While Emerging Market debt has recovered somewhat from the January turmoil, EM FX remains under significant pressure, and as Michael Pettis notes in a recent note, any rebound will face the same ugly arithmetic. Ordinary households in too many countries have seen their share of total GDP plunge. Until it rebounds, the global imbalances will only remain in place, and without a global New Deal, the only alternative to weak demand will be soaring debt. Add to this continued political uncertainty, not just in the developing world but also in peripheral Europe, and it is clear that we should expect developing country woes only to get worse over the next two to three years.
Nothing fundamental has changed. Demand is weak because the global economy suffers from excessively strong structural tendencies to force up global savings, or, which is the same thing, to force down global consumption. Lower future consumption makes investment today less profitable, so that consumption and investment, which together comprise total demand, are likely to stagnate for many more years.
Squeezing out median households
Two processes bear most of the blame for weak demand.
First, because the rich consume less of their income than do the poor, rising income inequality in countries like the US – and indeed in much of the world – automatically force up savings rates.
Second, policies that forced down the household income share of GDP, most noticeably in countries like China and Germany, had the unintended consequence of also forcing down the household consumption share of GDP. This income imbalance automatically forced up savings rates in these countries to unprecedented levels.
For many years the excess savings of the rich and of countries with income imbalances, in the form of capital exports in the latter case, funded a consumption binge among the global middle classes, especially in the US and peripheral Europe, letting us pretend that there was not a problem of excess savings. The 2007-08 crisis, however, put an end to what was anyway an unsustainable process.
It is worth remembering that a structural tendency to force up the savings rate can be temporarily sidestepped by a credit-fueled consumption binge or by a surge in non-productive investment, both of which happened around the world in the past decade and more, but ultimately neither is sustainable. As I will show in my next blog entry in two weeks, in a closed economy, and the world is a closed economy, there are only two sustainable consequences of forcing up the savings rate. Either there must be a commensurate increase in productive investment, or there must be a rise in global unemployment.
These are the two paths the world faces today. As the developing world cuts back on wasted investment spending, the world’s excess manufacturing capacity and weak consumption growth means that the only way to increase productive investment is for countries that are seriously underinvested in infrastructure – most obviously the US but also India and other countries that have neglected domestic investment – to embark on a global New Deal.
Otherwise the world has no choice but to accept high unemployment for many more years until countries like the US redistribute income downwards and countries like China increase the household share of GDP, neither of which is likely to be politically easy. But until ordinary households around the world regain the share of global GDP that they lost in the past two decades, the world will continue to face the same choices: an unsustainable increase in debt, an increase in productive investment, or higher global unemployment, that latter of which will be distributed through trade conflict.
Emerging markets may well rebound strongly in the coming months, but any rebound will face the same ugly arithmetic. Ordinary households in too many countries have seen their share of total GDP plunge. Until it rebounds, the global imbalances will only remain in place, and without a global New Deal, the only alternative to weak demand will be soaring debt. Add to this continued political uncertainty, not just in the developing world but also in peripheral Europe, and it is clear that we should expect developing country woes only to get worse over the next two to three years.