The World Economy’s Impossible Demand

WARSAW – The global economy’s glory days are surely over. Yet policymakers continue to focus on short-term demand management in the hope of resurrecting the heady growth rates enjoyed before the 2008-09 financial crisis. This is a mistake. When one analyzes the neo-classical growth factors – labor, capital, and total factor productivity – it is doubtful whether stimulating demand can be sustainable over the longer term, or even serve as an effective short-term policy.

Consider each of those growth factors. Over the next 15 years, demographic changes will reverse, or at least slow, labor-supply growth everywhere except Africa, the Middle East, and South Central Asia. Europe, Japan, the United States, and eventually China and East Asia will face labor shortages.

Although large-scale migration from labor-surplus regions to deficit regions would benefit recipient economies, it would almost certainly trigger popular resistance, especially in Europe and East Asia, making it difficult to support. Increasing the labor-force participation rate, especially among women and the elderly, might ease tight labor markets, but this alone would be insufficient to counter the decline in working-age populations.

The world economy cannot count on higher investment levels either. The global investment/GDP ratio, especially in advanced economies, has been gradually declining over the past 30 years, and there is no obvious reason why it would pick up again in the medium to long-term. Until recently, falling investment in the developed world had been offset by rapid increases in investment in emerging markets, mostly in Asia. But high rates of investment there are also unsustainable. As in Japan, China’s investment rate (running at almost 50% of GDP since 2009) will decline as its per capita income rises.