Does Growth Have a Future?

MILAN – What can we expect as the world’s economy emerges from its most serious downturn in almost a century? The short answer is a “new normal,” with slower growth, a de-risked and more stable core financial system, and a set of additional challenges (energy, climate, and demographic imbalances, to name a few) with varying time horizons that will test our collective capacity to improve management and oversight of the global economy.

Lower growth is the best guess for the medium term. It seems most likely, but no one really knows. The financial crisis, morphing quickly into a global economic downturn, resulted not just from a failure to react to growing instability, risk, and imbalance, but also from a widespread pre-crisis inability to ”see” the rising systemic risk.

These defining characteristics will condition the responses and the results in coming years. There are countervailing forces. The high-growth countries (China and India) are large and getting larger relative to the rest. That alone will tend to elevate global growth compared to the world where industrial countries, and the US in particular, were in the growth driving seat.

The current crisis has come to be called a “balance-sheet recession” of global scope and tremendous depth and destructive power because of its origins in the balance sheets of the financial and household sectors. Extreme balance-sheet destruction is what made it distinctive.  In the future, central banks and regulators will not be able to afford a narrow focus on (goods and services) inflation, growth, and employment (the real economy) while letting the balance-sheet side fend for itself. Somewhere in the system, accountability for stability and sustainability in terms of asset valuation, leverage, and balance sheets will need to be assigned and taken seriously.