Sunday, February 28, 2016

Could Larry Summers be half-right about secular stagnation?

When I read ‘The age of secular stagnation’ by Lawrence H Summers (published in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2016) I was pleasantly surprised to find that I agreed with part of his analysis.

I agree that economic growth has been relatively weak in most developed countries in recent years because levels of investment have been low, despite high levels of saving and low real interest rates. That is not quite how Summers puts it; he talks about “excess savings”. He might have reasons for that, but it makes his argument seem convoluted.

I tend to agree with Summers when he writes:
“Absent many good new investment opportunities, savings have tended to flow into existing assets, causing asset price inflation”.
My agreement is qualified because I think the absence of investment opportunities is more about perception than reality. Why I think that will become clearer later.

The solution Summers offers to the problem of low investment is an expansionary fiscal policy pursued through public investment. Writing about the United States he argues:
“A time of low real interest rates, low materials prices, and high construction unemployment is the ideal moment for a large public investment program. It is tragic … that net government investment is lower than at any time in nearly six decades”.

It is obviously problematic to be proposing an expansion in public investment at a time when rising government debt has been imposing a significant burden on later generations. But there may be ways around such concerns. In its article, ‘Fighting the next recession’ The Economist (Feb. 20) gave some prominence to the New South Wales Government model of privatising assets such as ports to fund public investment. I had not previously thought of the efforts of the NSW government to raise some cash for infrastructure spending as a model that might have wider application.

However, there are limits to the extent that additional public sector investment is likely to stimulate further private investment. Additional public investment in most economic sectors competes with private investment. If governments confine their investments to sectors where public investment might have a comparative advantage, they will, before long, end up investing in projects that have no hope of yielding even a modest return on investment. Such misallocations seem more likely to add to secular stagnation than to help overcome it. Japan’s efforts to stimulate economic growth by building roads to nowhere may be a good example of such counterproductive public investment.

Before proposing solutions to the problem of secular under-investment it would be a good idea to try to understand why it is occurring. In his recent article, ‘U.S. secular stagnation?’ Steve Hanke pointed to Robert Higgs’ concept of “regime uncertainty” as a possible explanation of the long term downward trend in net private domestic business investment as a percentage of GDP since the beginning of the 1970s. An index of economic policy uncertainty developed by Scott Baker, Nicholas Bloom and Steven Davis suggests that economic policy uncertainty is currently very high - at similar levels to the 1930s, and much higher than in the 50s and 60s.

An increase in policy uncertainty is also consistent with the observation by Kevin Lane and Tom Rosewall (RBA Bulletin 2015) that the hurdle rates of return that firms use to evaluate investment projects has not declined along with declines in interest rates that have occurred since the 1980s. This implies that profitable investment opportunities are being foregone because of greater uncertainty about future after-tax returns and costs. OECD researchers suggest that policy uncertainty (concerning regulation, macro policy and taxation policy) is one factor causing the hurdle rate that companies apply to capital spending to be higher than that applied by financial investors (Business and Financial Outlook 2015, p 60).

My conclusion is that Larry Summers might be about half right in his observations about secular stagnation. Investment has been too low, but the long-run solution can't lie in increased public investment. Governments should be thinking about how they can make businesses feel confident that regulatory and tax burdens are not likely to be further increased over the lifetime of new investments.

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