Lawrence Summers, a former economic adviser to President Obama, was Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. He writes a monthly column for The Post.
With the past week’s dismal jobs data in the United States, signs of increasing financial strain in Europe and discouraging news from China, the proposition that the global economy is returning to a path of healthy growth looks highly implausible.
It is more likely that negative feedback loops are again taking over as falling incomes lead to falling confidence, which leads to reduced spending and yet further declines in income. Financial strains hurt the real economy, especially in Europe, and reinforce existing strains. And export-dependent emerging markets suffer as the economies of the industrialized world weaken.
The presumptive Republican nominee promises to reverse the growing national debt.
The question is not whether the current policy path is acceptable. The question is, what should be done? To come up with a viable solution, consider the remarkable level of interest rates in much of the industrialized world. The U.S. government can borrow in nominal terms at about 0.5 percent for five years, 1.5 percent for 10 years and 2.5 percent for 30 years. Rates are considerably lower in Germany and still lower in Japan.
Even more remarkable are the interest rates on inflation-protected bonds. In real terms, the world is prepared to pay the United States more than 100 basis points to store its money for five years and more than 50 basis points for 10 years. Maturities would have to reach more than 20 years before the interest rates on indexed bonds becomes positive. Again, real rates are even lower in Germany and Japan. Remarkably, the United Kingdom borrowed money last week for 50 years at a real rate of 4 basis points.
These low rates on even long maturities mean that markets are offering the opportunity to lock in low long-term borrowing costs. In the United States, for example, the government could commit to borrowing five-year money in five years at a nominal cost of about 2.5 percent and at a real cost very close to zero.
What does all this say about macroeconomic policy? Many in the United States and Europe are arguing for further quantitative easing to bring down longer-term interest rates. This may be appropriate, given that there is a much greater danger from policy inaction to current economic weakness than to overreacting.
However, one has to wonder how much investment businesses are unwilling to undertake at extraordinarily low interest rates that they would be willing to undertake with rates reduced by yet another 25 or 50 basis points. It is also worth querying the quality of projects that businesses judge unprofitable at a -60 basis point real interest rate but choose to undertake at a still more negative rate. There is also the question of whether extremely low, safe, real interest rates promote bubbles of various kinds.
The renewed emphasis on quantitative easing is also an oddity. The essential aim of such policies is to shorten the debt held by the public or issued by the consolidated public sector, comprising both the government and central bank. Any rational chief financial officer in the private sector would see this as a moment to extend debt maturities and lock in low rates — the opposite of what central banks are doing. In the U.S. Treasury, for example, discussions of debt-management policy have had this emphasis. But the Treasury does not alone control the maturity of debt when the central bank is active in all debt markets.