What’s Wrong With the Global Economy?

The problem goes much deeper than Trump or tariffs.

Global markets were seized by fear last week that trade wars were slowing growth in Germany, China and the United States. But the story here is bigger than President Trump and his tariffs.

The postwar miracle is over. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the world economy has been struggling against four headwinds:

  1. deglobalization of trade,
  2. depopulation as labor forces shrink,
  3. declining productivity and a
  4. debt burden as high now as it was right before the crisis.

No major economy is growing as fast as it was before 2008. Not one is growing faster than 10 percent, the rate experienced by the Asian “miracle economies” before the crisis. In almost every country, the national discussion focuses on what must be done to revive growth and ignores the fact that the slowdown is driven by forces beyond any one government’s control. Instead of dooming ourselves to serial disappointment and fruitless stimulus campaigns, we need to redefine economic success and failure.

Germany is one of at least five major economies on the verge of a recession, which is typically defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth. But the real issue is whether that definition still makes sense in a country with a shrinking labor force like Germany’s.

Its working population has been declining for years and is expected to fall to 47 million from 54 million by 2039. And it’s not alone in this. Forty-six countries around the world — including major powers like Japan, Russia and China — now have shrinking populations.

Demographics are usually the main driver of economic growth, so it is basically inevitable that these countries will now grow at a much slower pace. And we are not talking about minor population declines. Projections for 2040 show China’s working-age population falling by 114 million, Japan’s by 14 million. With a shrinking labor force, these economies will inevitably slow and, at times, contract. To keep calling two negative quarters in a row a “recession” implies that this outcome is somehow abnormal or unhealthy. That will no longer be the case.

To avoid overreacting, the discussion about economic health needs to shift to measures that better capture satisfaction and contentment, like per capita income growth. In countries with shrinking populations, per capita incomes can continue to grow so long as the economy is shrinking less rapidly than the population. This helps explain why, for example, Japan isn’t facing more social unrest. Its economy has grown much more slowly than that of the United States in this decade, but because the population is shrinking its per capita income has grown just as fast as America’s — around 1.5 percent per year.

Shrinking populations also help explain why unemployment is at or near multi-decade lows, even in countries with serious growth worries, like Germany and Japan. Gainfully employed Germans and Japanese won’t really feel as if their countries are in a slump until per capita G.D.P. growth turns negative — which may prove to be a more useful way to think about recessions in this new era.

The definition of success also needs to change. Many emerging countries still aspire to the double-digit growth rates experienced by what were known as the “Asian miracle economies” from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, when populations and trade were booming. But no economy had grown so fast before then, and as population and trade surges recede, it’s unlikely any country can repeat those feats.

As growth downshifts, even little miracles are disappearing. Before the 2010s, it was common for one in every five economies to be growing at 7 percent or more annually. Now, among the world’s 200 economies, just eight, or one in 25, are on track to grow 7 percentthis year. Most of those are small economies in Africa.

When the news emerged that China’s economy had slowed to just 6 percent, a new low, many investors and analysts rang the alarm bells. But the reality is that economies rarely grow as fast as 6 percent if the population is not booming too. Not only did China’s working-age population growth turn negative in 2016, but it is one of the countries hardest hit by slumping trade, declining productivity and heavy debts. If the Chinese economy really were growing at 6 percent in this environment, it would be cause for celebration, not alarm.

The benchmark for rapid growth should come down to 5 percent for emerging countries, to between and 3 and 4 percent for middle-income countries like China, and to between 1 and 2 percent for developed economies like the United States, Germany and Japan. And that should just be the start to how economists and investors redefine economic success.

This rethink is overdue. The number of countries with shrinking populations is expected to rise to 67 from 46 by 2040, and the decline in productivity growth is in many ways reinforced by heavy debt burdens and rising trade barriers. Redefining the standard of economic success could help cure many countries of irrational anxieties about “slow” growth, and make the world a calmer place.

If the Economy Booms, Thank Software

Microsoft’s renaissance may herald a nascent boom in software-driven productivity and economic growth

Like-minded technological evangelists have long argued artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data and other technological advances were about to unleash a new boom. But the boom refused to show: growth in productivity—the best measure of how technology enhances worker output—remained mired near generational lows.

