Larry Summers warns of the next recession

Economics_circular_flow_cartoonI have never been a fan of Lawrence “Larry” Summers, Bill Clinton’s last Secretary of the Treasury. It was Larry Summers and his mentor and predecessor, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan who convinced Bill Clinton and congressional Democrats to go along with the financial deregulations proposed by Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX), e.g., the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act (GLBA) aka the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (which partially repealed the firewalls in the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933), and the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (which prevented the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from regulating most over-the-counter derivative contracts, including credit default swaps).

Deregulation directly encouraged the casino capitalism of the banksters of Wall Street which nearly destroyed the financial markets and the world’s economy by September 2008.

Larry Summers tried to redeem himself by serving as the Director of the White House United States National Economic Council for President Barack Obama from January 2009 until November 2010, where he was a key economic policy adviser in the Obama administration’s response to the Bush Great Recession.

Larry Summers is now a columnist for the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog, and he has been warning against the Fed raising interest rates, No time for an interest rate hike and Larry Summers: Here’s yet another reason the Fed shouldn’t raise rates, and warning about the next recession on the horizon. Maybe Larry Summers has been chastened by his experiences and now sees the error of his ways, and maybe, just maybe, we should be listening to his warnings.

Summers warns The global economy is in serious danger (October 2015):

As the world’s financial policymakers convene for their annual meeting Friday in Peru, the dangers facing the global economy are more severe than at any time since the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008. The problem of secular stagnation — the inability of the industrial world to grow at satisfactory rates even with very loose monetary policies — is growing worse in the wake of problems in most big emerging markets, starting with China.

This raises the specter of a global vicious cycle in which slow growth in industrial countries hurts emerging markets, thereby slowing Western growth further. Industrialized economies that are barely running above stall speed can ill afford a negative global shock.

Policymakers badly underestimate the risks of both a return to recession in the West and of a period where global growth is unacceptably slow, a global growth recession. If a recession were to occur, monetary policymakers would lack the tools to respond. There is essentially no room left for easing in the industrial world. Interest rates are expected to remain very low almost permanently in Japan and Europe and to rise only very slowly in the United States. Today’s challenges call for a clear global commitment to the acceleration of growth as the main goal of macroeconomic policy. Action cannot be confined to monetary policy.

There is an old proverb: “You do not want to know the things you can get used to.” It is all too applicable to the global economy in recent years. While the talk has been of recovery and putting the economic crisis behind us, gross domestic product forecasts have been revised sharply downward almost everywhere. Relative to its 2012 forecasts, the International Monetary Fund has reduced its forecasts for U.S. GDP in 2020 by 6 percent, for Europe by 3 percent, for China by 14 percent, for emerging markets by 10 percent and for the world as a whole by 6 percent. These dismal figures assume there will be no recessions in the industrial world and an absence of systemic crises in the developing world. Neither can be taken for granted.

We are in a new macroeconomic epoch where the risk of deflation is higher than that of inflation, and we cannot rely on the self-restoring features of market economies. The effects of hysteresis — where recessions are not just costly but also stunt the growth of future output — appear far stronger than anyone imagined a few years ago. Western bond markets are sending a strong signal that there is too little, rather than too much, outstanding government debt. As always when things go badly, there is a great debate between those who believe in staying the course and those who urge a serious correction. I am convinced of the urgent need for substantial changes in the world’s economic strategy.

History tells us that markets are inefficient and often wrong in their judgments about economic fundamentals. It also teaches us that policymakers who ignore adverse market signals because they are inconsistent with their preconceptions risk serious error. This is one of the most important lessons of the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. Had policymakers heeded the pricing signal on the U.S. housing market from mortgage securities, or on the health of the financial system from bank stock prices, they would have reacted far more quickly to the gathering storm. There is also a lesson from Europe. Policymakers who dismissed market signals that Greek debt would not be repaid in full delayed necessary adjustments — at great cost.

