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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Summers: Reflections on the new 'Secular Stagnation hypothesis'

In case you just can't get enough of Larry Summers talking about secular stagnation:

Reflections on the new 'Secular Stagnation hypothesis', by Larry Summers, Vox EU: The notion that Europe and other advanced economies are suffering secular stagnation is gaining traction. This column by Larry Summers – first published in the Vox eBook “Secular Stagnation: Facts, Causes and Cures” – explains the idea. It argues that a decline in the full-employment real interest rate coupled with low inflation could indefinitely prevent the attainment of full employment.


Here's the end of a relatively long discussion:

3 Conclusions and Implications

 The case made here, if valid, is troubling. It suggests that monetary as currently structured and operated may have difficulty maintaining a posture of full employment and production at potential and that if these goals are attained there is likely to be price paid in terms of financial stability. A number of questions come to mind:

  • How great are the risks?

Alvin Hansen proclaimed the risk of secular stagnation at the end of the 1930s only to see the economy boom during the and after World War II. It is certainly possible that either some major exogenous event will occur that raises spending or lowers saving in a way that raises the FERIR in the industrial world and renders the concerns I have expressed irrelevant. Short of war, it is not obvious what such events might be. Moreover, most of the reasons adduced for falling FERIRs are likely to continue for at least the next decade. And there is no evidence that potential output forecasts are being increased even in countries like the US where there is some sign of growth acceleration.

  • What about Hysteresis?

On their own, secular stagnation ideas do not explain the decline in potential output that has been a major feature of the experience throughout the industrial world. The available evidence though is that potential output has declined almost everywhere and in near lockstep with declines in actual output; see Ball (2014) for a summary. This suggests a way in which economies may equilibrate in the face of real rates above the FERIR. As hysteresis theories which emphasize the adverse effects of recessions on subsequent output predict, supply potential may eventually decline to the level of demand when enough investment is discouraged in physical capital, work effort and new product innovation.

Perhaps Say’s dubious law has a more legitimate corollary – “Lack of Demand creates Lack of Supply”. In the long run, as the economy’s supply potential declines, the FERIR rises restoring equilibrium, albeit not a very good one.

  • What about global aspects?

There is important work to be done elucidating the idea of secular stagnation in an open economy context. The best way to think about the analysis here is to treat it as referring the aggregate economy of the industrial world where – because of capital mobility – real interest rates tend to converge (though not immediately because of the possibility of expected movements in real exchange rates). If the FERIR for the industrialized economies were low enough one might expect capital outflows to emerging markets which would be associated with a declining real exchange rates for industrial countries, increased competitiveness and increased export demand. The difficulty is that this is something that emerging markets will accept only to a limited extent. Their response is likely to be either resistance to capital inflows or efforts to manage currency values to maintain competitiveness. In either case the result will be further downward pressure on interest rates in industrial countries.

4.What is to be done?

Broadly to the extent that secular stagnation is a problem, there are two possible strategies for addressing its pernicious impacts.

  • The first is to find ways to further reduce real interest rates.

These might include operating with a higher inflation rate target so that a zero nominal rate corresponds to a lower real rate. Or it might include finding ways such as quantitative easing that operate to reduce credit or term premiums. These strategies have the difficulty of course that even if they increase the level of output, they are also likely to increase financial stability risks, which in turn may have output consequences.

  • The alternative is to raise demand by increasing investment and reducing saving.

This operates to raise the FERIR and so to promote financial stability as well as increased output and employment. How can this be accomplished? Appropriate strategies will vary from country to country and situation to situation. But they should include increased public investment, reduction in structural barriers to private investment and measures to promote business confidence, a commitment to maintain basic social protections so as to maintain spending power and measures to reduce inequality and so redistribute income towards those with a higher propensity to spend.

    Posted by on Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 12:15 AM in Economics | Permalink  Comments (75)


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