Lawrence Summers

The right agenda for the IMF

Lawrence Summers
Apr 7, 2014 12:57 UTC

The world’s finance ministers and central bank governors will gather in Washington this week for the twice yearly meetings of the International Monetary Fund. Though there will not be the sense of alarm that dominated these meetings after the financial crisis, the unfortunate reality is that the global economy’s medium-term prospects have not been so cloudy for a long time.

The IMF in its current World Economic Outlook essentially endorses the secular stagnation hypothesis — noting that the real interest rate necessary to bring about enough demand for full employment has declined significantly and is likely to remain depressed for a substantial period. This is evident because inflation is well below target throughout the industrial world and is likely to decline further this year.

Without robust growth in industrial world markets, growth in emerging markets is likely to subside — even without considering the political challenges facing countries as diverse as Brazil, China, South Africa, Russia and Turkey.

Facing this inadequate demand, the world’s key strategy is easy money. Base interest rates remain essentially at floor levels across the industrial world and central banks signal that they are unlikely to increase anytime soon. Though the United States is tapering quantitative easing, Japan continues to ease on a large scale and Europe seems to be moving closer to starting it.

This all is better than the tight money policy of the 1930s that made the Great Depression great. But it is highly problematic as a dominant growth strategy.

What to do about secular stagnation?

Lawrence Summers
Jan 6, 2014 12:42 UTC

Last month in this space I argued that we may be in a period of secular stagnation in which sluggish growth, output and employment at levels well below potential, and problematically low real interest rates might coincide for quite some time to come. Since the beginning of this century U.S. GDP growth has averaged less than 1.8 percent per year. Right now the economy is operating at nearly 10 percent — or more than $1.6 trillion — below what was judged to be its potential path as recently as 2007. And all this is in the face of negative real interest rates out for more than 5 years and extraordinarily easy monetary policies.

It is true that even some forecasters who have had the wisdom to remain pessimistic about growth prospects for the last few years are coming around to more optimistic views about growth in 2014, at least in the U.S. This is encouraging, but optimism should be qualified by the recognition that even optimistic forecasts show output and employment remaining well below previous trends for many years. More troubling even with the current high degree of slack in the economy and wage and price inflation slowing, there are increasing signs of eroding credit standards and inflated asset values. If we were to enjoy several years of healthy growth with anything like current credit conditions, there is every reason to expect a return to the kind of problems we saw in 2005-2007 long before output and employment returned to trend or inflation accelerated.

The secular stagnation challenge then is not just to achieve reasonable growth, but to do so in a financially sustainable way. What then is to be done? Essentially three approaches compete for policymakers’ attention. The first emphasizes what is seen as the economy’s deep supply side fundamentals — the skills of the workforce, companies’ capacity for innovation, structural tax reform, and assuring the long-run sustainability of entitlement programs. All of this is intuitively appealing, if politically difficult, and would indeed make a great contribution to the economy’s health over the long run. But it is very unlikely to do much over the next 5 to 10 years. Apart from obvious lags like those with which education operates, there is the reality that our economy is constrained by lack of demand rather than lack of supply. Increasing our capacity to produce will not translate into increased output unless there is more demand for goods and services. Training programs or reform of social insurance, for instance, may affect which workers get jobs, but they will not affect how many get jobs. Indeed measures that raised supply could have the perverse effect of magnifying deflationary pressures.