A wacky-sounding idea with surprisingly conservative roots may be our best hope for escaping endless, grinding economic stagnation.
Way back during the post-World War II era, the economy was booming. Unemployment was very low, productivity was up, and workers’ wages were growing steadily in real terms—that is, even after adjusting for inflation. Along with the cost-of-living adjustments written into many job contracts, that meant wage-price inflationary spirals were always on the horizon. As a result, for about thirty years, from the mid-1940s through the ’70s, the main problem for economic policymakers was not growth or unemployment, it was simply keeping inflation in check. Since it’s very hard to cut wages, the Fed did that by repeatedly inducing small recessions. The idea was to create enough unemployment to slow both aggregate wage growth and the ensuing spending. Despite the often-uncomfortable abruptness with which the economy bounced from recession to rapid growth, this was still the greatest economic boom in American history.
But it didn’t last. As the ’70s transitioned into the ’80s, several structural developments in the larger economy caused a qualitative shift in how monetary policy worked. First, more and more people got access to credit, in the form of credit cards and home equity loans. This boom in consumer credit meant not only that households had new purchasing power but that a substantial chunk of spending was happening through a channel—borrowing—that was sensitive to the Fed’s interest rate mechanism. If inflation was getting out of hand, the Fed could simply tinker with interest rates and, suddenly, a huge chunk of the economy, including consumer spending, would respond in kind. For the central banker, this was something of a revelation: it was no longer necessary to provoke recessions—a messy, blunt instrument—in order to restrain inflation.
This period was called the “Great Moderation.” While real GDP growth was substantially slower than during the thirty-year postwar boom, there were fewer sharp booms and recessions, mostly because the Fed no longer induced recessions deliberately. But there were a few more features of this new, more moderate economy that policy elites didn’t fully appreciate right away. The first was that income inequality began to take off. Starting in the ’80s, productivity gains were no longer shared with workers. Therefore, the wage share of the economy began to decrease. As a percentage of total output, wages have fallen from a high of almost 52 percent around 1970 to less than 43 percent today (see Graph 1). Meanwhile, inequality within wages also increased. The upshot? The rich began capturing nearly all the results of economic growth—the top 1 percent’s share of national income increased from about 8 percent in the mid-’70s to about 23 percent today.
Graph 1: Wage share of GDP, 1947-present
And that turned out to have some awful side effects, since the rich disproportionately save their money rather than spend it. But they don’t save by piling up huge pyramids of cash like Scrooge McDuck, they “save” by buying financial assets—which means that most of the fruits of economic growth have been channeled into asset price increases, rather than consumer price inflation. That partly explains the tendency toward bubbles. All of the recessions since the start of the Great Moderation were caused by collapsing asset bubbles: the savings-and-loan crisis of the late ’80s, the dot-com stock bubble in the 2000s, and the housing bubble in 2007. But that’s not the worst of it. After the early ’80s, the Fed’s interest rate tool seemed to become progressively less effective. While it was working, they had to keep turning the Fed funds rate down and down and down again (see Graph 2).
Graph 2: Effective federal funds rate, 1979-present
What was going on here? In a modern economy, consumer spending accounts for the vast majority of economic output. But with median incomes growing slowly, if at all, ever-increasing household debt was necessary to sustain aggregate demand. As household debt mounted, the Fed had to keep lowering interest rates to induce greater and greater borrowing (see Graph 3). In theory, that’s not much of a problem—so long as you can keep dialing down interest rates. But here’s the thing: you can’t.
Graph 3: Household debt as a fraction of GDP
The final nail in the coffin of the Great Moderation is what’s known as the zero lower bound, which means that the Fed funds rate cannot be pushed below zero (since, if there were negative interest rates, people would just hoard cash). In other words, the Fed’s interest rate accelerator has a maximum setting. And, it turns out, pushing the pedal all the way to the floor isn’t always enough to keep the economy going.
Take the early 2000s, for example. During the recession caused by the collapse of the dot-com bubble, the Fed lowered rates almost to zero, yet the stimulative effect was strikingly weak. Aside from today’s economy, the 2000s expansion was by far the weakest in postwar history, despite being driven by a housing bubble of world-historical proportions and enormous deficit spending. Then came the financial crisis in late 2007 and early 2008. When the economy fell into recession, the Fed started to lower rates sharply and reached near zero by late 2008. (For complicated reasons, the Fed refuses to go all the way to zero.) This action, coupled with the sizable fiscal stimulus of 2009, was enough to stave off a full-blown depression, but it was not enough to prevent mass unemployment, which spiked to over 10 percent and, more importantly, has come down at an agonizing pace. The prime working-age employment rate collapsed during the crisis, and has barely budged since (see Graph 4).
Graph 4: Prime working-age (25-54) employment rate, 1989-present
This is why income inequality is dangerous: it is a drag on aggregate demand. As inequality increases, as it has in the U.S., the drag grows commensurately. Stagnant wages mean that consumer borrowing must be steadily increased to keep the economy moving forward. Meanwhile, the fruits of growth flowing to the top mean a vast pile-up in savings and associated asset bubbles, and the recessions that follow are harder and harder to recover from. In other words, keeping an economy that suffers from galloping economic inequality pressurized and growing requires an economic policy regime that contains the seeds of its own destruction. And this leads us to where we are now: consumers today can’t stomach any more debt, interest rates have hit the floor, and a grinding, low-level depression is upon us. Welcome to 2014.
So what should we do? After aggressively stabilizing the financial sector, the Fed has been cautious about new policies, but it has tried two new strategies to restore employment: forward guidance and quantitative easing.
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