by Satyajit Das for The Sydney Morning Herald
Like the characters in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the world awaits the return of wealth and prosperity. But the global economy may be entering a period of stagnation.
Over the last 35 years, the economic growth necessary to increase living standards, increase wealth and manage growing inequality has been based increasingly on rising borrowings and financial rather than real engineering. There was reliance on debt-driven consumption. It resulted in global trade and investment imbalances, such as that between China and the US or Germany and the rest of Europe.
Everybody conspires to ignore the underlying problem, cover it up, or devise deferral strategies to kick the can down the road.
Citizens demanded and governments allowed the build-up of retirement and healthcare entitlements as well as public services to win or maintain office. The commitments were rarely fully funded by taxes or other provisions.
The 2008 global financial crisis was a warning of the unstable nature of these arrangements. But there has been no meaningful change. Since 2007, global debt has grown by US$57 trillion, or 17 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product. In many countries, debt has reached unsustainable levels, and it is unclear how or when it is to be reduced without defaults that would wipe out large amounts of savings.
Imbalances remain. Entitlement reform has proved politically difficult. Financial institutions and activity dominate many economies.
The official policy is “extend and pretend”, whereby everybody conspires to ignore the underlying problem, cover it up, or devise deferral strategies to kick the can down the road. The assumption was that government spending, lower interest rates and supplying abundant cash to the money markets would create growth. While the measures did stabilise the economy, they did not lead to a full recovery. Instead, they set off dangerous asset