Ten reasons why a ‘Greater Depression’ for the 2020s is inevitable

After the 2007-09 financial crisis, the imbalances and risks pervading the global economy were exacerbated by policy mistakes. So, rather than address the structural problems that the financial collapse and ensuing recession revealed, governments mostly kicked the can down the road, creating major downside risks that made another crisis inevitable. And now that it has arrived, the risks are growing even more acute. Unfortunately, even if the Greater Recession leads to a lacklustre U-shaped recovery this year, an L-shaped “Greater Depression” will follow later in this decade, owing to 10 ominous and risky trends.

The first trend concerns deficits and their corollary risks: debts and defaults. The policy response to the Covid-19 crisis entails a massive increase in fiscal deficits – on the order of 10% of GDP or more – at a time when public debt levels in many countries were already high, if not unsustainable.

Worse, the loss of income for many households and firms means that private-sector debt levels will become unsustainable, too, potentially leading to mass defaults and bankruptcies. Together with soaring levels of public debt, this all but ensures a more anaemic recovery than the one that followed the Great Recession a decade ago.

A second factor is the demographic timebomb in advanced economies. The Covid-19 crisis shows that much more public spending must be allocated to health systems, and that universal healthcare and other relevant public goods are necessities, not luxuries. Yet, because most developed countries have ageing societies, funding such outlays in the future will make the implicit debts from today’s unfunded healthcare and social security systems even larger.

A third issue is the growing risk of deflation. In addition to causing a deep recession, the crisis is also creating a massive slack in goods (unused machines and capacity) and labour markets (mass unemployment), as well as driving a price collapse in commodities such as oil and industrial metals. That makes debt deflation likely, increasing the risk of insolvency.

A fourth (related) factor will be currency debasement. As central banks try to fight deflation and head off the risk of surging interest rates (following from the massive debt build-up), monetary policies will become even more unconventional and far-reaching. In the short run, governments will need to run monetised fiscal deficits to avoid depression and deflation. Yet, over time, the permanent negative supply shocks from accelerated de-globalisation and renewed protectionism will make stagflation all but inevitable.

A fifth issue is the broader digital disruption of the economy. With millions of people losing their jobs or working and earning less, the income and wealth gaps of the 21st-century economy will widen further. To guard against future supply-chain shocks, companies in advanced economies will re-shore production from low-cost regions to higher-cost domestic markets. But rather than helping workers at home, this trend will accelerate the pace of automation, putting downward pressure on wages and further fanning the flames of populism, nationalism, and xenophobia.

This points to the sixth major factor: deglobalisation. The pandemic is accelerating trends toward balkanisation and fragmentation that were already well underway. The US and China will decouple faster, and most countries will respond by adopting still more protectionist policies to shield domestic firms and workers from global disruptions. The post-pandemic world will be marked by tighter restrictions on the movement of goods, services, capital, labour, technology, data, and information. This is already happening in the pharmaceutical, medical-equipment, and food sectors, where governments are imposing export restrictions and other protectionist measures in response to the crisis.

The backlash against democracy will reinforce this trend. Populist leaders often benefit from economic weakness, mass unemployment, and rising inequality. Under conditions of heightened economic insecurity, there will be a strong impulse to scapegoat foreigners for the crisis. Blue-collar workers and broad cohorts of the middle class will become more susceptible to populist rhetoric, particularly proposals to restrict migration and trade.

This points to an eighth factor: the geostrategic standoff between the US and China. With the Trump administration making every effort to blame China for the pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime will double down on its claim that the US is conspiring to prevent China’s peaceful rise. The Sino-American decoupling in trade, technology, investment, data, and monetary arrangements will intensify.

Worse, this diplomatic breakup will set the stage for a new cold war between the US and its rivals – not just China, but also Russia, Iran, and North Korea. With a US presidential election approaching, there is every reason to expect an upsurge in clandestine cyber warfare, potentially leading even to conventional military clashes. And because technology is the key weapon in the fight for control of the industries of the future and in combating pandemics, the US private tech sector will become increasingly integrated into the national-security-industrial complex.

