Monthly Archives: April 2016

Implications of Secular Stagnation and A Low Growth World

I would dearly love to have provided just a link in my previous blog piece with a comment or two on this most excellent (as usual) post from ‘Rick’ at the Flip Chart Fairy Tales blog. It goes much deeper than I would have been capable of. It is definitely worth reading the whole lot. Unfortunately his blog appears to be partially down while I write this, so here it is in full. Apologies to ‘Rick’ if publishing the whole lot here has been naughty… In the meantime Here is the general link to his site. And this is what he wrote and quoted from some other excellent people especially Duncan Weldon and Andrew Haldane:

Are we prepared for a low growth world?

Duncan Weldon declared himself a productivity pessimist earlier this week:

Productivity – the amount of output produced for each hour worked – rose at a fairly steady annual rate of about 2.2% in the UK for decades before the recession. Since the crisis though, that annual growth rate has collapsed to under 0.5%. The OBR has decided to revise down its future assumption on productivity from that pre-crisis 2.2% to a lower 2%. That small revision was enough to give the chancellor a large fiscal headache in his latest budget, but it still assumes a big rebound in productivity growth from its current level. What if that rebound doesn’t come?

It’s still perfectly possible to argue that productivity pessimism is overdone, that we are still suffering the lingering after-effects of the financial crisis that will eventually end. But with each passing year that becomes more difficult. A good strategy is to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. And the worst is pretty bad.

Why is it so bad?

Productivity is one of two key factors determining the trend growth rate of an economy; the speed limit at which a country can expand without pushing up prices. The other is population. Falling birth rates across the advanced economies created a demographic “sweet spot” that lasted from the late 70s until fairly recently. Fewer children meant a rising share of the population was of working age. But fewer children in the past means fewer workers today and rising longevity means a rising share of the population who are retired. Across the west, the amount of workers for each retired person is heading in the wrong direction. Increasing the retirement age and more immigration are both theoretical fixes, but the scale of both required to fundamentally change the picture is almost certainly politically impossible.

That demographic sweet spot, a rising working age population and fewer dependents, was one of the factors that caused the spurt of growth after the Second World War. Historians and economists will be debating the causes of the postwar economic boom for years to come but, when compared to previous fifty-year periods,  the last half of the twentieth century saw unusually high GDP growth. It is starting to look as though we have seen the last of it.

Duncan produced this graph a few weeks ago, form the Bank of England’s Three centuries of macroeconomic dataHe notes that, although it is early days, the early 21st century is looking more like the late 19th than the late 20th.


When compared to most of the last 300 years, the last half of the twentieth century was an extraordinary time. Looked at in the longer term context, it was an extraordinary time within an extraordinary time. As Andy Haldane said, economic growth only really started around 300 years ago.

[T]he long history of growth looks rather different than the short. Secularly rising living standards have become the social and economic norm. No-one can recall a time when the growth escalator has moved anything other than upwards.

Yet viewed through a long lens telescope, ‘twas not ever thus. Chart 2 plots estimates of global GDP per capita back to 1000 BC. This suggests a very different growth story. For three millennia prior to the Industrial Revolution, growth per head averaged only 0.01% per year. Global living standards were essentially flat. Since 1750, it has taken around 50 years for living standards to double. Prior to 1750, it would have taken 6000 years.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 18.02.36

It wasn’t until the start of the 19th century that most people’s living standards began to improve. It is, as Andy Haldane said, as though someone flicked a switch somewhere around 1750 and the technological take-off then fed through into a massive jump in per capita GDP.

Per capita GDP increased gradually during the 19th and early 20th centuries but steepest rise came after the Second World War. The period between the end of the war and the crash of 2007 saw unprecedented economic growth.

Real UK GDP Per Capita

Source: Bank of England: Three centuries of macroeconomic data.

And, to illustrate Duncan’s point, productivity followed a similar pattern.

Productivity BoE

Source: Bank of England: Three centuries of macroeconomic data.

If, over the next decade, we are to achieve the same increase in per capita GDP that we saw in the last half of the 20th century, the economy would have to grow by between 3 and 3.5 percent every year. Even the most optimistic forecasts are nowhere near that. As Duncan says, even the government’s revised projections might be a bit optimistic.

In the UK, policymakers once thought trend growth was 2.75% and have now cut that to 2.2%. Without a productivity bounce that could fall to closer to 1-1.5% in the coming years.

It might be early days but the chances are that Duncan’s bar chart won’t look that much different in 2025. Unless there is a sudden productivity spurt, which looks very unlikely at the moment, real per capita GDP growth will probably average something like 1.3 percent for the 25-year period.

It looks like this productivity slow down will be set in for some time. The recent improvement which might have indicated that we had turned a corner came to a halt at the end of last year. That most other western economies are also seeing something similar suggests that the causes run deep, although the UK seems to have particularly severe symptoms. The IMF has urged governments to invest to prevent a slide into what Christine Lagard called the “new mediocrity” but, even if governments rise to this challenge, they may find themselves trying to jump-start a dead battery. We have no idea what the multiplier effect of such a stimulus would be. It might be disappointingly small. What level of investment it would take to return the UK to 3 percent growth is anybody’s guess but it is likely to be a very big number.

