Lawrence Summers

By Lawrence Summers

Events as well as ideas shape policy choices in democracies. Who would have predicted a year ago that a Republican ad­ministration would demand that Congress make the largest set of investments in public companies in US peacetime history? Would anyone have supposed that President George W. Bush would convene a global effort to renew Bretton Woods through strengthened international financial regulation? It reminds us that in the economic sphere, as in the national security sphere, dramatic events can make the inconceivable become inevitable.

Discussions of the policy implications of the crisis have primarily focused on the immediate economic demands. The need to ensure the capital adequacy of financial institutions, maintain important credit flows, support the housing sector and the real economy, contain international spill­overs and reform regulation to prevent any recurrence of the crisis have rightly been the priority. In all these areas there will be many crucial policy choices to make in the months ahead.

However, policies that contain the crisis, support the economy and generate recovery are not sufficient to meet the historic challenge of this moment. Even with the best conceivable fiscal, monetary, financial and regulatory policies, economic performance depends on deeper and more structural policy choices. Nations cannot fine tune their way to delivering a prosperity that is more broadly based. In important ways, then, the crisis creates space to address longer standing problems. Just as patients hear advice regarding diet and exercise differently after a heart attack, so recent events should make it possible for the next US administration to accomplish more than might previously have been thought possible. 

By Lawrence Summers

Neither US financial institutions nor the economy are likely to suffer from a lack of central bank liquidity provision. New lending facilities are coming along almost weekly, the safety net has been expanded to include non-bank primary dealers, the Fed has demonstrated a willingness to take on directly the most problematic parts of Bear Stearns’ balance sheet, and the Fed funds rate has been reduced by 200 basis points within 7 weeks.

At the same time, processes are in motion that may lead to new demands for more than $1,000bn in mortgages, directly or indirectly. Recent regulatory actions will enable Federal Home Loan Banks along with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-sponsored enterprises) to purchase more than an additional $300bn in mortgage-backed securities.

There is substantial scope for further regulatory action as only a third of the punitive capital charge placed on Fannie and Freddie years ago has been lifted. Moreover, legislation to reduce foreclosures being pushed by Senator Christopher Dodd and Representative Barney Frank could result in the federal government purchasing or providing guarantees that enable the purchase of several hundred billion dollars worth of mortgages. 

By Lawrence Summers

Markets and perceptions of the economic outlook change rapidly. Even two months ago most observers doubted predictions of a US recession, saw no need for a fiscal stimulus, and thought that inflation fears should constrain monetary policy. Now, Washington is more or less settled on a stimulus package that will exceed $150bn; markets at one point last week expected a Fed funds rate below 2 per cent by September. The debate about recession is now about how deep and global its impact will be. 

By Lawrence Summers When I studied economics in graduate school a generation ago we were taught that it was a “stylised fact” that the US income distribution was very stable. We were shown that the fraction of the population in poverty tracked almost perfectly the performance of median family income over time and that productivity growth and average real wage growth moved together, with both declining sharply after the oil shocks of the 1970s. These observations led naturally to the conclusion that the main way of reducing poverty or increasing the incomes of middle income families was raising the rate of economic growth. Today, we have another generation’s worth of data including the experience of the information technology-driven re-acceleration of productivity growth in the 1990s. This experience forces a reassessment of the earlier economic orthodoxy. It can no longer plausibly be asserted that the income distribution is relatively static or that average wage growth tracks productivity growth. Indeed, in a recent paper on tax policy prepared for the Hamilton project, my collaborators and I concluded from Congressional Budget Office data that, since 1979, changes in income distribution had raised the pre-tax incomes of the top 1 per cent of the population by $664bn or $600,000 per family – an increase of 43 per cent. The remainder of this column can be read here (FT.com subscription required). Discussion from our guest economists is free.

by Lawrence Summers If global warming is the ultimate inconvenient truth, the most important inconvenient truth about global warming policy, argued in last month’s column, is what happens in the developing world. These countries will deliver three-quarters of the increase in global greenhouse gas emissions over the next generation, on current forecasts. Beyond the developing world’s preponderant impact on emissions, there is the additional reality that because so much of economic activity is mobile, policies that restrict emissions in some places but not everywhere may just relocate emissions not reduce them. 

By Lawrence Summers

Three months ago I was able to write in this space that in economics “the main thing we have to fear is the lack of fear itself”. This is no longer true today. With clear evidence of a crisis in the subprime US housing sector, risks of its spread to other credit markets, sharp increases in market volatility, reminders of the fragility of global carry trades and signs of slowing economic growth, there is enough apprehension to go around. While it would be premature to predict a US recession, there are now strong grounds for predicting that the US economy will slow down very significantly in 2007. Whether in retrospect 2007 will prove to have been a “pause that refreshed” a nearly decade-long expansion like the growth slowdowns in 1986 and 1995 or whether it will see the end of the expansion is not yet clear. It is clear though that the global economy has been relying on the US as an importer of last resort; that the US economy has been relying on the consumer for its primary impetus; and that until now consumers have been encouraged to spend their incomes fully or more than fully by being able to access the wealth in their homes.

 

By Lawrence Summers A rising Asian power has emerged as an export powerhouse and enjoys rapid, export-led growth fuelled by extraordinarily high savings and investment rates. Its technological capacity is upgraded at prodigious rates and its businesses threaten an ever greater swathe of industry in Europe and the US. Its high level of central bank reserves and burgeoning current account surplus lead to claims that its exchange rate is being unfairly manipulated or, at a minimum, should be guided upwards. Its financial system is bank-centric, heavily regulated in ways that favour domestic institutions and has close ties to government and industry. Rapid productivity growth holds down product prices but asset price inflation is rampant. US congressional leaders demand radical action to contain the economic threat. Delegations of senior US economic officials engage in “dialogue” with their counterparts about the many aspects of the country’s economic policies that promote imbalances, warning of the congressional demons who stand ready to act if “results” are not achieved quickly. All of this describes what is happening in and with China today. It also describes the Japanese economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s before its lost decade of deflation and considerable deterioration in its international relations. While there are obvious differences, notably China’s much lower level of development, the similarities are striking enough to invite an effort to draw some lessons for China and its partners from the earlier Japanese experience. The definitive history of Japan’s dismal decade has yet to be written. But almost all knowledgable observers would agree that significant elements included the bursting of the stock market and land bubbles, the resulting problems in the financial system, the collapse of aggregate demand as banks stopped extending credit and the difficulty of moving from export-led growth to domestic demand-led growth once consumer and business confidence had been lost.