A quick word from Lindau, where half the world’s Nobel economists are gathered on a beautiful island with cobbled streets on Lake Constance, looking out across the Alps. It is a Wittlesbach jewel. Christopher Sims – a monetary expert, who now thinks money indicators have been rendered “essentially obsolete” by modern finance – says it may be impossible to reverse deflation in the Western economies by any normal means, in which case we are in trouble.
He argues that the public (including investors) are convinced that there will have to be some sort of payback for all the debts accumulated during the great era of leverage and excess. They have “internalised” the prospect of future tax rises and spending that will make them feel poorer. Some 60pc of people in the US say they doubt there will be any government benefits for them when they retire, and 60pc of those already retired think their benefits will be reduced,” he said. This has powerful implications. Many of these people are retrenching pre-emptively, en masse, in most of the mature industrial economies. They are discounting a “future stream of primary surpluses”.
By the same token businesses are putting off investment and hoarding cash in anticipation of a hit to come. We may be deluding ourselves in thinking that companies will soon be confident enough to let rip with a fresh burst of spending and investment. They may just sit on their money for year after year.
If this is broadly true, it means that any use of fiscal stimulus will be neutralised by the countervailing actions of taxpayers, and may even be a net negative. Deficits become “deflationary”, contrary to standard textbook theory or populist assumptions, and threaten a self-fulfilling effect that becomes almost impossible to stop over time.
Prof Sims, who won the Nobel Prize in 2011 for studying “cause and effect in the macroeconomy”, says monetary policy cannot do the trick either once interest rates have dropped to zero. He dismisses the monetary effects of quantitative easing as trivial. At best, he says, QE is a bluff intended to show resolve and change psychology.
We may be caught in a trap. Demographics lie at the root of this malaise. The collective mind knows that the pension/welfare structure is untenable. The implicit promises made can never be upheld in societies with ballooning numbers of pensioners, depending on a static or shrinking work force. This will catch China too before long.