This gives us a huge problem. Most of us grew up and formed our opinions and expectations during that extraordinary post-war period. We thought that the growth we enjoyed during that lucky half-century was normal. We assumed that living standards would improve and that each generation would always be better off than the last one. Furthermore, we built a state based on the assumptions of late 20th century growth.

The trouble is, the pressure on state spending will almost certainly increase. The ageing population will cost more even if we all work longer and stay healthier. We have no idea what the effect of climate change will be but it is likely to put extra demands on local authority budgets.

But low productivity means low wages which means low tax revenues and continued reliance on in-work benefits. Governments will struggle to keep public spending down and to raise revenue. A combination of higher taxes, cuts to public services and continuing government deficits looks likely.

This is bad news both for anti-austerians and for state-shrinkers. Governments will have their work cut out just to keep public services running at their current level. The brutal arithmetic of public spending means that even a real-terms freeze means significant service cuts.  A return to 2010 levels of staffing and provision looks unlikely unless people suddenly develop an appetite for much higher taxation. For the same reason, significant tax cuts also look improbable. Governments will be scratching around for every penny they can get.

A lower-growth world means that we will have to adjust the assumptions that we built up in the higher growth world. We will find our views about work, pay, living standards, property ownership, health and retirement challenged but none more so than our assumptions about what the state is there for and what it can and should provide.

Secular Stagnation … I Think

I’m not totally sure what secular stagnation means – other than growth is low and difficult to jump-start, and that is the new normal.

But I do know that large companies are not investing significantly, preferring to sit on cash-piles and pay their most senior executives enormous salaries and bonuses instead. This is because large corporations are oligopolies – pretty close to monopolies. So they have near complete control of their pricing and profit levels, which are hardly reined in at all by either the competition nor by adequate regulation. If a competitor does break rank, that competitor may well be bought out. So the large corporations are in an excellent position to milk their customers, their existing products and their productive methods for all they can. They have little or no incentive to invest in better products or services or better means of producing them. Why do that when they can give their senior executives bigger salaries and bigger bonuses instead. And it’s not even as if shareholders get a raise in dividends either, because fund managers who hold most of the shares have no real incentive to perform better – and, if they do protest at meagre dividends , they can safely be ignored: after all share prices can be kept high by the simple method of buying more of their own shares to distribute to employees, especially the most senior ones. The ‘light touch’ low regulation situation was initiated by Mrs Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA. And then continued by Messrs Blair/Brown and Mr Clinton.

Free enterprise is easily corrupted into monopolies/oligopolies without adequate regulation. This kind of corporate behaviour illustrates the difference between short-term greed and long-term self-interest, because if the corporations were to be investing economies would grow more and everyone would live happier, healthier and longer lives, assuming reasonable wealth distribution, natch. (But the inequitable wealth distribution we currently have also started in the 1980s and is a linked phenomenon). Better growth and better wealth distribution would benefit the corporate execs’ descendants. But I suppose said execs are holding to the view that in the long term we are all dead, and in the short term ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ competition among the top 0.1% must be a very difficult mental habit to shake.

It is largely because of all this that productivity is so low – most especially in the UK, where it is now in a particularly abysmal state even compared with other major (G7) economies where it is none too healthy. And, of course, low productivity leads to low growth, which further inhibits investment because of lack of confidence. A viscious circle, indeed.  Employment of cheap labour from a cowed and nervous workforce has been kept up for a while, as cheaper than new plant, etc. But it now looks as if even that may be slipping, too.

Attempts to boost economies via central bank quantitative easing have not been particularly successful, as we are constantly reminded (it was well known to be a gamble from the beginning – likened to ‘pushing on a string’).

So now central banks are toying with the idea of negative interest rates – and some, including the ECB, are actually implementing it. This is also likely to prove ineffectual in its aim to boost investment and consumer spending. So some (wishful thinkers) are predicting ‘helicopter money’ as a last resort (just distributing cash to consumers to spend).

In an economy your spending is my income and my spending is your income. That’s why an economy is not like a household or a firm. So ‘Schwabian Housewife’ economics (we-must-all-live-within-our-means-and-debt-is-inherently-bad) is such total rot. It is based on a fallacy of composition (the whole is exactly like its parts: national economy=firm=household=individual), and takes no account of the ‘paradox of thrift‘ where if everyone saves and no-one spends, we are all impoverished.

The simple answer in a case like this is through what is called fiscal expansion by governments. Governments need to spend, even if it means borrowing to do so. But because of Schwabian Housewife economics this has become politically unfeasible. Most Western governments don’t even want to spend on infrastructure investment, let alone welfare, health, the military, research into carbon dioxide capture and storage, etc (etc). In the UK if the hapless Mr Osborne were to be seen contemplating anything more than a short tactical about-turn from austerity, as he did in 2011 and is now doing after his latest budget fiasco … well he couldn’t because the press would not let him. Plus, of course, the theology of shrinking the state in order to ‘unshackle’ so-called free enterprise remains a convincing-sounding argument to many like Mr Osborne, despite the fact that we have seen what unshackling free enterprise has led to so far. Obviously free enterprise has not been unshackled enough…? Ayn Rand stuff, anybody? That’s an argument like proper communism has never really been tried? Both obviously bullshit.

Of course what would really lead to fiscal expansion would be a good war. But that really would not be the kind of rescue from North Korea or Mr Putin that I would be hoping for.