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Here’s How Secular Stagnation Is A Double Threat

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Recent evidence on long term growth dynamics and drivers decomposition across the advanced economies presents a striking paradox relating to the post-recessionary experience around the world. In a traditional business cycle, recovery period growth exhibits certain historical regularities, that are no longer present in the current cycle. These regularities involve the following stylised facts:

1) Following a recessionary contraction in aggregate output, advanced economies enter a stage of recovery associated with strong growth in investment and domestic demand;

2) Gains in factors’ productivity, especially in labour productivity, are amplified in the early stages of post-recessionary recovery compared to their pre-crisis trend levels; and

3) Rates of growth in the recovery cycle are in excess of pre-recessionary growth.

These facts are patently absent from the data for the major advanced economies today, some four to five years into the recovery. This realization has prompted some economic and financial analysts to speculate about the potential structural decline in long term growth rates, the thesis commonly termed “secular stagnation”.

Currently, there are two prevailing theses of secular stagnation, linked to two long-term cycles gaining prominence in the global economy: the demand side and the supply side theses.

Investment-Savings Mismatch

The first theory suggests that secular stagnation is linked to a structural decline in aggregate demand, manifesting itself though a decades-long mismatch between aggregate savings and investment and more broadly related to the demographic effects of ageing.

This theory traces back to the 1930s suggestion by Alvin Hansen that the U.S. Great Depression aftermath was coinciding with decreasing birth rates, resulting in oversupply of savings and a fall off in demand for investment. The thesis was salient throughout the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s, but was overrun by the war and subsequently forgotten in the years of the post-WW2 baby boom and investment uplift. Large scale increase in public investment, linked to rebuilding destroyed (in Europe and Japan) or neglected (in the war years in the U.S.) public infrastructure, helped to push Hansen’s forecasts of a structural growth slowdown aside.

The thesis of demand-driven secular stagnation made its first return to the forefront of macroeconomic thinking back in the 1990s, in the context of Japan. As in Hansen’s 1930s U.S., by the early 1990s, Japan was suffering from a demographics-linked glut of savings, and a structural drop off in investment. Suppressed domestic demand has led to a massive contraction in labour productivity. During the 1980-1989 period, Japan’s real GDP per worker averaged 3.2 percent per annum. In the following decade, the rate of growth was just over 0.82 percent and over the period of 2000-2009 it fell below 0.81 percent. Meanwhile, Japan’s investment as a percentage of GDP fell from approximately 29-30 percent in the 1980s and the 1990s to under 23 percent in the 2000s and to just over 20 percent in 2010-2015.

Following Japan’s experience and the shock of the Great Recession, the theory that the entire developed world is set for a structural growth slowdown has gained traction. Between 1980 and 2014, the gap between savings and investment as percentage of GDP has widened in Canada, Japan, and the Euro area. Controlling for debt accumulation in the real economy, the widening of savings surplus over investment over each decade since the 1980s is now present in all major advanced economies, including the U.S.

In line with this, labour productivity also fell precipitously across all major advanced economies. As shown in the chart below, even a period of unprecedented rise in unemployment in the U.S. and the euro area over the recent Great Recession did not shift the trend for declining labour productivity growth.

CHART: Five-year Cumulated Growth in Real GDP per Employee

Percentage Points

Source: Author own calculations based on data from the IMF

Worse, current zero rates monetary policy environment is reinforcing the savings-investment mismatch, rendering the monetary policy impotent, if not damaging, in stimulating the return to higher long term growth.

Traditionally, low interest rates create incentives for investment and reduced saving by lowering the cost of the former and increasing the opportunity cost of the latter.

However, today’s ageing demographics and rising dependency ratios offset these ‘normal’ effects. This means that for the older generations, retirement pressures work through both insufficient reserves built in pensions portfolios, and also through lower yields on retirement portfolios, incentivising more aggressive savings.

For the working age population, the pressures are more complex. On the one hand, middle age workers today face severe pressures to deleverage their balance sheets, aggressively reducing liabilities accumulated before the crisis. On the other hand, growing proportions of middle-age adults are facing twin financial pressures from the rising demand for support for ageing parents and, simultaneously, for increasing number of satay-at-home younger adults who continue to rely on family networks for financial and housing subsidies. A recent Pew Research study found that 64 percent of Italian middle-aged generations find themselves sandwiched between ageing parents and children. In the U.S. this proportion is 47 percent and in Germany 41 percent. All along, the same households are under pressure to build up their pensions, as retirement security and social provision of pensions are now highly uncertain.

