LONDON – A specter is haunting the treasuries and central banks of the West – the specter of secular stagnation. What if there is no sustainable recovery from the economic slump of 2008-2013? What if the sources of economic growth have dried up – not temporarily, but permanently?
The new pessimism comes not from Marxists, who have always looked for telltale signs of capitalism’s collapse, but from the heart of the policymaking establishment: Larry Summers, former US President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, and chief economist of almost everything at one time or another.
Summers’s argument, in a nutshell, is that if the expected profitability of investment is falling, interest rates need to fall to the same extent. But interest rates cannot fall below zero (in fact, they may be stuck above zero if there is a strong desire to build up cash balances). This could result in profit expectations falling below the cost of borrowing.
Most people agree that this could happen at the depth of a slump. It was to avert this possibility that central banks began pumping money into the economy after 2008. The novelty of Summers’s argument is the claim that “secular stagnation” began 15-20 years before the crash.
True enough, interest rates were falling, though not as fast as the fall in expected profit on new investment. So, even in the so-called boom years, most Western economies were kept afloat not by new investment, but by asset bubbles based on increasingly unsustainable leverage.