Lessons from the bond market

It is instructive to consider what government bond markets in the industrialized world are implying today. These are the most liquid financial markets in the world and reflect the judgments of a large group of highly informed traders. Two conclusions stand out.

First, the risks tilt heavily toward inflation rates below official targets. Nowhere in the industrial world is there an expectation that central banks will hit their 2 percent targets in the foreseeable future. Inflation expectations are highest in the United States — and even here the market expects inflation of barely 1.5 percent for the five-year period starting in 2020. This is despite the fact that the market believes that monetary policy will remain much looser than the Fed expects, as the Fed funds futures market predicts a rate around 1 percent at the end of 2017 compared with the Fed’s most recent median forecast of 2.6 percent. If the market believed the Fed on monetary policy, it would expect even less inflation and a real risk of deflation.

Second, the prevailing expectation is of extraordinarily low real interest rates, which is the difference between interest rates and inflation. Real rates have been on a downward trend for nearly a quarter-century, and the average real rate in the industrialized world over the next 10 years is expected to be zero. Even this presumably reflects some probability that it will be artificially increased by nominal rates at a zero bound — the fact that central banks cannot reduce short-term interest rates below zero — and deflation. In the presence of such low real rates, there can be little chance that economies would overheat.

Many will argue that bond yields are artificially depressed by quantitative easing (QE) and so it is wrong to use them to draw inferences about future inflation and real rates. This possibility cannot be ruled out. But it is noteworthy that bond yields are now lower in the United States than their average during the period of quantitative easing and that forecasters have been confidently — but wrongly — expecting them to rise for years.

The strongest explanation for this combination of slow growth, expected low inflation and zero real rates is the secular stagnation hypothesis. It holds that a combination of higher saving propensities, lower investment propensities and increased risk aversion have operated to depress the real interest rates that go with full employment to the point where the zero lower bound on nominal rates is constraining.

There are four contributing factors that lead to much lower normal real rates:

●First, increases in inequality — the share of income going to capital and corporate retained earnings — raise the propensity to save.

●Second, an expectation that growth will slow due to a smaller labor force growth and slower productivity growth reduces investment and boosts the incentives to save.

●Third, increased friction in financial intermediation caused by more extensive regulation and increased uncertainty discourages investment.

●Fourth, reductions in the price of capital goods and in the quantity of physical capital needed to operate a business — think of Facebook having more than five times the market value of General Motors.

Emerging markets

Until recently, a major bright spot has been the strength of emerging markets. They have been substantial recipients of capital from developed countries that could not be invested productively at home. The result has been higher interest rates than would otherwise obtain, greater export demand for industrial countries’ products and more competitive exchange rates for developed economies. Gross flows of capital from industrial countries to developing countries rose from $240 billion in 2002 to $1.1 trillion in 2014. Of particular relevance for the discussion of interest rates is that foreign currency borrowing by the nonfinancial sector of developing countries rose from $1.7 trillion in 2008 to $4.3 trillion in 2015.

It has now gone into reverse. According to the Institute of International Finance, developing country capital flows fell sharply this year — marking the first such decline in almost 30 years, as the amount of private capital leaving developing countries eclipsed $1 trillion.

What does all this mean for the world’s policymakers gathering in Lima? This is no time for complacency. The idea that slow growth is only a temporary consequence of the 2008 financial crisis is absurd. The latest data suggest growth is slowing in the United States, and it is already slow in Europe and Japan. A global economy near stall speed is one where the primary danger is recession. The most successful macroeconomic policy action of the past few years was European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s famous vow that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to preserve the euro, uttered at a moment when the single currency appeared to be on the brink. By making an unconditional commitment to providing liquidity and supporting growth, Draghi prevented an incipient panic and helped lift European growth rates — albeit not by enough.

