Richard Koo on global stagnation, globalisation and the trade war

In the short video below, Richard Koo, originator of the idea of balance sheet recessions, argues that the current global economic stagnation is largely due to private sector firms as a whole in most of world’s largest economies acting as net savers rather than net borrowers and investors, despite very low interest rates. This is weakening aggregate demand and is compounded by the failure of the other sectors in the major economies, namely households and governments, to compensate by borrowing and spending to counter this weakness.

Of course, the US government is running a budget deficit, which has sustained moderate growth there, but for the largest economies taken together, private sector saving is proving to be a drag on continued recovery.

Koo doesn’t go into the reasons for this behaviour, although he has argued elsewhere that the private sector in many countries is attempting to save in order to pay down high levels of debt, producing a balance sheet recession, or stagnation at best. Fiscal policies that boost demand as well as policies that increase private investment opportunities in general would help to counter this.

He also touches on the US-China trade war as adding to global weakness, and notes that it is unlikely to end anytime soon, due to the job losses in the US which decades of current account deficits have reflected. As Koo puts it, free trade has created enough losers economically to make it a political problem in the US, and one that contributed to the election of Trump.

Aside from the trade war, it is quite likely that rising inequality has contributed to global weakness. With much of the income from economic growth accruing to the already wealthy, who save a larger proportion of it than poorer groups, significant increases in consumption in advance of the financial crisis relied on higher household debt since it is less able to be supported by rising wages for the majority.

In economies such as Germany and Japan, the result has been weaker growth, rising public debt in Japan, and a soaring current account surplus in Germany, while in the US and UK the result has been higher household debt and current account deficits. These trends sustained each other for some time, but the resolution of such imbalances may well be the source of much of the current global turmoil which has followed the crisis of more than a decade ago.

This interpretation suggests a need for policies which reduce inequality and increase wages, boosting consumption in a more sustainable fashion, and therefore increasing private investment opportunities. Greater public investment in infrastructure would also help. In a number of countries this has been constrained by policies focusing on austerity and reducing public debt, which have in many ways proved economically and socially damaging.

Reflections on industrial policy – France and ‘Les Trente Glorieuses’

Les30Glorieuses‘The Glorious Thirty’ was originally coined by the French demographer Jean Fourastié in 1979 to describe his country’s unprecedented economic boom between 1945 and 1975. Lasting from the end of World War Two to the first oil shock of the 1970s,  it saw growth in output, productivity, wages and consumption faster than before or since, and significant structural change, as resources moved from the agricultural sector and luxury artisan products towards industry.

France rapidly closed the gap in living standards with the US over the period, more or less matched West Germany’s performance, and overtook the UK. It managed an average growth rate of 5.1% throughout the 1960s.

This was in many ways the heyday of state intervention in the major capitalist economies, and the use of various forms of industrial policy was widespread. Post-war France, as elsewhere in Europe, required a major rebuilding of infrastructure and industrial capacity after the damage wrought by conflict. These included transport, the utilities, capital goods and heavy industry.

Beyond this, the government felt that a high standard of living and strong national defence to preserve relative independence required industrialisation. It was decided that this could not be wholly left to the uncertain outcomes associated with market forces. After the experiences of economic planning in many countries during the war, state intervention was felt to be both necessary and effective for the purposes of accelerating recovery while preserving freedom, democratic institutions and private property as far as possible. Continue reading

Heiner Flassbeck on the global economy: the problem of Europe

In the video below from the Real News Network, former economist at UNCTAD, Heiner Flassbeck, discusses some of the problems besetting today’s global economy and claims that they have deep historical roots. Germany may be heading for a recession due to shrinking exports linked to the ongoing US-China trade war and weak demand in Europe.

Flassbeck argues that the cause of sluggish global demand lies in the weakness of corporate investment compared to corporate saving alongside stagnant wages and the insufficient response of governments in Europe to counter this with more expansionary fiscal policy.

This has been brewing since the 1970s. The US under Reagan, Bush junior and most recently Trump has on a number of occasions responded to sluggish growth with higher fiscal deficits. The exception came under Clinton, when a booming economy and fiscal tightening produced several years of budget surpluses, which ultimately proved unsustainable.

In contrast, many European economies have remained wedded to tighter fiscal policies and austerity in the run-up to the creation of the euro. Since 2000 Germany has relied on foreign demand to drive growth, and now runs, in absolute terms, the largest current account surplus in the world.

Corporate surpluses are also excessively large in Japan, but the government continues to run a moderately large budget deficit which absorbs some of these savings and sustains aggregate demand to a degree. The German government is now running a budget surplus, which withdraws demand from the economy, leaving net exports as the driver of growth.

