Paul Krugman: Persistent global weakness is the new normal

Investors remain jittery, with good reason

A stock quotation board outside a brokerage in Tokyo tracks plunging global indices yesterday. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

A stock quotation board outside a brokerage in Tokyo tracks plunging global indices yesterday. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

 

What caused Friday’s stock plunge? What does it mean for the future? Nobody knows, and not much. Attempts to explain daily stock movements are usually foolish: a real-time survey of the 1987 stock crash found no evidence for any of the rationalisations economists and journalists offered after the fact, finding instead that people were selling because, you guessed it, prices were falling.

Still, investors are clearly jittery – with good reason. US economic news has been good though not great lately, but the world as a whole still seems remarkably accident-prone. For seven years and counting we’ve lived in a global economy that lurches from crisis to crisis. Every time one part of the world seems to get back on its feet, another part stumbles. And America can’t insulate itself from these global woes.

But why does the world economy keep stumbling? On the surface we seem to have had a remarkable run of bad luck. First there was the housing bust, and the banking crisis it triggered. Then, just as the worst seemed to be over, Europe went into debt crisis and double-dip recession.

Europe eventually achieved a precarious stability and began growing again but now we’re seeing big problems in China and other emerging markets.

But these aren’t just a series of unrelated accidents. Instead, what we’re seeing is what happens when too much money is chasing too few investment opportunities.

More than a decade ago Ben Bernanke famously argued that a ballooning US trade deficit was the result not of domestic factors but of a “global saving glut”: a huge excess of savings over investment in China and other developing nations, driven in part by policy reactions to the Asian crisis of the 1990s, which was flowing to the US in search of returns.

He worried a bit about the fact that the inflow of capital was being channelled, not into business investment, but into housing; obviously he should have worried much more. (Some of us did).

But his suggestion that the US housing boom was in part caused by weakness in foreign economies still looks valid. Of course, the boom became a bubble, which inflicted immense damage when it burst. Furthermore, that wasn’t the end of the story. There was also a flood of capital from Germany and other northern European countries to Spain, Portugal, and Greece. This too turned out to be a bubble, and the bursting of that bubble in 2009-2010 precipitated the euro crisis. And still the story wasn’t over.

New bubbles

So where does the moving finger of glut go now? Why, back to America, where a fresh inflow of foreign funds has driven the dollar way up, threatening to make our industry uncompetitive again.

What’s causing this global glut? Probably a mix of factors. Population growth is slowing worldwide, and for all the hype about the latest technology, it doesn’t seem to be creating either surging productivity or a lot of demand for business investment. The ideology of austerity has added to the problem.

And low inflation around the world, which means low interest rates even when economies are booming, has reduced the room to cut rates when economies slump.

Whatever the precise mix of causes, what’s important now is that policymakers take seriously the probability that excess savings and persistent global weakness is the new normal.

Special interests

But there’s also a sort of emotional prejudice against the very notion of global glut. Politicians and technocrats want to view themselves as serious people making hard choices – choices like cutting popular programmes and raising interest rates.

They don’t like being told that we’re in a world where seemingly tough-minded policies will actually make things worse.

But we are, and they will.

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