Any discussion has to start with China, which poured more concrete between 2010 and 2013 than the United States did in the entire 20th century . . . China faces many other challenges, ranging from the most rapid population aging in the history of the planet to a slowdown in rural-to-urban migration. It also faces issues of political legitimacy and how to cope with hangovers of unproductive investment. Even taking an optimistic view — where China shifts smoothly to a consumption-led growth model led by services — its production mix will be much lighter. The days when it could sustain global commodity markets are over.

The problems are hardly confined to China. Russia struggles with low oil prices, a breakdown in the rule of law and harsh sanctions. Brazil has been hit by the decline in commodity prices but even more by political dysfunction. India is a rare exception. But from Central Europe to Mexico to Turkey to Southeast Asia, the combination of industrial growth declines and dysfunctional politics is slowing growth, discouraging capital inflows and encouraging capital outflows.

No time for complacency

What is needed now is something equivalent but on a global scale — a signal that the authorities recognize that secular stagnation, and its spread to the world, is the dominant risk we face. [T]he Fed must recognize what should already have been clear: that the risks to the U.S. economy are two-sided. Rates will be increased only if there are clear and direct signs of inflation or of financial euphoria breaking out. The Fed must also state its readiness to help prevent global financial fragility from leading to a global recession.

The central banks of Europe and Japan need to be clear that their biggest risk is a further slowdown. They must indicate a willingness to be creative in the use of the tools at their disposal. With bond yields well below 1 percent, it is doubtful that traditional quantitative easing will have much stimulative effect. They must be prepared to consider support for assets such as corporate securities that carry risk premiums that can be meaningfully reduced and even to recognize that by absorbing bonds used to finance fiscal expansion they can achieve more.

Long-term low interest rates radically alter how we should think about fiscal policy. Just as homeowners can afford larger mortgages when rates are low, government can also sustain higher deficits. If a debt-to-GDP ratio of 60 percent was appropriate when governments faced real borrowing costs of 5 percent, then a far higher figure is surely appropriate today when real borrowing costs are negative.

The case for more expansionary fiscal policy is especially strong when it is spent on investment or maintenance. Wherever countries print their own currency and interest rates are constrained by the zero bound, there is a compelling case for fiscal expansion until demand accelerates to the point where interest rates can be raised. While the problem before 2008 was too much lending, many more of today’s problems have to do with too little lending for productive investment.

* * *

The world’s largest markets are telling us with ever-increasing force that we are in a different world than we have been accustomed to. Traditional approaches of focusing on sound government finance, increased supply potential and avoidance of inflation court disaster. Moreover, the world’s principal tool for dealing with contraction — monetary policy — is largely played out and will be less effective if contraction comes. It follows that policies aimed at lifting global demand are imperative.

If I am wrong about expansionary fiscal policy and such measures are pursued, the risks are that inflation will accelerate too rapidly, economies will overheat and too much capital will flow to developing countries. These outcomes seem remote. But if they materialize, standard approaches can be used to combat them.

If I am right and policy proceeds along the current path, the risk is that the global economy will fall into a trap not unlike the one Japan has been in for 25 years, where growth stagnates but little can be done to fix it. It is an irony of today’s secular stagnation that what is conventionally regarded as imprudent offers the only prudent way forward.

More recently, Summers warns of Preparing for the next recession (excerpt):

A number of considerations make me doubt the U.S. economy’s capacity to absorb significant increases in real rates over the next few years. First, real rates were trending down for 20 years before the crisis began and have continued down since. Second, there is a significant risk that as the rest of the world and especially emerging markets struggle, there will be substantial inflows of capital into the United States, leading to downward pressure on rates and upward pressure on the dollar, which in turn would reduce demand for traded U.S. goods. Third, the increases in demand achieved through low rates in recent years have come from pulling demand forward in time, leading to lower levels of demand in the future; for example, lower rates have accelerated purchases of cars and other consumer durables and created apparent increases in wealth as asset prices inflated. Fourth, profit rates are starting to turn down, and regulatory pressures are increasingly inhibiting lending to small and medium-size businesses. Fifth, it may be that inflation mismeasurement is increasing, as the share in the economy of hard-to-measure items such as health care rises. If so, apparent neutral real interest rates will decline even if there is no change in properly measured real rates.