A final risk that cannot be ignored is environmental disruption, which, as the Covid-19 crisis has shown, can wreak far more economic havoc than a financial crisis. Recurring epidemics (HIV since the 1980s, Sars in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, Mers in 2011, Ebola in 2014-16) are, like climate change, essentially manmade disasters, born of poor health and sanitary standards, the abuse of natural systems, and the growing interconnectivity of a globalised world. Pandemics and the many morbid symptoms of climate change will become more frequent, severe, and costly in the years ahead.

These 10 risks, already looming large before Covid-19 struck, now threaten to fuel a perfect storm that sweeps the entire global economy into a decade of despair. By the 2030s, technology and more competent political leadership may be able to reduce, resolve, or minimise many of these problems, giving rise to a more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order. But any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive the coming Greater Depression.

Nouriel Roubini is professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He has worked for the International Monetary Fund, the US Federal Reserve, and the World Bank.

Modern Monetary Inevitabilities

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA – In a recent Project Syndicate commentary, James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas at Austin Modern Monetary Theory and corrects some misunderstandings about the relationships among MMT, federal deficits, and central-bank independence. But Galbraith does not explore what is perhaps the most important issue of all: the political conditions needed to implement MMT effectively.

MMT owes its newfound relevance to the fact that deflation, rather than inflation, is becoming central banks’ main concern. For a high-debt, high-deficit economy like the United States, deflation is an especially serious threat, because it delays consumption and increases debtor anxiety. Consumers forego major purchases on the assumption that future prices will be lower. Homeowners with mortgages cut back their spending when they see home prices falling and the equity in their homes declining. These cutbacks worry the Federal Reserve, because they add to deflationary pressures and could trigger deeper spending cuts, stock-market declines, and widespread deleveraging.

The Fed’s inability so far to reach its 2% target for annual inflation suggests that it lacks the means to overcome persistent disinflationary forces in the economy. These forces include increased US , which diminishes aggregate demand by weakening employee bargaining power and increasing income inequality; population aging; inadequate investment in infrastructure and climate-change abatement; and technology-driven labor displacement. Making matters worse, US political gridlock assures continued commitment to economically exhausted strategies such as tax cuts for the rich, at the expense of investment in education and other sources of long-term growth. These conditions cry out for significant changes in US government spending and tax policies.

MMT is seen as a way to accomplish the needed changes. It holds that a government can spend as much as it wants if it borrows in its own currency and its central bank can buy as much of the government’s debt as necessary – as long as doing so doesn’t generate unacceptably high inflation. Both tax-cut advocates and supporters of public investment find little not to like.

MMT has been roundly criticized by economists across the political spectrum, from Kenneth Rogoff and Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard University to Paul Krugman of the City University of New York. All contend that it is a political argument masquerading as economic theory. But Galbraith and Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates see MMT differently. Dalio argues that MMT is real and, more to the point, it is an inevitable policy step in historically recurring debt-cycle downturns.

In his book Principles for Navigating Big Debt Crises, Dalio documents the steps that central banks have historically taken when faced with a booming economy that suddenly crumples under the weight of debt. The first step (Monetary Policy 1, or MP1) is

  1. to cut overnight official rates to stimulate credit and investment expansion. The second (MP2)
  2. is to buy government debt (quantitative easing) to support asset prices and prevent uncontrollable waves of deleveraging. If MP1 and MP2 are insufficient to halt a downturn, central banks take step three (MMT, which Dalio calls MP3) and
  3. proceed to finance the spending priorities that political leaders deem most essential. The priorities can range from financing major national projects to “helicopter money” transfers directly to consumers.

Achieving political agreement on what to finance and how is essential for implementing MP3 effectively. In a financial meltdown or other national emergency, political unity and prompt action are essential. Unity requires a strong consensus on what should be financed. Speed requires the existence of a trusted institution to direct the spending.

