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Escaping the New Normal of Weak Growth

MILAN – There is no question that the recovery from the global recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis has been unusually lengthy and anemic. Some still expect an upswing in growth. But, eight years after the crisis erupted, what the global economy is experiencing is starting to look less like a slow recovery than like a new low-growth equilibrium. Why is this happening, and is there anything we can do about it?

One potential explanation for this “new normal” that has gotten a lot of attention is declining productivity growth. But, despite considerable data and analysis, productivity’s role in the current malaise has been difficult to pin down – and, in fact, seems not to be as pivotal as many think.

Of course, slowing productivity growth is not good for longer-term economic performance, and it may be among the forces holding back the United States as it approaches “full” employment. But, in much of the rest of the world, other factors – namely, inadequate aggregate demand and significant output gaps, rooted in excess capacity and underused assets (including people) – seem more important.

In the eurozone, for example, aggregate demand in many member countries has been constrained by, among other things, Germany’s large current-account surplus, which amounted to 8.5% of GDP in 2015. With higher aggregate demand and more efficient use of existing human capital and other resources, economies could achieve a significant boost in medium-term growth, even without productivity gains.