On Bloomberg TV ‘>Michael Spence discusses current events in Europe from Davos, Switzerland.
In the 66 years since World War II ended, virtually all centrally planned economies have disappeared, largely as a result of inefficiency and low growth. Nowadays, markets, price signals, decentralization, incentives, and return-driven investment characterize resource allocation almost everywhere.
This is not because markets are morally superior, though they do require freedom of choice to function effectively. Markets are tools that, relative to the alternatives, happen to have great strengths with respect to incentives, efficiency, and innovation. But they are not perfect; they underperform in the presence of externalities (the un-priced consequences – for example, air pollution – of individual actions), informational gaps and asymmetries, and coordination problems when there are multiple equilibria, some superior to others.
As the economist Mario Monti’s new government takes office in Italy, much is at stake – for the country, for Europe, and for the global economy. If reforms falter, public finances collapse, and anemic growth persists, Italy’s commitment to the euro will diminish as the perceived costs of membership come to outweigh the benefits. And Italy’s defection from the common currency – unlike that of smaller countries, like Greece – would threaten the eurozone to the core.
Italy is a large economy, with annual GDP of more than $2 trillion. Its public debt is 120% of GDP, or roughly $2.4 trillion, which does not include the liabilities of a pension system in need of significant adjustments to reflect an aging population and increased longevity. As a result, Italy has become the world’s third-largest sovereign-debt market.
But rising interest rates are causing the debt-service burden to become onerous and politically unsustainable. Furthermore, Italy must refinance €275 billion ($372 billion) of its debt in the next six months, while investors, seeking to reduce their financial exposure to the country, are driving the yield on Italian ten-year bonds to prohibitively high levels – currently above 7%.
By Mohamed El-Erian and Michael Spence
In formulating policy, the process and the mindset can have a significant impact on the success or failure of outcomes. How you do it can be as or more important than what you do.
In today’s western economies, this observation may go a long way in explaining why policy outcomes have consistently fallen short of what policymakers themselves have expected, let alone what is needed to address important and growing economic challenges.
Signs of disappointing policy outcomes are, unfortunately, all around us. Over the last two years, American policymakers have failed miserably to lower persistently high unemployment despite a series of stimulus measures, fiscal and monetary, conventional and unconventional. In Europe, the debt crisis has spread despite numerous summits, declarations, policy actions and political changes.
In both cases, policymakers identified and sometimes mis-identified the problems and took highly publicized steps to solve them. Considerable financial resources and political capital were deployed. The credibility of policymakers (and policymaking itself) was placed on the line. Yet to no avail. The identified problems not only persisted, they deepened.
When one compares policymaking episodes around the world – successful and less so – it seems clear that there is more at play than the content of policies. The mindset of policymakers and the process of policymaking seem to also have a lot to do with the disappointing outcomes. Indeed, one often hears policymakers point to political dysfunctionality as being the major hindrance to good outcomes.
Over the past three decades, hundreds of millions of new workers have entered the global economy. They arrived with various levels of education and skill, and over time have generally gained in terms of “human capital” – and in terms of value added and income. This has brought a tremendous, and ongoing, growth in income levels, opportunities, and the size of the global economy. But these new workers have also brought more employment competition and significant shifts in relative wages and prices, which is having profound distributional effects.
These massive structural changes in the global economy present three great employment challenges worldwide, with different countries facing their own variants.
The first challenge is to generate enough jobs to accommodate the inflow of new entrants into the labor market. Clearly, a wide range of advanced and developing countries is failing to do so. Youth unemployment is high and rising. Even in fast-growth developing countries, surplus labor is awaiting inclusion in the modern economy, and the pressure is on to sustain job creation.
(photo credit: Steve Cadman)
As the American economy continues to sputter three years after the global financial crisis erupted, one thing has become clear: the United States cannot generate higher rates of growth in GDP and employment without a change in the mix of the economy’s domestic and export-oriented components. Above all, this will require structural change and greater competitiveness in an expanded tradable sector.
For more than a decade prior to the crisis that began in 2008, the US economy fueled itself (and much of the global economy) with excessive consumption. Savings in the household sector declined and leveled off at about zero, as low interest rates led to over-leveraging, an asset bubble, and an illusory increase in wealth.
Government, too, dissaved by running deficits. Overall, the US economy expended more than it generated in income, running a trade (more precisely a current-account) deficit, and borrowed the difference from abroad. Both household and government spending patterns in relation to income were unsustainable.
Council of Foreign Relations Associate Staff Writer Christopher Alessi interviews Michael Spence:
How, if at all, has the United States’ role in the world shifted following this month’s S&P downgrade?
Our reputation was damaged, mainly by allowing the integrity of our sovereign debt to be in question. The S&P downgrade reflected that, though I think it was premature. The political gridlock over fiscal stabilization and growth is also damaging our reputation externally; the downgrade also reflected that.
U.S. treasuries continue to remain the safest bet forglobal investors. Can that be maintained?
Yes, but not if we cannot find a way to progress to a credible–meaning with bipartisan support–five to seven year plan for the restoration of fiscal stability. [That] means reduced deficits, growth to get the debt-to-GDP ratio down to safe levels–50 to 60 percent–and plans to eliminate, reduce, or fund future liabilities, which are rising.