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Secular Stagnation or Self-Inflicted Malaise?

MUNICH – Almost exactly eight years ago, the Lehman Brothers collapse plunged the global economy into recession. The interbank market collapsed, and the entire industrialized world was thrown into the worst crisis since the end of World War II. Though central banks have maintained ultra-low interest rates, the crisis hasn’t yet been fully overcome. On the contrary, numerous economies, such as the southern European countries and France, simply aren’t making any headway. And Japan has been on the ropes for a quarter-century.

Some economists believe that this is evidence of “secular stagnation,” a phenomenon described in 1938 by the American economist Alvin Hansen, who drew on Karl Marx’s Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall. Owing to the gradual exhaustion of profitable investment projects, according to this view, the natural real interest rate has continued to fall. Stabilizing the economy thus is possible only by an equivalent decline in policy interest rates.

In view of the huge credit bubble that preceded the crisis in Japan, the United States, and southern Europe, and the aggressive policies pursued by central banks over the last few years, I doubt that this theory is correct. In fact, I find it plausible that a very different mechanism lies behind the post-2008 stagnation, which I refer to as “self-inflicted malaise.”

This hypothesis is best understood in the context of the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of the business cycle. Faulty expectations on the part of market participants regularly cause credit and asset-price bubbles. Investors, expecting prices and incomes to rise, purchase residential and commercial properties, and they take chances on new business ventures. Real-estate prices start to rise, a construction boom occurs, and a new phase of rapid expansion begins, partly sustained by the revitalization of the domestic economy, including services. The growth in incomes increasingly emboldens borrowers, which further heats things up.