Debt Supercycle rather than Secular Stagnation

In a Vox column, Ken Rogoff argues that the world economy experiences a “debt supercycle” rather than the onset of secular stagnation in the West.

Rogoff argues that macroeconomic developments since the financial crisis are in line with historical experience, as documented in his book “This Time is Different” (with Carmen Reinhart): A large fall in output followed by a sluggish recovery; deleveraging; protracted higher unemployment; and a strong rise of the government debt quota are typical after a boom and bust of house prices and credit.

According to Rogoff, policy makers should have implemented more heterodox policies including debt write-downs; bank restructurings coupled with recapitalisations; and temporarily higher inflation targets. Rogoff supports the (in his view, orthodox) fiscal policy responses that were adopted but criticizes that many countries tightened prematurely.

Rogoff acknowledges that secular forces shape the macroeconomy, in particular population ageing; the stabilization of the female labor force participation rate; the growth slowdown in Asia; and the slowdown or acceleration (?) of technological progress. But

[t]he debt supercycle model matches up with a couple of hundred years of experience of similar financial crises. The secular stagnation view does not capture the heart attack the global economy experienced; slow-moving demographics do not explain sharp housing price bubbles and collapses.

Rogoff doesn’t accept low interest rates as an argument in favor of the secular stagnation view. Rather than reflecting demand deficiencies, low interest rates (if measured correctly—Rogoff expects a utility based interest rate measure to be higher) could reflect regulation (favoring low-risk borrowers and “knocking out other potential borrowers who might have competed up rates”) and to some extent central bank policies.

Rogoff argues that the global stock market boom poses a problem for the secular stagnation view. He proposes changed perceptions about the likelihood and cost of extreme events (Barro, Weitzman) as factors to explain both low real interest rates and the stock market boom (after an initial asset price collapse during the crisis).

Regarding policy prescriptions to expand public investment in light of the low interest rates, Rogoff notes that

it is highly superficial and dangerous to argue that debt is basically free. To the extent that low interest rates result from fear of tail risks a la Barro-Weitzman, one has to assume that the government is not itself exposed to the kinds of risks the market is worried about, especially if overall economy-wide debt and pension obligations are near or at historic highs already. [Moreover] one has to worry whether higher government debt will perpetuate the political economy of policies that are helping the government finance debt, but making it more difficult for small businesses and the middle class to obtain credit.

Rogoff considers rising inequality to be problematic (and a possible factor for higher savings rates):

Tax policy should be used to address these secular trends, perhaps starting with higher taxes on urban land, which seems to lie at the root of inequality in wealth trends

He concludes that the case for a debt supercycle is stronger than for secular stagnation:

[T]he US appears to be near the tail end of its leverage cycle, Europe is still deleveraging, while China may be nearing the downside of a leverage cycle.