In the early 1940s, when the US entered World War II and winning the war became the government’s top priority, the Fed entered full MP3 mode. It not only set short- and long-term rates for Treasury bonds, but also bought as much government debt as necessary to finance the war effort. MP3 was possible because the war united the country politically and gave the Roosevelt administration near-authoritarian rule over the economy.

The core weakness of MP3/MMT advocacy is the absence of an explanation of how to achieve political unity on what to finance and how. This absence is inexcusable. Total US debt (as a share of GDP) is approaching levels associated with past financial meltdowns, and that doesn’t even account for the  associated with infrastructure maintenance, rising sea levels, and unfunded pensions. For the reasons Dalio lays out, a US debt crisis requiring some form of MP3 is all but inevitable.

The crucial question that any effort to achieve political unity must answer is what constitutes justifiable spending. Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, offered an answer in 1781: “A national debt,” he wrote, “if it is not excessive will be to us a national blessing.” A government’s debt is “excessive” if it cannot be repaid because its proceeds were spent in ways that did not increase national wealth enough to do so. Debt resulting from tax cuts that are spent on mega-yachts would almost certainly be excessive; debt incurred to improve educational outcomes, maintain essential infrastructure, or address climate change would probably not be. Accordingly, it will be easier to achieve political unity if MP3 proceeds are spent on priorities such as education, infrastructure, or climate.

The political test for justifying MP3-financed government spending, is clear: Will future generations judge that the borrowing was not “excessive”? Most Americans born well after WWII would say that the debt incurred to win that war was justified, as was the debt that financed the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which literally paved the way for stronger growth.

As the 1930s and 1940s show, MP3 is a natural component of government responses to major debt downturns and the political crises they trigger. We know much more about what contributes to economic growth and sustainability than we did in the first half of the twentieth century. To speed recovery from the next downturn, we need to identify now the types of spending that will contribute most to sustainable recovery and that in hindsight will be viewed as most justified by future Americans. We need also to design the institutions that will direct the spending. These are the keys to building the political unity that MMT requires. To know what to finance and how, future Americans can show us the way; we need only put ourselves in their shoes.

The Bond Market Is Giving Ominous Warnings About the Global Economy

You know the moment in a horror movie when the characters are going about their business and nothing bad has happened to them yet, but there seem to be ominous signs everywhere that only you, the viewer, notice?

That’s what watching global financial markets the last couple of weeks has felt like.

In a lot of ways, nothing looks particularly wrong. The S&P 500 was down 0.7 percent Wednesday, tumbling for a second consecutive session, but over all is down only about 5.5 percent from its early May high. The unemployment rate is at a five-decade low. With major companies nearly done releasing their first-quarter results, 76 percent had results above expectations.

But along the way, global bond prices have soared, driving interest rates down sharply. Ten-year Treasury bonds are yielding only 2.26 percent as of Wednesday’s market close, down nearly a full percentage point since November 2018. The outlook for inflation in the years ahead is falling as well, as are the prices of oil and other commodities.

Most significant, the fall in longer-term bond yields has not been matched by a fall in shorter-term rates. For example, a 30-day Treasury bill is yielding 2.35 percent — meaning you can earn more on your money tying it up for a month risk-free than you can tying it up for a full decade.

This is not normal. It is called an inverted yield curve, and historically it has been viewed as a sign of a recession in the offing. At a minimum, it indicates that bond investors believe the Federal Reserve will soon need to cut interest rates — in effect, that it overshot with those four rate increases last year.

There is also a soft underbelly to some of the good economic data of late. Orders for capital goods like business equipment fell 0.9 percent in April, suggesting companies may not be in an expansionary mood. The Institute for Supply Management’s index of activity at manufacturing companies fell sharply in the most recent reading, though it remained in expansion territory.

The financial markets don’t always tell a tidy little story about what is happening, but here’s a theory about reconciling the apparent calm in the economy with the many worrying signs.

The breakdown in trade negotiations with China and the imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods are part of the story, but only a part.

Businesses have weathered escalating tariffs for two years now, and while tariffs can be costly, they do not need to wreck the economy. After all, prices for products fluctuate for all sorts of reasons, and market economies are pretty good at adjusting.