In his speech to the NABE Policy Conference in February 2014, Lawrence H. Summers (

Lawrence-H.-Summers1.pdf) outlined six  core sources of this demand side-driven slowdown:

1) Existent legacy of the private debt overhang;

2) Demographics of ageing;

3) Rising income inequality that induces greater financial insecurity today and into the future, thus creating incentives for increased ordinary and precautionary savings;

4) Access to low cost capital;

5) Positive real interest rates that continue to prevail despite historically low policy rates; and

6) Large scale holdings of banks’ reserves on central banks balance sheets.

All of these factors are currently at play in the U.S., UK and the euro area, as well as Japan. With a lag of about 3-5 years, they are also starting to manifest themselves in other advanced economies.

Tech Investment: Value-Added  Miss

The supply side of secular stagnation thesis is a relatively new idea coming from the cyclical view of historical development of physical and ICT-linked technologies. First formulated by Robert Gordon some years ago it is summarised in his August 2012 NBER paper, titled “Is the US Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds” (

Gordon looks at long-term – very long-term – trends in growth from the point of challenging the traditional view of macroeconomists that perpetual economic progress is subject to no time constraints. In Gordon’s view, U.S. economy over the period through the 2050s is likely to face an uphill battle. Per Gordon, “The frontier established by the U.S. for output per capita, and the U. K. before it, gradually began to grow more rapidly after 1750, reached its fastest growth rate in the middle of the 20th century, and has slowed down since.  It is in the process of slowing down further.”

The reason for this, according to the author, is the exhaustion of economic returns to the most recent technological / industrial ‘revolution’.  “A useful organizing principle to understand the pace of growth since 1750 is the sequence of three industrial revolutions. The first with its main inventions between 1750 and 1830 created steam engines, cotton spinning, and railroads. The second was the most important, with its three central inventions of electricity, the internal combustion engine, and running water with indoor plumbing, in the relatively short interval of 1870 to 1900.  Both the first two revolutions required about 100 years for their full effects to percolate through the economy. …After 1970 productivity growth slowed markedly, most plausibly because the main ideas of [the second revolution] had by and large been implemented by then. The computer and Internet revolution began around 1960 and reached its climax in the era of the late 1990s, but its main impact on productivity has withered away in the past eight years. …Invention since 2000 has centered on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable, but do not fundamentally change labor productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it.”

Gordon’s argument is not about the levels of activity generated by the new technologies, but about the rate of growth in value added arising form them. In basic terms, ongoing slowdown in the U.S. (and global) economy is a function of six headwinds, including the end of the baby boom generation-linked demographic dividend; rising income and wealth inequality; factor price equalisation; lower net of cost returns to higher education; the impact of environmental regulations and taxes; and real economic debt overhangs across public and non-financial private sectors.

Gordon estimates that future growth in consumption per capita for the bottom 99 percent of the income distribution is likely to fall below 0.5 percent per annum over the period of some five decades.

The supply-side thesis, implying persistently falling returns to technological innovation and resulting reduced rates of productive investment in technological capital, is supported by some top thinkers in the tech sector, notably the U.S. entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel (see

A recent study from IBM, titled “Insatiable Innovation: From sporadic to systemic”, attempted to debate the thesis, but ended up confirming Gordon’s assertion that incremental and atomistic innovation is the driver for today’s technological progress. In other words, the third technological revolution is delivering marginal returns on investment: significant and non-negligible from the point of individual enterprises, but hardly capable of sustaining rapid rates of growth in economic value added over time.

Disruptive Change Required

The problem is that both theses of secular stagnation are finding support not only in the past historical data, but also in the more recent trends. Even the most recent World Economic Outlook update by the IMF (April 2015) shows that the ongoing economic slowdown is structural in nature and traces back to the period prior to the onset of the Great Recession.

As both, the demand and supply side theses of secular stagnation allege, the core drivers identified by the IMF as the force behind this trend are adverse demographics, decline in investment, a pronounced fall off in total factor productivity growth (the tech factor), as well as the associated decline in labour and human capital contributions to productivity. IMF evidence strongly suggests that during the pre-crisis spike in global growth, much of new economic activity was driven not by expansion on intensive margin (technological progress and labour productivity expansion), but by extensive margin (increased supply of physical capital and emergence of asset bubbles).

