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The Looming Lost Decade

PRINCETON – As 2013 comes to an end, it looks like the world economy will remain stuck in low gear. For those reading the tea leaves of global recovery, the third-quarter GDP numbers offered no solace. While the United States is ahead of the pack, some of its gains could soon be lost, as accumulating inventories begin eroding profits. Despite glimmers of hope, the eurozone and Japan are struggling to cross the 1% threshold for annual economic growth. And the major emerging economies are all slowing, with Russia practically at a standstill.

Not surprisingly, a catchphrase in economic-policy debates nowadays is “secular stagnation,” the idea that excess savings chronically dampen demand. The economist Robert Gordon has also argued that the world is low on economically productive ideas.

But before we despair, there is work to be done. The coordinated fiscal stimulus that saved the world from economic collapse in 2009 disappeared too quickly, with governments shifting their focus to domestic politics and priorities. As domestic policy options have been exhausted, economic prospects have dimmed. A renewed emphasis on stimulus must be augmented by global coordination on the timing and content of stimulus measures.

The crisis was and remains global. Trade data tell the story: after increasing by about 7% annually in the decade before 2008, world trade fell faster than global GDP in 2009 (and more sharply than during the Great Depression). Once the brief stimulus-fueled recovery faded, growth in world trade again slowed quickly, falling to 2% year on year over the past 18 months. Disappointing export performance is largely responsible for the recent weakening of economic-growth prospects.