A World of Underinvestment

MILAN – When World War II ended 70 years ago, much of the world – including industrialized Europe, Japan, and other countries that had been occupied – was left geopolitically riven and burdened by heavy sovereign debt, with many major economies in ruins. One might have expected a long period of limited international cooperation, slow growth, high unemployment, and extreme privation, owing to countries’ limited capacity to finance their huge investment needs. But that is not what happened.

Instead, world leaders adopted a long-term perspective. They recognized that their countries’ debt-reduction prospects depended on nominal economic growth, and that their economic-growth prospects – not to mention continued peace – depended on a worldwide recovery. So they used – and even stretched – their balance sheets for investment, while opening themselves up to international trade, thereby helping to restore demand. The United States – which faced considerable public debt, but had lost little in the way of physical assets – naturally assumed a leadership role in this process.

Two features of the post-war economic recovery are striking. First, countries did not view their sovereign debt as a binding constraint, and instead pursued investment and potential growth. Second, they cooperated with one another on multiple fronts, and the countries with the strongest balance sheets bolstered investment elsewhere, crowding in private investment. The onset of the Cold War may have encouraged this approach. In any case, it was not every country for itself.

Today’s global economy bears striking similarities to the immediate post-war period: high unemployment, high and rising debt levels, and a global shortage of aggregate demand are constraining growth and generating deflationary pressures. And now, as then, the level and quality of investment have been consistently inadequate, with public spending on tangible and intangible capital – a critical factor in long-term growth – well below optimal levels for some time.