All of this leaves me far from confident that there is substantial scope for tightening interest rates in the United States — and probably even less scope in other parts of the industrialized world. The fact that central banks in Europe, Sweden, Israel and a number of other countries where rates had been zero found themselves reversing course after raising rates adds to the cause for concern.

But there is a more profound worry. U.S. and international experience suggests that once a recovery is mature, the odds that it will end within two years are about half and that it will end in less than three years are over two-thirds. Because normal growth is now below 2 percent rather than near 3 percent, as has been the case historically, the risk may even be greater now. While the risk of recession may seem remote given recent growth, it bears emphasizing that since World War II, no postwar recession has been predicted a year in advance by the Fed, the White House or the consensus forecast.

Historical experience suggests that when recession comes it is necessary to cut interest rates by more than 300 basis points. I agree with the market that the Fed likely will not be able to raise rates by 100 basis points a year without threatening to undermine the recovery. But even if this were possible, the chances are very high that recession will come before there is room to cut rates by enough to offset it. The knowledge that this is the case must surely reduce confidence and inhibit demand.

Central bankers bravely assert that they can always use unconventional tools. But there may be less in the cupboard than they suppose. The efficacy of further quantitative easing in an environment of well-functioning markets and already very low medium-term rates is highly questionable. There are severe limits on how negative rates can become. A central bank that is forced back to the zero lower bound is not likely to have great credibility if it engages in forward guidance.

The Fed will in all likelihood lift rates this month [it did]. Markets will focus on the pace of the Fed’s tightening. I hope and expect that their response will involve no great turbulence. But the unresolved question that will hang over the economy is how policy can delay and ultimately contain the next recession. It demands urgent attention from fiscal as well as monetary policymakers.

11 responses to “Larry Summers warns of the next recession

  1. I believe the AZ Legislature should do what Larry Summers advocated in his article “the case for more expansionary fiscal policy is especially strong when it is spent on investment or maintenance.” Let’s invest in our infrastructure. It creates jobs, saves money in the long run, and makes us more attractive to businesses looking to relocate to Arizona.

  2. Sen. John Kavanagh

    I would be interested in the opinions of all of you, especially Mr. Meanie, about what the budgetary policy implications of this post are for the Arizona budget that I will be helping to constructing this Spring.
    If indeed a recession is looming, should we limit increases to baseline spending and salt money away in the “rainy day” fund to help weather the coming storm?

    • NO! Don’t ever “salt money away” when determining budgets. That becomes a surplus and no government should have surplus funds lying around tempting Legislators and Senators who have “good ideas” on how to use those funds. If they truly are surplus funds – and I cannot imagine we can possibly have “surplus” funds when education in Arizona is in such bad condition – and I mean truly surplus funds, it means you taxed too much and you should refund the surplus to the taxpayers.

    • What you propose is the usual austerity economics that actually does more harm in the ability to recover from a recession. Just look at what the AZ Lege has done with budget cuts since 2007, the state has yet to return to pre-recession levels almost a decade later. And the GOP’s blind faith in supply-side “trickle down” tax cuts to businesses and the wealthy has not produced the miracle promised, it never has and never will. It is a fraud.

      Getting Arizona’s fiscal house in order must begin with the repeal of the “Two-thirds for Taxes”Amendment, Prop. 108 (1992). As long as the GOP’s weapon of mass destruction remains law, nothing much can be done. Then, and only then, can Arizona engage in genuine tax reforms, cleaning up tax exemptions and tax credits, and restoring a more progressive income tax structure, rather than “reducing income tax to as close to zero as possible” as the Governor proposes, and possibly restoring a small state property tax to support education. Make taxes more fair and equitable over an expanded tax base, and stop encouraging the accumulation of wealth by those at the very top to address the inequality issues that Larry Summers discusses above.

