Opinion

Lawrence Summers

Job #1 for the IMF: Stay the course and avoid lurches to austerity

Lawrence Summers
Oct 15, 2012 03:57 UTC

If the global economy was in trouble before the annual World Bank and IMF meetings in Tokyo this past weekend, it is hard to believe that it is now smooth sailing. Indeed, apart from the modest stimulus provided to the Japanese economy by all the official visitors to Tokyo, it’s not easy to see what of immediate value was accomplished.

The U.S. still peers over a fiscal cliff, Europe staggers forward preventing crises King Canute-style with fingers in the dyke but no compelling growth strategy, and Japan remains stagnant and content if it can grow at all. Meanwhile, each BRIC is an unhappy story in its own way, with financial imbalances impeding growth in the short run and deep problems of corruption and demography casting doubt on long-run prospects.

In much of the industrial world, what started as a financial problem is becoming a deep structural problem. If growth in the United States and Europe had been maintained at its average rate from 1990 to 2007, GDP would be between 10 and 15 percent higher today and more than 15 percent higher by 2015 on realistic projections. Of course this calculation may be misleading because global GDP in 2007 was inflated by the same factors that created financial bubbles.  Yet even if GDP was artificially inflated by 5 percentage points in 2007, output is still about $1 trillion short of what could have been expected in the U.S. and EU.  This works out to more than $12,000 for the average family.

With these results, it will be argued that the process of international economic cooperation is failing. It will be suggested that there have been failures of leadership on the part of the major actors. There will be calls for changes in the international economic architecture.

There is some validity in all of this. Political constraints interfere with necessary actions in much of the world because international processes do not trump domestic imperatives. U.S. politics have been dysfunctional in the run-up to the 2012 election.  The European Union sometimes makes the U.S. Congress look like a model of crisp efficiency in coming to conclusions. In Russia and China, authoritarian leaders lacking legitimacy have difficulty driving economic reform. So also do those with democratic mandates in India and Brazil.

Why the UK must reverse its economic course

Lawrence Summers
Sep 17, 2012 11:32 UTC

It is the mark of science and perhaps rational thought more generally to operate with a falsifiable understanding of how the world operates. And so it is fair to ask of the economists a fundamental question: What could happen going forward that would cause you to substantially revise your views of how the economy operates and to acknowledge that the model you had been using was substantially flawed? As a vigorous advocate of fiscal expansion as an appropriate response to a major economic slump in an economy with zero or near-zero interest rates, I have for the last several years suggested that if the British economy – with its major attempts at fiscal consolidation – were to enjoy a rapid recovery, it would force me to substantially revise my views about fiscal policy and the workings of the macroeconomy more generally.

Unfortunately for the British economy, nothing in the record of the last several years compels me to revise my views. British economic growth post-crisis has lagged substantially behind U.S. growth, and the gap is growing. British GDP has not yet returned to its pre-crisis level and is more than 10 percent below what would have been predicted on the basis of the pre-crisis trend. The cumulative output loss from this British downturn in its first five years exceeds even that experienced during the Depression of the 1930s. And forecasts continue to be revised downward, with a decade or more of Japan-style stagnation now emerging as a real possibility on the current course.

Whenever policy is failing to achieve its objectives, as in Britain today with respect to economic growth, there is a debate as to whether the right response is doubling down – perseverance and intensification of the existing path – or recognition of error or changed circumstances and a change in course. In Britain today such a debate rages with respect to the aggressive fiscal consolidation that the government has made the centerpiece of its economic strategy.  Until and unless there is a substantial reversal of course with respect to near-term fiscal consolidation, Britain’s short- and long-run economic performance is likely to deteriorate.

Davos needs to address uncertainty

Lawrence Summers
Jan 23, 2012 17:01 UTC

The year has begun well in markets. Stock markets in 2012 are generally up, and European sovereigns have experienced less difficulty borrowing than many expected. And economic data, particularly in the United States, has come in ahead of expectations. So as President Obama prepares to give his State of the Union address, and as a large group of policymakers and corporate chiefs come together in Davos this week, there is if not a sense of relief at least some diminution in the sense of high alarm that has gripped the global community for much of the last few years. Yet anxiety about the future remains a major driver of economic performance.

The news coming from financial markets is in important ways paradoxical. On the one hand, interest rates remain very low throughout the industrial world. While this is partially a result of very low expected inflation, the inflation-indexed bond market suggests that remarkably low levels of real interest rates will prevail for a long time. In the United States, for example, the yield on 10-year indexed bonds has fluctuated around -15 basis points. That is to say: On an inflation-adjusted basis, investors are paying the government to store their money for 10 years! In Britain, inflation-linked yields are negative going out 30 years.

One might expect that with low real interest rates, assets would sell at unusually high multiples to projected earnings. If anything, the opposite is the case, with the S&P 500 selling at only about 13 times earnings. Stocks also appear cheap to earnings in historical perspective through much of the industrial world. And similar patterns are observed with respect to most forms of real estate.

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