NEW YORK – The big disappointment in the world economy today is the low rate of investment. In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, growth in high-income countries was propelled by spending on housing and private consumption. When the crisis hit, both kinds of spending plummeted, and the investments that should have picked up the slack never materialized. This must change.
After the crisis, the world’s major central banks attempted to revive spending and employment by slashing interest rates. The strategy worked, to some extent. By flooding capital markets with liquidity and holding down market interest rates, policymakers encouraged investors to bid up stock and bond prices. This created financial wealth through capital gains, while spurring consumption and – through initial public offerings – some investment.
Yet this policy has reached its limits – and imposed undeniable costs. With interest rates at or even below zero, investors borrow for highly speculative purposes. As a result, the overall quality of investments has dropped, while leverage has risen. When central banks finally tighten credit, there is a real risk of significant asset-price declines.
As monetary policy was being pushed to its limits, what went missing was an increase in long-term investments in high-speed rail, roads, ports, low-carbon energy, safe water and sanitation, and health and education. With budget austerity restraining public investment, and major uncertainties concerning public policy and international taxation hampering private investment, such spending has generally declined in the high-income countries.