Tag Archives: Lawrence Summers

Chart of the Day, 21 Jan 2015: Summer’s Secular Stagnation

I’m taking my charts today from the just-published Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity, chaired by Larry Summers and Ed Balls. Summers, one of the highest profile economists in the world, was in London yesterday (on the way to Davos), promoting the report itself and describing the challenge of how to combat secular stagnation. Yesterday, I listened to Summers at a lecture held at the LSE, a podcast of which can be found here.

First, a restatement of the problem. Growth has slowed in almost all advanced countries (click for larger image):

Secular Stagnation Selected Countries jpeg

And what growth there has been has gone to the rich:

Bottom 90% Income Growth jpeg

In short, for the bottom 90%, productivity and income have diverged.

Productivity and Income Growth jpeg

While admitting there are supply side factors causing the economic slowdown (such as poor demographics), Summers places most emphasis on the demand side as the root cause of the problem, particularly with repsct to investment.

Critically, the relative price of investment goods has collapsed, making investment a meagre source of effective demand. By way of example, Summers points to the behemoth of the 1970s, IBM. The computer giant of its time had a repeated need to access capital markets in order to finance its investment plans and grow. Apple, however, generates more cash than it knows what to do with. Indeed, it is a source of liquidity in the capital markets through carrying out continued share buybacks.

Similarly, Summers notes that a company used to be partly valued on how much ‘stuff’ it had on its balance sheet, but now this is almost an irrelevance. So we have a situation where Whatsapp is worth $17 billion, with minimum assets and employees, but Sony, with an army of employees and a raft of factories, is only worth $16 billion. As a result, the price of money has fallen to zero.

US Natural Rate of Interest jpeg

Summer’s prescription: if the private sector doesn’t want to invest regardless of how low interest rates go, the state should step in, taking advantage of bargain basement borrowing rates to massively upgrade its infrastructure.

I am broadly sympathetic. However, I would point out that another state suffering secular stagnation, Japan, has tried the government-financed mega infrastructure investment strategy before. Indeed, for a time, academics dubbed Japan the ‘construction state’. This frenetic activity, however, did little to raise long-term growth rates. Sometimes, when growth has gone, it’s gone.

Climate Change: A Question of Caves and Mansions 1?

A can’t count the number of moribund discussions I have had over the veracity of climate change. Having spent the best part of my career in the financial industry, it is impossible not to come across certain colleagues, clients and brokers who see global warming as an affront to free market economics and therefore something that could not possibly exist.

Such questioning of the science, however, doesn’t particularly bother me: a contrarian mindset is a prerequisite for a successful career managing money so the multitude of climate skeptics within the industry should not be a surprise. What does frustrate me, though, is that many of those who argue so vehemently that climate change is a product of statist scientists trying to secure government funding don’t feel the need to acquaint themselves with the basic tenets of what they are arguing against (and yes I have had the painful experience of reading through the standard skeptic offerings from Ian Plimer‘s ‘Heaven and Earth’, to Nigel Lawson’s ‘An Appeal to Reason‘, to Bjorn Lomborg’s ‘Cool It‘ and many more).

When engaging with many skeptics, it is like arguing with someone over the merits of a novel when my opponent has only read the reviews in a newspaper and not the original text. Continue reading