Recently, however, there have been intriguing signs a boom may be in the offing. In the first quarter, American companies for the first time invested more in software than in information-technology equipment. Indeed, outside of buildings and other structures, software surpassed every type of investment, including transportation equipment such as trucks and industrial equipment such as machine tools. Software spending is even higher if the cost of writing original software programs, now classified as research and development, is included.

Adjusted for inflation, software investment grew 11% from the first quarter of 2018 through the first quarter of 2019. By contrast, investment in equipment grew less than 4% and in structures, just 1%. (Revised data are due out Thursday.) The headwinds buffeting capital spending broadly, whether the waning tax cut, trade war or slumping commodity prices, have largely spared software. Meanwhile, productivity growth has picked up to 2.4% in the past year, the fastest since 2010.

Whether that can continue is debatable: business investment and productivity growth appear to have slowed in the current quarter. Nonetheless, a recent survey by Morgan Stanley & Co. found chief information officers planning to boost software budgets this year by 5%, and hardware budgets just 2%. Their main target is cloud computing, under which businesses pay external providers to host their data and supply tools to analyze that data.

After Chief Executive Satya Nadella took the company’s reins in 2014, Microsoft shifted focus to cloud-based services. Dubbed “Azure,” the services now account for half of the company’s revenue. Microsoft lacks the hipness factor of consumer-facing Amazon, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple Inc. Yet it has achieved comparable growth by making itself a partner for businesses bent on “digital transformation,” a nebulous term that means using technology to remake processes or products.

What’s Missing From the Trump Economic Boom

Growth and productivity are up, but investment is a soft spot, and neither right nor left has good answers.

Yet if many workers still feel not entirely secure, there’s a reason: investment. Several policy improvements of the Trump era have buoyed business investment compared with the recent past. But America is nowhere near reversing long-run declines in business investment that continue to stress many households notwithstanding the good economic times.

A suggestive exploration of the problem emerges in a recent report released by Mr. Trump’s erstwhile rival Sen. Marco Rubio. It describes an American economy that somehow has forgotten how to invest.

Net private fixed investment (expenditures on equipment, machinery or property minus depreciation) averaged around 8% of gross domestic product between 1947 and 1990, with significant spikes during booms—it hit 10% of GDP under Ronald Reagan. It has lagged since then, however. As of late 2018, amid another burst of GDP growth, net investment was barely half the Reagan level.

The low net-investment baseline Mr. Trump inherited (from Republican and Democratic predecessors alike) doesn’t fully explain today’s shortfall. Despite faster growth, investment has not accelerated under Mr. Trump as much as during past periods of economic strength. Net investment grew by

  • 8% in 2006,
  • 10.9% in 1998 and
  • 16.7% in 1984

—the peaks of those business cycles. Mr. Trump managed investment growth of only 6.9% in 2018 and the rate is drifting downward again, not least thanks to Mr. Trump’s antitrade policies.

The cause of this is not a lack of cash in corporate America. Since 2000, nonfinancial firms have become net creditors in most years rather than net debtors. This is astounding. For most of our history the sole purpose of a nonbanking company was to receive capital from others so as to invest productively. Now on aggregate they distribute capital to others so that those guys can invest somewhere else. This phenomenon underlies the recent trend toward aggressive share buybacks.

This long-term downward trend in business investment raises a question about how well America will sustain its recent productivity gains. Absent sustained productivity growth, voters will be right to question the potential longevity of the current boom. Without parsing earnings press releases, employees can tell when their companies seem to have a plan to invest in long-term growth. A sense of directionless management can contribute to a gnawing unease about job security. This can produce unpredictable political consequences, whatever the GDP data say.

What to do about this is open to debate. The Rubio report’s ruminations about poor market incentives for longer-term investment are fine so far as they go, although its complaint about shareholder short-termism is partly belied by two of the corporate success stories it cites. Tesla and Amazon are conspicuous net debtors that continue to invest heavily back into their businesses. It can be done, and investors will tolerate it.

The 2017 tax reform and Mr. Trump’s mammoth deregulation drive are necessary conditions for an investment revival, as the recent investment uptick shows. But comparing recent trends with the historical norm, it’s clear these policies are not sufficient to restore the level of investment America needs. Can Mr. Trump figure out what is? Since he’s a longtime businessman you’d think so, except that his business experience lies exclusively in real estate and marketing—one of which features low productivity and the other low fixed-asset investment.

