IMF meeting should adopt policy to tackle stagnation
Promotion of high-return investments, not easy money, key to boosting world economic growth
The world's finance ministers and central bank governors will gather in Washington this week for the twice-yearly meetings of the International Monetary Fund. Although there will not be the sense of alarm that dominated these meetings after the financial crisis, the unfortunate reality is that the global economy's medium-term prospects have not been so cloudy for a long time.
The IMF, in its current World Economic Outlook, essentially endorses the secular stagnation hypothesis - noting that the real interest rate necessary to bring about enough demand for full employment has declined significantly and is likely to remain depressed for a substantial period.
This is evident because inflation is well below target throughout the industrial world and is likely to decline further this year.
Without robust growth in industrial world markets, growth in emerging markets is likely to subside - even without considering the political challenges facing countries as diverse as Brazil, China, South Africa, Russia and Turkey.
Facing this inadequate demand, the world's key strategy is easy money. Base interest rates remain essentially at floor levels across the industrial world and central banks signal that they are unlikely to increase soon.
Although the United States is tapering quantitative easing, Japan continues to ease on a large scale and Europe seems to be moving closer to starting it.
This is better than the tight money policy of the 1930s that made the Depression great. But it is highly problematic as a dominant growth strategy.
We do not have a strong basis for assuming that reductions in interest rates, nominal or real, from very low levels will have a major impact on spending decisions. We do know that they strongly encourage leverage, that they place pressure on return-seeking investors to take increased risk, that they inflate asset values and reward financial activity.
The spending they induce tends to come at the expense of future demand.
We cannot confidently predict the ultimate results of the unwinding of massive central bank balance sheets on markets - or on the confidence of investors. A strategy of indefinitely sustained easy money leaves central banks dangerously short of response capacity when and if the next recession comes.
A proper growth strategy would recognise that an era of low real interest rates offers opportunities as well as risks. It should focus on the promotion of high-return investments, rather than seeking to encourage investments that businesses find unworthy at current rock-bottom rates.
With Tokyo's introduction of the value-added tax on April 1, Japan is now engaged in a major fiscal contraction. Yet it is far from clear whether last year's progress in reversing deflation is durable or a reflection of one-off exchange rate movements. A return to stagnation and deflation could rapidly call its solvency into question.
Japan takes a dangerous risk if it waits to observe the consequences before enacting new fiscal and structural reform measures to promote spending.
Europe has moved back from the brink. Defaults or devaluations now look like remote possibilities. But no strategy for durable growth is yet in place and the slide towards deflation continues. Strong actions are imperative to restore the banking system to the point where it can be a conduit for a robust flow of credit as well as measures to promote demand in the periphery nations where competitiveness challenges remain.
If emerging markets capital inflows fall off substantially, and they move further towards being net exporters, it is hard to see where the industrial world can take up the slack. So reform measures to bolster capital flows and exports to emerging markets are essential. These include, most importantly, political steps to reassure against populist threats in a number of countries and provide investor protection and backstop finance.
In this regard, the US Congress' passage of IMF authorisation is crucial. Creative consideration should also be applied in mobilising the trillions of dollars in public assets held by central banks and sovereign wealth funds, largely as safe liquid assets, to promote growth.
In an interdependent global economy, the collective impact of all these measures is likely to be substantially greater than the sum of their individual effects. In similar fashion, the consequences of national policy failures are likely to cascade.
That is why a global growth strategy framed to resist secular stagnation rather than simply muddle through with the palliative of easy money should be this week's agenda.
Lawrence Summers was US treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001 and an economic adviser to US President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2010.