      Yes this means raising taxes on those in a position to pay, and reducing taxes on those least able to pay. And yes this means injecting money into social programs, e.g., health, education and welfare to put money into the hands of poor Arizonans who will spend it and increase demand in the economy. Arizona is the 5th worst state for poverty, especially child poverty and well being. See U.S. Census https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/2014/tables.html (Comparison of Poverty Rates Between States Using 3-Year Averages: 2011 to 2013 [XLS – 82k]). This is morally and ethically indefensible, and is the result of policies enacted by the AZ Lege.

      When businesses seek to relocate the first question is not about taxes but about a well trained and educated populace, then the necessary infrastructure to support that business, and finally quality of life. After years of tax cuts and budget cuts, Arizona has badly neglected all three factors. This is why Arizona’s school districts have had to sue the state for their education funding, and Pima County is suing the state on behalf of the counties for road and highway funds, and other state costs, transferred onto the backs of county taxpayers by the state legislature. What the AZ Lege has done constitutes legislative malpractice, pure and simple.

      The short-sighted austerity economics of the AZ Lege is why Arizona has lagged the rest of the country in economic recovery, and is at the bottom in poverty. If another recession is coming, doing more of the same that the AZ Lege has done in the past will only continue the economic misery and likely make the situation far worse.

      If you are willing to pursue these recommendations, I am willing to work with you to get it done. I don’t care about party labels, I care about doing what is right, and what I know actually works in economics.

  3. Despite what has been said I think predictions of another recession are dome every month of every year until the two coincide. Then the people making such predictions get to say see I told you so. And no one looks back on their previous, false, predictions and says why weren’t you right all of these other times? If these people could really predict recessions they would be able to make tons of money betting against the market. Only a handful of people have ever successfully done that and those people don’t want to share. Also do you really think that banks would have gotten caught flat-footed by the Great Recession if they knew a out it beforehand. When I read articles such as this I always want to ask — what has the writer (Larry Summers) got invested, what is their point in fear-mongering, what is the benefit to the if it does happen? Finally there is an easy way to prevent recession, pay workers more and they will spend more, fears of recession will evaporate.

  4. AZbm, thanks for sharing a VERY informative – if depressing – article on the prospects of our economy. Frankly, I don’t see much possibility that the Governments of the world will be capable of working together to coordinate economic action.

  5. North Of The River

    Progressive Talk radio host Thomm Hartmann has been saying the same thing,including his book “Crash of 2016”

    PS:Progressive Talk Radio 1480AM(Phoenix) is ‘live’ again during daytime and listen to Thom 10:00am-1PM

    • Hartmann is also shilling for gold dealers. I can tell you from experience the precious metals market is the most manipulated market in the world. No one EVER makes money off it except the dealers. Ever.

      • You are right about that, TS! Buying gold as an investment is a fool’s venture. The only use I have ever seen for gold is a hedge for inflation, and it is of only limited value there. I do own a decent amount of gold because it is just fun to own, but I have no illusions about its’ economic contribution to my portfolio.

        • It is not even a hedge against inflation. Its only non-industrial worthwhile use is as an artistic material to make pretty things, and then as an artist I don’t care what the price is I pass that on to my customers and charge additional mostly for my time in making the pretty thing. A woman I know was convinced to buy some commercially-made gold bracelets because, they would be worth saving for their value. She bought them in the 1980s after the peak when the price was relatively low, but she spent retail for them. The price to a remanufacturer is always at least 25% lower than spot, and she bought at a price that included the manufacturer’s profit. She went to sell them near the recent market peak and still could not make back her initial investment. Based on the price she paid gold would have to reach 2700/ounce before she just breaks even. Even in the recent manipulated peak it didn’t do that. Precious metals are only useful for what you can make with them, otherwise they are a fool’s errand.