Nor do Democrats have any more of a clue. The common refrain from the left, with many melodic variations, is that if the private economy won’t invest in productivity enhancements, the government must.

Did these folks sleep through the past decade? With business not investing, government already has become the “investor of first resort” via its own deficit spending. The result has been a mix of social-welfare blowouts driven by political short-termism (indistinguishable, in productivity terms, from the worst charges laid against shareholders) and such crackerjack business plans as Solyndra.

Politicians continue casting about for productivity solutions. The danger is that 2020 becomes merely another contest to decide whom voters distrust the least to deliver one.

As Inflation Rises, It’s Even Harder to Get a Raise

Hourly earnings in June grew 2.7 percent from a year earlier. That’s more or less in line with the pace of the past two years. But now those modest wage gains are worth less in the real world. The reason: The prices of goods and services are picking up. In May, inflation hit 2.8 percent and grew faster than wages, which increased 2.75 percent.

.. The White House has contended that corporate tax cuts, like those enacted last year, will prompt companies to make investments that improve productivity and thus enable them to pay employees more. (Productivity measures output per worker.)

So far, that virtuous cycle does not seem to be taking hold. And some economists are skeptical that it will. Companies have had the ability to invest cheap capital for years, and wages have not risen strongly.

.. “A lower cost of capital may lead to more investment that may lead to more productivity growth, but to assume that will trickle down to middle-class wages flies in the face of everything we’ve seen for the last 20 years,” said Jared Bernstein

.. the effective personal tax rate had not changed much in the past year, edging down to 12.21 percent in May, from 12.25 percent a year earlier.

.. He noted that inflation-adjusted wages had in recent years grown more or less in line with productivity, which has itself been lackluster.

But wages could soon outpace productivity, Mr. Zandi predicted, because companies will have to pay higher wages to attract and retain workers.


Inflation? Bring It On. Workers Could Actually Benefit.

as is too often the case when workers finally start to see some of the benefits of growth, economists are warning that higher wages will lead to inflation, and they’re calling for the Federal Reserve Board to hit the brakes by raising interest rates.

What if we tried an experiment and waited until inflation actually began to rise substantially before raising interest rates too quickly? Even if prices did rise, my hypothesis is that the benefits, especially for those who haven’t gained from economic growth in recent years, would exceed the costs of higher inflation.

.. It’s not exactly clear why prices haven’t risen very much. It may be because greater international competition keeps prices down; because the decline of union contracts means that fewer companies give automatic cost-of-living adjustments; because consumers can compare prices so easily on the internet; because oil prices have fallen recently; or simply because, after years of low inflation, people expect price increases to be limited.

..  the costs of the Great Recession were enormous — at least $4 trillion in lost income, or about $30,000 per household

.. a high-pressure economy run over a longer period will actually increase that potential by pushing firms to improve productivity and draw more workers into the labor market.

The economy is on a sugar high, and tax cuts won’t help

Consensus expectations for 2018 are only marginally greater today than they were before the election.

.. The U.S. stock market has been very strong, rising by close to 25 percent since the election, which is far more than most observers expected a year ago. This appears to be heavily driven by increases in corporate profits. But performance is running behind that of Japan and Germany, belying the idea that the market is being driven by U.S.-specific policy factors.

.. If something fundamental had happened to improve the U.S. business environment, we would have seen capital inflows and an appreciating currency.

.. Even very innovative companies such as Apple and Google cannot find enough high-return investments and so choose to engage in large-scale share repurchases.

.. There will be no meaningful and sustained growth in workers’ take-home pay without successful measures both to raise productivity growth and to achieve greater equality. Only in this way can we achieve healthy growth.

.. The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles budget commission was surely not biased toward big government. Yet it concluded that the federal government needed a revenue base equal to 21 percent of gross domestic product. The tax-cut legislation now under consideration would leave the federal government with a revenue basis of 17 percent of GDP — a difference that works out to $1 trillion a year within the budget window.
.. This will further starve already inadequate levels of public investment in infrastructure, human capital and science. It will likely mean further cuts in safety-net programs and cause more people to fall behind. And because it will also mean higher deficits and capital costs, it will likely crowd out as much private investment as it stimulates.