canada, and Mexico over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will result in an arrangement that still facilitates continental trade. For trade generally, the biggest risk is that the Trump administration could start a lose-lose trade dispute, owing to its understandable eagerness to help American manufacturing workers.
Seventh, let us hope that new policies targeting information and communication technology (ICT) strike the right balance among all stakeholders’ competing and legitimate concerns. On one hand, there is reason to worry about certain Internet companies’ concentration of market power, particularly in online content and distribution, and about the effects of new technologies on personal privacy, law enforcement, and national security. On the other hand, new technological advances could deliver immense economic gains.
It is easy to envision a scenario of too much regulation, or of too little. It is also easy to envision a large-scale public backlash against the major technology companies, particularly if poor self-policing or a refusal to cooperate with law enforcement leads to some horrible event.
Here, I predict that achieving an appropriate policy balance will take years. If some future event strikes an emotional chord, the public’s mood could swing dramatically. Ultimately, however, I suspect that competition and innovation will survive the forthcoming regulations.
Finally, and most important, let us hope that terrorism is thwarted everywhere, conflicts subside, democracy and capitalism regain some momentum, and greater civility and honest dialogue return to the public domain. Should that happen in 2018, it will be a very good year indeed.