Post coronavirus policy with new normals: low interest rates and liquidity trap

I blogged yesterday regarding the shape of recovery after the coronavirus pandemic and have been reading Paul Krugman who suggests that conventional monetary policy can’t offset an economic shock like coronavirus.. Since the GFC in 2008 it is evident that low interest rates are the new normal and according to Larry Summers (former Treasury Secretary) we are in an era of secular stagnation. This refers to the fact that on average the ‘natural interest rate’ – the rate consistent with full employment – is very low. There can be periods of full employment but even with 0% interest rates private demand is insufficient to eliminate the output gap. The US was in a liquidity trap (see graph below) for 8 of the past 12 years; Europe and Japan are still there, and the market now appears to believe that something like this is another the new normal.

Krugman suggests that there are real doubts about unconventional monetary policy and that the stimulus for an economy should take the form of permanent public investment spending on both physical and human capital – infrastructure and health of the population. This spending would take the form of deficit-financed public investment. There has been the suggestion that deficit-financed public investment might lead to ‘crowding out’ private investment and also how is the debt repaid? Krugman came up with three offsetting factors

  • First, when the economy is in a liquidity trap, which now seems likely to be a large fraction of the time, the extra public investment will have a multiplier effect, raising GDP relative to what it would otherwise be. Based on the experience of the past decade, the multiplier would probably be around 1.5, meaning 3% higher GDP in bad times — and considerable additional revenue from that higher level of GDP. Permanent fiscal stimulus wouldn’t pay for itself, but it would pay for part of itself.
  • Second, if the investment is productive, it will expand the economy’s productive capacity in the long run. This is obviously true for physical infrastructure and R&D, but there is also strong evidence that safety-net programmes for children make them healthier, more productive adults, which also helps offset their direct fiscal cost.
  • Thirdly, there’s fairly strong evidence of hysteresis — temporary downturns permanently or semi-permanently depress future output (Fatás and Summers 2015). Again, by avoiding these effects a sustained fiscal stimulus would partially pay for itself. Put these things together and they probably outweigh any fiscal effect due to stimulus raising interest rates.

Can the Japanese experience tell us anything?

The policies proposed are similar to those by Japan in the 1990’s but the environment there was unique from what most other developed economies are experiencing. Krugman makes two points:

  1. Japan allowed itself to slide into deflation, and has yet to convincingly exit.
  2. Japan’s potential growth is low due to extraordinarily unfavourable demography, with the working-age population rapidly declining.

As a result, Japan’s nominal GDP has barely increased over time, with an annual growth rate of only 0.4% since 1995. Meanwhile, interest rates have been constrained on the downside by the zero lower bound. Even with this Japan still faces no hint of debt crisis.
Therefore according to Krugman, with negative shocks to economies becoming more prevalent it maybe better to implement a productive stimulus plan instead of trying to come up with some short-term measures every time there are shocks to our economy.

Source: “The Case for a permanent stimulus”. Paul Krugman cited in “Mitigating the COVID Economic Crisis: Act Fast and Do Whatever It Takes” Edited by Richard Baldwin and Beatrice Weder di Mauro

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