Like it or not, to deliver the growth momentum necessary for sustaining the quality of life and improvements in social and economic environment expected by the ageing and currently productive generations will require some serious and radical solutions. The thrust of these changes will need to focus on attempting to reverse the decline in returns to human capital investment and on generating radically higher economic value added growth from technological innovation. The former implies dramatic restructuring of modern systems of taxation and public services provision to increase incentives for human capital investments. The latter implies an equally disruptive reform of the traditional institutions of entrepreneurship and enterprise formation and development.

Absent these highly disruptive policy reforms, we will find ourselves at the tail end of technological growth frontier, with low rates of return to technology and innovation and, as the result, permanently lower growth in the advanced economies.

The Safest Currencies in the World to Invest in Today


With the volatile Greek debt crisis raising concern over the stability of the global financial system, finding the safest currencies to invest in has taken on a new sense of urgency.

As a type of safe-haven investment, the safest currencies are a place where you want to have at least some money when markets are unraveling and mainstay currencies like the euro are falling.

Here are the safest currencies in the world right now…

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The post The Safest Currencies in the World to Invest in Today appeared first on Money Morning – We Make Investing Profitable.

It Is NOT Priced-In, Stupid!

Among all the mindless blather served up by the talking heads of bubblevision is the recurrent claim that “its all priced-in”. That is, there is no danger of a serious market correction because anything which might imply trouble ahead—-such as weak domestic growth, stalling world trade or Grexit——is already embodied in stock prices. Yep, those soaring averages are…

What Will Europe’s Counter Gambit Look Like?


(Bloomberg) — Greece voted against yielding to further austerity demanded by creditors, leaving Europe’s leaders to determine if the renegade nation can remain in the euro. With 85 percent of votes counted, 62 percent of voters backed Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, by voting “no” to the […]

Greece’s Problems are the Tip of the Iceberg

America celebrates the July 4th holiday under the threat of homegrown terrorism while global financial markets face a trifecta of threats from Greece, Puerto Rico and China.

And those are just the immediate threats – the world still has to deal with the longer term threat of hundreds of trillions of dollars in debts that it can never hope to pay back and the pursuit of failed central bank policies that are destined to send markets over the cliff sooner rather than later…

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To get full access to all Money Morning content, click here

About Money Morning: Money Morning gives you access to a team of ten market experts with more than 250 years of combined investing experience – for free. Our experts – who have appeared on FOXBusiness, CNBC, NPR, and BloombergTV – deliver daily investing tips and stock picks, provide analysis with actions to take, and answer your biggest market questions. Our goal is to help our millions of e-newsletter subscribers and visitors become smarter, more confident investors.

Disclaimer: © 2015 Money Morning and Money Map Press. All Rights Reserved. Protected by copyright of the United States and international treaties. Any reproduction, copying, or redistribution (electronic or otherwise, including the world wide web), of content from this webpage, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited without the express written permission of Money Morning. 16 W. Madison St. Baltimore, MD, 21201.

The post Greece’s Problems are the Tip of the Iceberg appeared first on Money Morning – We Make Investing Profitable.

Here’s A Timeline To Follow For Next Steps for Greece

Greece timeline for the weekend:

Greece has missed the IMF and ECB payments this week with both non-payments having potential for triggering a mother of all defaults for Greece: the ESM/EFSF loans call-in (EUR145bn worth of debt).

The EFSF/ESM decision so far has been to ‘ignore’ the arrears, noting that non-payment to IMF qualifies as “an event of default”:

“The Board of Directors of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) decided today to opt for a Reservation of Rights on EFSF loans to Greece, after the non-payment of Greece to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Following the IMF Managing Director’s notification of the IMF Executive Board, this non-payment results in an Event of Default by Greece, according to EFSF financial agreements with Greece.”

Greece owes the EFSF EUR109.1bn in “Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement” loans, plus EUR5.5bn in “Bond Interest Facility Agreement” loans and EUR30bn more in “Private Sector Involvement Facility Agreement” loans.

For now, EFSF decided not to call in loans, preferring to wait for Sunday vote outcome. Per EFSF statement: “In line with a recommendation by the EFSF’s CEO Klaus Regling, the EFSF Board of Directors decided not to request immediate repayment of its loans nor to waive its right to action – the other two possible options. By issuing a Reservation of Rights, the EFSF keeps all its options open as a creditor as events in Greece evolve. The situation will be continuously monitored and the EFSF will consider its position regularly.”

A ‘No’ vote in the Sunday referendum can change that overnight.