Ideally, corporations would use more of their retained earnings for investment, rather than running up surpluses as they are doing at the moment, particularly in Germany. This would increase spending on the demand side, and the capital stock on the supply side, boosting growth in output and some combination of employment and productivity.

In the absence of strong corporate investment growth, sufficient demand to support economic growth has to come from household consumption, net exports, or from the government. With insufficient household income growth, Germany has relied excessively on growth in exports enabled by sluggish wage increases for twenty years. In a weakening global economy, it is now suffering again and could be on the brink of recession.

A more sustainable return to healthy economic growth and fuller employment with rising living standards would see household incomes rising for the majority through significant wage increases, stimulating consumption and providing greater incentives for companies to increase investment in new capacity and employment. Also needed is some degree of fiscal expansion which includes public investment in necessary infrastructure and support for those on the lowest incomes.

The corporate sector surplus (the excess of savings over investment) in a number of large economies needs to shrink as wages and household incomes rise alongside corporate investment. This would lessen the need to rely on large and persistent fiscal deficits, which have supported demand in Japan on and off for well over two decades but have not by themselves created the conditions for a return to more balanced economic growth over the longer term. It would also lessen the need for consumption to be excessively dependent on rising debt, as in the UK and US.

More balanced global growth and reduced inequality within countries which have seen the latter soar since the end of the 1970s can be achieved together.

Flassbeck does not really discuss the reasons behind excessive corporate savings relative to investment, aside from a brief reference to neoliberalism, and he ignores the problem of private debt in China, but the interview is interesting and worth a watch.

Michael Hudson: debts that can’t be paid, won’t be

JisforJunkEconAnother excerpt in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s heterodox ‘dictionary’ J is for Junk Economics (2017, p.72):

“Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be”: Over time, debts mount up in excess of the ability of wide swathes of the economy to pay, except by transferring personal and public property to creditors.

The volume of debt owed by businesses, families and governments typically is as large as gross domestic product (GDP) – that is 100%. If the average interest rate to carry this debt is 5%, the economy must grow by 5% each year just to pay the interest charges. But economies are not growing at this rate. Hence, debt service paid to the financial sector is eating into economies, leaving less for labor and industry, that is, for production and consumption.

Greece’s debt has soared to about 180% of GDP. To pay 5% interest means that its economy must pay 9% of GDP each year to bondholders and bankers. To calculate the amount that an economy must pay in interest (not including the FIRE* sector as a whole), multiply the rate of interest (5%) by the ratio of debt to GDP (180%). The answer is 9% of GDP absorbed by interest charges. If an economy grows at 1% or 2% – today’s norm for the United States and eurozone – then any higher interest rate will eat into the economy.

Paying so much leaves less income to be spent in domestic markets. This shrinks employment and hence new investment, blocking the economy from growing. Debts cannot be paid except by making the economy poorer, until ultimately it is able to pay only by selling off public assets to rent extractors. But privatization raises the economy’s cost of living and doing business, impairing its competitiveness. This process is not sustainable.

The political issue erupts when debts cannot be paid. The debt crisis requires nations to decide whether to save the creditors’ claims for payment (by foreclosure) or save the economy. After 2008 the Obama administration saved the banks and bondholders, leaving the economy to limp along in a state of debt deflation. Economic shrinkage must continue until the debts are written down.

*Finance, Insurance and Real Estate

The debt we don’t talk about

Private debt. Richard Vague, who used to be in the business of consumer credit, now researches such things. Here he talks to INET, which supports a network of mainly progressive economists, from leading thinkers to students.

When Vague started his research into trends in private debt across a number of major economies, he found that it was difficult to find a lot of the necessary data, from the nineteenth century through the roaring twenties to 1980s Japan.

He also touches on the need for debt restructuring after a major crisis such as the Great Recession, perhaps in the form of a ‘debt jubilee’. As he puts it, we saved the banks, but we did much less for ordinary households.

Worth watching.

Heterodox critiques of quantitative easing

Following last week’s quote from Michael Hudson on quantitative easing (QE), here are some other insightful perspectives which for me offer explanatory power, given the course of economic and financial events over the decade since the crisis began.

The aim of QE is to reduce long-term interest rates, boost private sector lending, and raise asset prices to generate a positive wealth effect on private spending. Altogether, these are meant to raise private sector consumption and investment, and thus economic growth.

Richard Koo, economist at Nomura and originator of the theory of balance sheet recessions, has outlined the potential problem of the ‘QE Trap’ (2015). While QE might have the effect of mitigating such a recession, once the recovery is underway, its withdrawal could lead to slower growth than otherwise. In other words, over the longer term, its overall effect might be negligible or even negative: Continue reading