The economy seems to be picking up so why are economists still so dour?
Economists are not known for being moody but many are depressed when it comes to the state of the global economy. This seems out of place at a time when economic recoveries in some countries are showing signs of taking hold and stock markets are setting record highs. The mood among economists was already negative after being caught out by the global financial crisis. Are economists right to be worried or just hung up on past mistakes?
Why so glum?
My father inquired, after a recent post on my blog, why my views had to be so downbeat. Given that much of the business cycle is driven by the sentiment of consumers and businesses, his line of thinking was that the economy would jump back to life if we could all just be more positive about the future. People would spend more while companies would invest and take on more workers. All we would need is economists to tell us that everything will be alright.
The problem is not that economists are always a grumpy bunch. The problem is the opposite – that economists have been overenthusiastic in the past. This optimism was fuelled by a belief that economic theory could provide a route to a steady rise in prosperity. Instead, economists have been chastened as a result of their previous ideas being proved wrong by the global financial crisis. The crisis has also focused minds on what can go wrong. Now, even periods of prosperity are seen to have a darker side and to create the seeds for trouble in the future.
Grumpy for a reason
It may just be the case that economists are caught in a crisis of confidence. There is a core belief among economists that markets have the ability to correct themselves. This means that any periods of weak economic growth should only last until the economy gets back on its feet again. There is much data on the economy to get excited about. Consumer spending is up, buoyed by the job market recovering faster than expected. The worst of the crisis seems to be behind us and stock markets reflect this new upbeat outlook.
Yet, economists have learnt their lessons and know better than to place too much trust in the data. Behind the numbers lurks a less cheerful story. Investment by companies is low with few businesses seeing opportunities to expand despite balance sheets laden with cash. One reason for this is that labour productivity is weak. This means that the extra earnings for companies from employing more workers are likely to be poor. Low labour productivity also implies that wages are not likely to rise much which raises concerns about whether households will struggle to pay off rising levels of debt. A lack of new innovations suggests that investment and productivity may not improve for a long time to come, prompting talk of prolonged stagnation.
When the markets are not functioning normally, it is typically the government that steps in to correct any problems. However, the governments in many countries have been more hindrance than help. Mismanagement of government finances, slow and timid responses to crises, and a lack of forward-looking policies are common complaints. With voters lacking genuine alternative political parties, politicians have become engrossed in petty political positioning rather than constructive policy making. Managing the economy has been left to central banks which has caused its own problems.
This is why Your Neighbourhood Economist is one of many who struggle to find reasons for cheer. It would be great to be caught up in the euphoria that has taken hold of the financial markets but economists have been burnt too badly to get carried away. Only time will tell if the gloom among economists is warranted.