Have you ever tried to run up the down escalator, perhaps at a railway station or a shopping centre? It is possible but hard work unless you are very fit. All too often, one gives up and allows the machinery inexorably to take you lower.
This analogy is useful when considering economic forecasting and long-term trends facing the world economy. Recent months have seen a surge in economic forecasts from organisations small and large. The commentariat has enjoyed debating an alphabet soup of possible recoveries from the deepest recession in decades or centuries. After U, V, L and W the latest concept is K (a sharp recovery for the well off, continued gloom for the poorer in society).
There is some value in such an exercise. It is useful to know whether the likely pace of improvement is shallow or steep, whether economic activity might return to 2019 levels in 2021, 2022 or 2023. In simple terms the extent of the output gap will bear down on inflationary pressures offsetting whatever actions governments and central banks might take to revive spending power in key sections of the economy.
All true, but also rather short sighted. Indeed, it could be argued that too many economists are not only even handed but need to go to the optician.
The following words are worth reflecting on:
‘World Bank data shows that world nominal GDP grew 1.6% y/y in 2019, the slowest since 2016. It has grown an annual average rate of 3.8% since 2009 compared with 6.37% per annum in the preceding 10 years. Over the last 5 years, it has grown 2.01% per annum on average. It is the nominal growth that will be important in servicing and paying down the debt’.
Such a trend is alarming. Of course, it is well known that economic growth has slowed for several decades. This can be examined in many ways. Central banks not only got on top of inflation in the 1980s and 1990s but have found it increasingly difficult to achieve their inflation targets. Cue a discussion about the failings of the ECB or the onset of modern monetary theory. Why have populist governments or political parties become more, well, popular in many countries? One answer could be the inexorable rise in disaffected voters looking at stagnant or limited wages growth for a decade or more. Why do equity market strategists warn abut more muted returns ahead? Ultimately a low pace of nominal profits growth feeds into their models. Other well-rehearsed arguments would include the impact of the global savings glut or the rise in the burden of debt, both bearing down on future investment and real interest rates.
There is much academic discussion about why GDP growth has been on a slowing path for so long. Demographics appears to be one factor, not only a slowdown in population growth in the advanced and many emerging economies, but also the ageing of populations which might encourage more caution towards entrepreneurial activities and investment. A second is the well-publicised deceleration in productivity growth. Cue a discussion about whether AI, 5G and the Fourth Industrial Revolution might bring about a rebound in productivity growth or, alternatively, that the combination of heightened regulation, growing barriers to globalisation and rising costs of dealing with environmental change bear down on standard measures of productivity.
For a really long-term forecast, I turn to the OECD’s scenarios made in 2018 for the world economy to 2060. Of course, there are dangers in taking such a long-term picture. Imagine the problems in 1945 of even someone as gifted as Keynes trying to forecast the state of the world economy in 1985. However, the advantage of the long-term is that the driving factors are clear, seemingly inexorable. To quote the OECD: ‘The difference between a short-run and a long-run economic outlook is akin to the difference between a weather forecast and a climate scenario’.
What did the OECD suggest? ‘Perhaps the most salient feature of the baseline scenario is the continued slowdown in world trend real GDP growth. This declines from about 3½ per cent now to 2% in 2060, mainly due to a deceleration of large emerging economies (such as China and India)’. Population growth – the stock of human capital – really matters. Of course, the OECD discussed upside and downside scenarios, say related to education, trade barriers, market liberalisation or regulation. Pointedly, it did not include climate change risks. To quote just one statistic from the New York Times ‘In the next 50 years, up to 19 per cent of the world’s population will be in regions made unliveable by rising temperatures. The world can now expect that with every degree of temperature increase, roughly a billion people will be pushed outside the zone in which humans have lived for thousands of years.’
Governments and societies face a multitude of short-term pressures after the novel coronavirus, not helped by a worsening geo-political backdrop. That should not blind us to the longer-term picture of possibly much slower world economic growth, with all that means for such issues as fiscal sustainability or income and wealth distribution, much less environmental challenges.
Yet humans are, if nothing else, adaptable. Behaviours and attitudes can change, for good or ill. Nominal economic growth could rise at a faster rate simply because society accepts a tolerance for higher inflation as the necessary evil to deal over time with crushingly high debt burdens. On the downside geopolitical threats mean the coming decade or two could easily see a wasteful steer of ‘investment’ towards, say, defence spending and the protection of ‘national’ champions. Best of all would be a surge in human ingenuity to drive improved long-term living standards. Innovation is replete in the private sector, although the benefits are often limited to too small a part of the global population. Within the public sector, ossified approaches to the delivery of services such as healthcare and education are ripe for productivity-enhancing reforms. Indeed, the pandemic is already accelerating some developments in these areas. Last, but not least, we should not forget that ‘economic growth’ is not the same as the ‘utility’ or well-being of the population. It is increasingly recognised that the 2020s needs to see massive investments in a variety of areas to preserve our fragile environment, or the delivery of social justice measures to tackle income, health and wealth inequalities, putting the world onto a more sustainable path. Underestimating human ingenuity may be the single greatest source of long-term forecast error.