Recently, many commentators have noted the apparently schizophrenic nature of the markets, turning from risk-on to risk-off at the drop of a hat. For example, John Kemp argues that the markets are “trapped between euphoria and despair” and notes the U-shaped distribution of Bank of England’s inflation forecasts (table 5.13). Although at first glance this sort of behaviour seems irrational, it may not be – As PIMCO’s Richard Clarida notes: “we are in a world in which average outcomes – for growth, inflation, corporate and sovereign defaults, and the investment returns driven by these outcomes – will matter less and less for investors and policymakers. This is because we are in a New Normal world in which the distribution of outcomes is flatter and the tails are fatter. As such, the mean of the distribution becomes an observation that is very rarely realized”
Richard Clarida’s New Normal is analogous to the crisis regime (the dotted line unstable equilibrium in Figures c and d). Any movement in either direction is self-fulfilling and leads to either a much stronger economy or a much weaker economy. So why is the current crisis regime such a long one? As I mentioned earlier, external stabilisation (in this case monetary and fiscal policy) can keep the system from collapsing down to the lower branch normal regime – the “schizophrenia” only indicates that the market may make a decisive break to a stable state sooner rather than later.
The problem here is not that the economy is being buffeted by frequent shocks that arrive before a transition to equilibrium can occur, it is that the internal dynamics of adjustment simply do not approach the equilibrium from certain (large) sets of initial states even in the absence of shocks. The idea that the instability of steady growth with respect to disequilibrium dynamics is an important feature of modern market economies, and cannot be neglected in a comprehensive theory of economic fluctuations was forcefully advanced by Richard Goodwin as far back as 1951, and Paul Samuelson had explored the possibility even earlier. As Willem Buiter has recently lamented, this line of research in macroeconomics simply dried up about a generation ago.Another area in which equilibrium analysis is likely to be inadequate is in the study of asset markets with significant speculative activity. Price and volume dynamics in such markets depend not just on changes in fundamentals but also on the distribution of trading strategies, and this in turn adjusts under pressure of differential performance. The idea of an equilibrium composition of trading strategies is a contradiction in terms: if there were any such thing there would be a new strategy that could enter to exploit the resulting regularity. It is the complexity of this disequilibrium process that allows information arbitrage efficiency to be approximately satisfied, while allowing for significant departures from fundamental valuation efficiency (the distinction, naturally, is also due to Tobin.)
Promising to remain at zero for a long time is a double-edged sword. The policy is consistent with the idea that in‡ation and in‡ation expectations should rise in response to the promise, and that this will eventually lead the economy back toward the targeted equilibrium of Figure 1. But the policy is also consistent with the idea that in‡ation and in‡ation expectations will instead fall, and that the economy will settle in the neighborhood of the unintended steady state, as Japan has in recent years.23
To avoid this outcome for the U.S., policymakers can react di¤erently to negative shocks going forward. Under current policy in the U.S., the reaction to a negative shock is perceived to be a promise to stay low for longer, which may be counterproductive because it may encourage a permanent, low nominal interest rate outcome. A better policy response to a negative23George Evans and Seppo Honkapohja have made a version of this argument moreformally. See their forthcoming paper, “Expectations, De‡ation Traps and MacroeconomicPolicy,” in David Cobham,?yvind Eitrheim, Stefan Gerlach, and Jan F. Qvigstad, editors,Twenty Years of In‡ation Targeting: Lessons Learned and Future Prospects, CambridgeUniversity Press, Chapter 11, pp. 232-260.21
The danger today, as opposed to prior deleveraging cycles, is that the deleveraging is being attempted into the headwinds of a structural demographic downwave as opposed to a decade of substantial population growth. Japan is the modern-day example of what deleveraging in the face of a slowing and now negatively growing population can do. Prior deleveraging periods such as what the U.S. and European economies experienced in the 1930s exhibited a similar demographic with the lowest levels of fertility in the 20th century and extremely low population growth. Things did not go well then. Today’s developed economies almost assuredly offer substantially less population growth than the 1.5% rate experienced over the prior 50 years. Even when viewed from a total global economy perspective, population growth over the next 10–20 years will barely exceed 1%.
The preceding analysis does not even begin to discuss the aging of this slower-growing population base itself. Japan, Germany, Italy and of course the United States, with its boomers moving toward their 60s, are getting older year after year. Even China with their previous one baby policy faces a similar demographic. And while older people spend a larger percentage of their income – that is, they save less and eventually dissave – the fact is that they spend far fewer dollars per capita than their younger counterparts. No new homes, fewer vacations, less emphasis on conspicuous consumption and no new cars every few years. Healthcare is their primary concern. These aging trends present a one-two negative punch to our New Normal thesis over the next 5–10 years: fewer new consumers in terms of total population, and a growing number of older ones who don’t spend as much money. The combined effect will slow economic growth more than otherwise.
The point, or one of the main points anyway, is that this Top Secret world has expanded so quickly, with so little control, that nobody knows its costs and boundaries; nobody can keep up with all the information going in and coming out. That's the irony: The expansion took place primarily to improve the intelligence networks, to make it easier for all the various intelligence agencies to integrate their efforts, and thus to "connect the dots," so that patterns can be discerned in random data and terrorist plots can be detected and stopped in time.
However, the result has proved so crushingly complex that, in many ways, the problem has intensified. Or, as retired Lt. Gen. John R. Vines—who was recently assigned to track the most secretive intelligence programs in the Defense Department alone—told the Post reporters, no entity anywhere has "the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities." As a result, he said, "we can't effectively assess whether it is making us more safe."
In the aftermath of the latest collapse it is clear that the distinction between debt in the private and public sector has become blurred. If the private sector suffers, the public sector may be forced to step in and assume, or guarantee, the debt, as happened in 2008. Otherwise the economy may suffer a deep recession which will cut the tax revenues governments need to service their own debt.
If the Western world faces an era of austerity as debts are paid down, how will that affect day-to-day life? Clearly a society built on consumption will have to pay more attention to saving. The idea that using borrowed money to buy assets is the smart road to riches might lose currency, changing attitudes to home ownership as well as to parts of the finance sector such as private equity.
This special report will argue that, for the developed world, the debt-financed model has reached its limit. Most of the options for dealing with the debt overhang are unpalatable. As has already been seen in Greece and Ireland, each government will have to find its own way of reducing the burden. The battle between borrowers and creditors may be the defining struggle of the next generation.