This adds pressure on Greece to pass a ‘Yes’ vote – a pressure that is most publicly crystallised in the form of ECB refusal to lift ELA to Greek banks. Athens imposition of capital controls (limiting severely cash withdrawals from the banks) has meant that the current level of ELA (CHART below) is still sufficient to hold the bank run, but the ELA cushion remaining in Greek banks was estimated at EUR500mln at the start of this week. Even with capital controls in place, this would have dwindled to around EUR250-300mln by the week end.

Again, a ‘No’ vote in the referendum risks crashing Greek banks as ECB will be unlikely to lift ELA any more. In an indirect sign of this, the ECB appears to be setting up swap lines and euro credit lines for EU member states outside the euro area. For example, as reported by Bloomberg, “European Central Bank is set to extend a backstop facility to Bulgaria and is ready to assist other nations in the region to ward off contagion from Greece, according to people familiar with the situation”. Such a move is a clear precautionary measure to put into place firewalls around Greek system.

Meanwhile, here is a report suggesting that Greek banks are preparing for an aggressive bail-in of deposits in the case of a ‘No’ vote (assuming ELA cut off):

The Government denied the reports of preparations of bail-ins, and continues to insist that the banks will reopen on Tuesday, a day after the referendum results are published, but it is hard to imagine how this can be done (unless the banks start trading in drachma) without ECB hiking ELA, and it is even harder to imagine how ECB can hike ELA in current conditions.

Source: TheodoreZ

So far, public opinion polls in Greece show very tight vote for Sunday. The latest GPO poll has the “Yes” vote at 44.1% and “No” at 43.7%. Alco poll puts the “Yes” figure at 41.7% against 41.1% for “No”. All together, four opinion polls published yesterday put the ‘Yes’ vote marginally ahead, another poll fifth put the ‘No’ camp 0.5 percent in front. All polls results were well within the margin of error. At the same time, majority of polls also show Greeks favouring remaining in the euro by a roughly 75 percent margin.

Sunday 5th July:
Polls open – 0500BST/0000EDT
Polls close – 1700BST/1200EDT

First exit poll – Shortly after 1700BST/1200EDT

~20% of votes counted – 1900BST/1300EDT
~50% of votes counted – 2100BST/1600EDT
~70% of votes counted – 2200BST/1700EDT (markets open)
~90% of votes counted – 0000BST/1900EDT

Timeline source: Trading Signal Labs

The build up of tension ahead of the Sunday poll has been immense. Even international bodies are being convulsed by the potential for a ‘No’ vote. So much so, that, as reported by a number of media outlets, there was a major cat fight between European members of the IMF and other IMF board members.

As reported by Reuters at Wednesday board meeting of the IMF, European members of the board attempted to block IMF from publishing its analysis of debt sustainability for Greece.

Quoting from the report: “”It wasn’t an easy decision,” an IMF source involved in the debate over publication said. “We are not living in an ivory tower here. But the EU has to understand that not everything can be decided based on their own imperatives.” The board had considered all arguments, including the risk that the document would be politicized, but the prevailing view was that all the evidence and figures should be laid out transparently before the referendum. “Facts are stubborn. You can’t hide the facts because they may be exploited,” the IMF source said.”

If only European members of the IMF Board were as concerned with the reality of the Greek crisis on the ground as they are concerned with the appearances and public disclosures of that reality.

A neat reminder of how bad things are in Greece today, via @RBS_Economics

Source: @RBS_Economics

As numbers tell, Greece has posted one of the worst collapses in economy for any advanced economy since 1870, fourth worst for periods outside WW1 and WW2.

So what to expect?

  • In the event of a ‘Yes’ we are likely to see a significant bounce in the markets from the current levels, with euro strengthening on the news in the short run. But real re-pricing will only take place when there is more clarity on post-referendum bailout agreement. The key risk to that outlook is that a ‘Yes’ vote can trigger early elections – which will (1) extend the current mess for at least another 1-2 months, and (2) put new sources of uncertainty forward – as outcome of such elections will be highly unpredictable. I do not expect the EU to re-start new deal negotiations until after the elections, which means that there will be mounting, not abating pressures on the Greek voters to vote in ‘the right’ Government, acceptable to the Troika.
  • In the event of a ‘No’ we are likely to see serious run on the markets in Greece and some ‘peripheral’ states, especially Italy. Greek capital controls will have to be stepped up significantly. Euro is likely to weaken in the short run, especially if ECB aggressively moves to monetise risks via both accelerated QE purchases and lending to non-euro banks.

Beyond these two possible scenarios, everything else is in the realm of wild speculation.