Another Slow Year for the Global Economy

WASHINGTON, DC – Last April, the International Monetary Fund projected that the world economy would grow by 3.5% in 2015. In the ensuing months, that forecast was steadily whittled down, reaching 3.1% in October. But the IMF continues to insist – as it has, with almost banal predictability, for the last seven years – that next year will be better. But it is almost certainly wrong yet again.

For starters, world trade is growing at an anemic annual rate of 2%, compared to 8% from 2003 to 2007. Whereas trade growth during those heady years far exceeded that of world GDP, which averaged 4.5%, lately, trade and GDP growth rates have been about the same. Even if GDP growth outstrips growth in trade this year, it will likely amount to no more than 2.7%.

The question is why. According to Christina and David Romer of the University of California, Berkeley, the aftershocks of modern financial crises – that is, since World War II – fade after 2-3 years. The Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff say that it takes five years for a country to dig itself out of a financial crisis. And, indeed, the financial dislocations of 2007-2008 have largely receded. So what accounts for the sluggish economic recovery?

One popular explanation lies in the fuzzy notion of “secular stagnation”: long-term depressed demand for goods and services is undermining incentives to invest and hire. But demand would remain weak only if people lacked confidence in the future. The only logical explanation for this enduring lack of confidence, as Northwestern University’s Robert Gordon has painstakingly documented and argued, is slow productivity growth.