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.

Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen: Far from retired, nowhere near done

The Fed is very close to having satisfied its maximum employment and price stability mandates and you can see that most people feel good about the economy and the Fed.

But it would concern me — President Trump’s comments about Chair Powell and about the Fed do concern me, because if that becomes concerted, I think it does have the impact, especially if conditions in the U.S. for any reason were to deteriorate, it could undermine confidence in the Fed. And I think that that would be a bad thing.

Ryssdal: Do you think the president has a grasp of macroeconomic policy?

Yellen: No, I do not.

Ryssdal: Tell me more.

Yellen: Well, I doubt that he would even be able to say that the Fed’s goals are maximum employment and price stability, which is the goals that Congress have assigned to the Fed. He’s made comments about the Fed having an exchange rate objective in order to support his trade plans, or possibly targeting the U.S. balance of trade. And, you know, I think comments like that shows a lack of understanding of the impact of the Fed on the economy, and appropriate policy goals.

Inside the Hottest Job Market in Half a Century

A look at who’s getting ahead, who could be left behind and how long the boom can last

The plan seems to be paying big dividends now, but will it yield long-term results for American workers?

Two risks loom. The first is that the low-skill workers who benefit most from a high-pressure job market are often hit hardest when the job market turns south. Consider what happened to high-school dropouts a little more than a decade ago. Their unemployment rate dropped below 6% in 2006 near the end of a historic housing boom, then shot up to more than 15% when the economy crumbled. Many construction, manufacturing and retail jobs disappeared.

The unemployment rate for high-school dropouts fell to 5% last year. In the past year, median weekly wages for the group rose more than 6%, outpacing all other groups. But if the economy turns toward recession, such improvement could again reverse quickly. “The periods of high unemployment are really terrible,” Ms. Yellen said.

The second risk is that this opportune moment in a long business cycle might be masking long-running trends that still disadvantage many workers. A long line of academic research shows that automation and competition from overseas threaten the work of manufacturing workers and others in mid-skill jobs, such as clerical work, that can be replaced by machines or low-cost workers elsewhere.

.. Tougher trade deals being pushed by the Trump Administration might help to claw some manufacturing jobs back, but economists note that automation has many of the same effects on jobs in manufacturing and the service section as globalizationreplacing tasks that tend to be repeated over and over again.

.. Andrew McAfee, co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, said the next recession could be the moment when businesses deploy artificial intelligence, machine learning and other emerging technologies in new ways that further threaten mid-skill work.

Recessions are a prime opportunity for companies to reexamine what they’re doing, trim headcount and search for ways to automate,” he said. “The pressure to do that is less when a long, long expansion is going on.”

With these forces in play, many economists predict a barbell job market will take hold, playing to the favor of low- and high-skill workers and still disadvantaging many in the middle.

.. Personal-care aide, a job which pays about $11 an hour to help the elderly and disabled, is projected to add 778,000 jobs in the decade ended in 2026, the most of 819 occupations tracked. The department expects the economy to add more than half million food prep workers and more than a quarter million janitors.

Those low-skill workers are reaping pay gains in part because there aren’t a lot of people eager to fill low-skill jobs anymore. Only about 6% of U.S. workers don’t hold a high school diploma, down from above 40% in the 1960s, according research by MIT economist David Autor.

.. Skilled workers in high-tech and managerial positions are also benefiting from the high-pressure labor market, particularly in thriving cities. Of 166 sectors that employ at least 100,000 Americans, software publishing pays the highest average wages, $59.81 an hour in the fourth quarter of 2018. Wages in the field grew 5.5% from a year earlier, well outpacing 3.3% overall growth in hourly pay. The average full-time employee in the sector already earns more than $100,000 a year.

Bad Faith, Pathos and G.O.P. Economics

On professionals who sold their integrity, and got nothing in return.

As 2018 draws to an end, we’re seeing many articles about the state of the economy. What I’d like to do, however, is talk about something different — the state of economics, at least as it relates to the political situation. And that state is not good: The bad faith that dominates conservative politics at every level is infecting right-leaning economists, too.

This is sad, but it’s also pathetic. For even as once-respected economists abase themselves in the face of Trumpism, the G.O.P. is making it ever clearer that their services aren’t wanted, that only hacks need apply.

.. Professional conservative economists are something quite different. They’re people who even center-right professionals consider charlatans and cranks; they make a living by pretending to do actual economics — often incompetently — but are actually just propagandists. And no, there isn’t really a corresponding category on the other side, in part because the billionaires who finance such propaganda are much more likely to be on the right than on the left.

.. Even during the Obama years, it was striking how many well-known Republican-leaning economists followed the party line on economic policy, even when that party line was in conflict with the nonpolitical professional consensus.

Thus, when a Democrat was in the White House, G.O.P. politicians opposed anything that might mitigate the costs of the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath; so did many economists. Most famously, in 2010 a who’s who of Republican economists denounced the efforts of the Federal Reserve to fight unemployment, warning that they risked “currency debasement and inflation.”

Were these economists arguing in good faith? Even at the time, there were good reasons to suspect otherwise. For one thing, those terrible, irresponsible Fed actions were pretty much exactly what Milton Friedman prescribed for depressed economies. For another, some of those Fed critics engaged in Donald Trump-like conspiracy theorizing, accusing the Fed of printing money, not to help the economy, but to “bail out fiscal policy,” i.e., to help Barack Obama.

It was also telling that none of the economists who warned, wrongly, about looming inflation were willing to admit their error after the fact.

But the real test came after 2016. A complete cynic might have expected economists who denounced budget deficits and easy money under a Democrat to suddenly reverse position under a Republican president.

And that total cynic would have been exactly right. After years of hysteria about the evils of debt, establishment Republican economists enthusiastically endorsed a budget-busting tax cut. After denouncing easy-money policies when unemployment was sky-high, some echoed Trump’s demands for low interest rates with unemployment under 4 percent — and the rest remained conspicuously silent.

What explains this epidemic of bad faith? Some of it is clearly ambition on the part of conservative economists still hoping for high-profile appointments. Some of it, I suspect, may be just the desire to stay on the inside with powerful people.