Few now doubt that the world economy is in its most parlous state since the 1930s. Demand is slumping across the globe as firms and consumers are battered by a pernicious, self-reinforcing bombardment of dysfunctional financial markets, falling wealth, higher unemployment and rampant fear. The IMF’s latest forecasts, published on Wednesday January 28th, suggest 2009 will bring the deepest global recession in the post-war era.
To stem the slump, governments are fighting back with an activism rarely seen outside wartime. In some countries, notably China, official estimates overstate the likely fiscal stimulus. But even adjusted for bureaucratic hyperbole the government response is hefty. Weighted by their economies’ size, the plans of 11 big advanced and emerging economies are worth an average of 3.6 percent of GDP – though spread over several years. The IMF expects tax cuts and spending worth 1.5 percent of global GDP to kick in this year.
In many rich countries the stimulus has been matched – and often dwarfed – by the upfront costs of financial rescues, including the recapitalisation of banks and guarantees for troubled assets. America’s Treasury has so far promised about $1 trillion (7 percent of GDP) for the finance industry.
Add in the tax revenues lost from slumping output and falling asset prices as well as the spending on higher unemployment benefits, and the IMF expects rich countries’ combined fiscal deficit to rise to 7 percent of GDP in 2009, up from less than 2 percent in 2007. By the end of this year the developed world’s gross government debt, as a share of GDP, may be 15-20 percentage points higher than it was two years ago.
Emerging economies are spilling less red ink, both because their banking industries are in less of a mess and because their stimulus plans, in general, are smaller. But they, too, will shift from a budget surplus in 2007 to a deficit of 3 percent of GDP. All told, public-sector debt is rising at its fastest pace since the second world war.
Most economists agree that the red ink is both unavoidable and appropriate. To prevent a steep recession becoming a depression, governments must step in to forestall financial collapse and counter the slump in private demand. Financial markets seem to agree. Yields on government bonds in most rich countries are extremely low as shell-shocked investors clamour for the safety of public debt.
Yet a few signs of skittishness are emerging. Prices of credit-default swaps on sovereign debt have risen sharply, suggesting that investors see growing risks of default. Within the rich world, risk premiums have risen dramatically for already-indebted governments such as those of Greece and Italy. Yields on America’s 30-year bonds saw their biggest jump in two decades in mid-January, as investors fretted about Uncle Sam’s demand for cash.
This skittishness partly reflects uncertainty about how the government debt will be financed. But the real worry is that the ultimate public price tag will be much bigger than today’s figures suggest.
That seems plausible. Large as they are, the immediate costs of the financial clean-ups seem modest against the scale of the banking mess and costs of previous banking crises. So far America’s government has put less than half as much public money into the financial sector, relative to the size of its economy, as Japan did in the 1990s. More will be necessary if, as is rumoured, Barack Obama’s team creates a bad bank to take on troubled loans and puts more capital into banks. Goldman Sachs recently estimated that the total value of troubled American bank assets was $5.7 trillion; that makes an initial cost of several trillion dollars seem possible.
The net cost – and hence the net addition to long-term public debt – will be much smaller. On average, the IMF reckons, rich countries recover half their outlays for financial rescues. Sweden, whose banking rescue is seen as a model, recouped more than 90 percent. America may eventually manage something close to that, but the initial investment must be big.
Relax and Spend
Unfortunately, the political cost of bailing out bankers and the huge sums involved mean that many politicians in rich countries are loth to spend heavily. History suggests that is a mistake. Failure to mend a broken financial system quickly means a longer recession; it also renders fiscal stimulus much less potent. Contrast Japan, which had numerous fiscal-stimulus packages in the 1990s, but failed to emerge from its slump until its debt problem was finally dealt with, with South Korea in 1997, which spent 13 percent of GDP on a large, speedy bank-rescue package.
The fiscal costs of that error can be enormous. In a recent paper Ken Rogoff of Harvard University and Carmen Reinhart of the University of Maryland estimated that the big banking crises of the post-war period, on average, raised real public debt by more than 80 percent of GDP. Most of that rise came not from financial rescues but from prolonged recessions and the fiscal expansions designed to combat them. Even this year, half the deterioration of the rich world’s deficits has stemmed from economic weakness.
If fiscal stimulus is no substitute for financial clean-ups, it is an important support at a time of slumping demand. But much depends on how well the plans are structured. All the big economies foresee some tax cuts, particularly for individuals. (Only a few, including Canada and Russia, plan to cut corporate taxes.) But the focus of the global fiscal boost is on spending, particularly on infrastructure.
Economic theory suggests that makes sense. When firms and consumers are gripped with uncertainty, government spending is a surer way to boost demand. Consumers and firms might save the money. The empirical evidence, however, is less than conclusive. Economists’ estimates for the “multiplier” effect of government spending and tax cuts vary widely, with equally reputable studies showing opposite results. More important, the scale of the global slump means that historical multipliers may not mean very much. That suggests a broad strategy-involving both tax cuts and spending-is prudent.
Less sensible, however, is the distribution of stimulus between countries. America’s fiscal package, at $800 billion or more, will be by far the biggest in absolute terms and one of the biggest relative to the size of its economy. Lamentably, rich creditor countries, such as Germany, are doing much less. In the emerging world China’s boldness is laudable, and fat reserve cushions have also given other emerging economies more room. But many will find their ability to borrow constrained by investors’ flight from risk-and the surge in public debt in the rich world. In its latest estimates, the Institute of International Finance, a bankers’ group, expects private-capital flows to emerging economies of only $165 billion this year, down more than 80 percent from 2007.
If politicians dither over bank rescues, if countries that can stimulate safely do not do enough, and if fearful investors shy away from emerging markets, the odds of a lasting recovery of the global economy seem slim. And that, in turn, will mean far bigger rises in public debt. A multi-year downturn could easily send government-debt ratios up by 30 percent of GDP or more.
This need not be calamitous. Governments can work off huge debt burdens without default or high inflation. During the second world war, for instance, Britain’s gross debt burden rose above 200 percent of GDP; America’s topped 120 percent. During the 1990s, fast growth and fiscal prudence allowed countries from Ireland to Canada to cut their debt levels sharply.
The difference this time is that the rich world already faces the costs of an ageing population, which promise a fiscal burden many times greater than even the darkest scenarios for the financial crisis. Right now fiscal activism is indispensable, but the consequences will be bigger and longer-lasting than many realise.