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《经济学人》陌生的全球经济新规则

2019 年 10 月 12 日 • 经济学人

本期经济学人杂志【Leaders】板块这篇题为《The world economy’s strange new rules》的文章探讨的是当今全球经济体系面临的变化,以及在新的规则下旧的央行、政府等机构的运作方式方法不再完全有效,需要重新建立新的机制来应对新挑战。

The Economist, October 12th-18th 2019.

有些宏观经济学理论在有些国家出现偏差,比如低失业率和高通货膨胀之间的反向联系正在消失,比如美国目前的失业率是 3.5%,是 1969 年以来最低的,但通货膨胀率却只有 1.4%,低于美联储设定的目标。与此同时,利率处于一个较低的水平,如果经济衰退来袭那留给央行下调利率的空间非常小。

此外,原本用于暂时刺激经济“量化宽松”政策(QE)现在逐渐成为一种新常态政策。10 年前政客们投资者们都认为 QE 会通过央行出售债券或持有到期的方式退出,但目前看来这一政策似乎成永久的了。美国、欧盟、英国、日本央行的总资产负债表规模占到了这几个国家/地区总 GDP 的 35%。

文章认为在新的全球经济新规则下,政府可以利用失业保险等政策发挥财政经济“自动稳定器“的作用;可以给予央行一种财政工具,这种工具而不是让它重新分配货币继续疯狂印钞,而是例如在经济下滑时,将等额款项划入每位成年人的银行账户中。每一种方法都可能带来风险,但旧的机制已不再有效,面临陌生的全球经济新规则,需要重新建立新的机制。

The world economy’s strange new rules

Macroeconomics
The world economy’s strange new rules
How economies work has changed radically. So must economic policy

Print edition | Leaders
Oct 10th 2019
Rich-world economies consist of a billion consumers and millions of firms taking their own decisions. But they also feature mighty public institutions that try to steer the economy, including central banks, which set monetary policy, and governments, which decide how much to spend and borrow. For the past 30 years or more these institutions have run under established rules. The government wants a booming jobs market that wins votes but, if the economy overheats, it will cause inflation. And so independent central banks are needed to take away the punch bowl just as the party warms up, to borrow the familiar quip of William McChesney Martin, once head of the Federal Reserve. Think of it as a division of labour: politicians focus on the long-term size of the state and myriad other priorities. Technocrats have the tricky job of taming the business cycle.

This neat arrangement is collapsing. As our special report explains, the link between lower unemployment and higher inflation has gone missing. Most of the rich world is enjoying a jobs boom even as central banks undershoot inflation targets. America’s jobless rate, at 3.5%, is the lowest since 1969, but inflation is only 1.4%. Interest rates are so low that central banks have little room to cut should recession strike. Even now some are still trying to support demand with quantitative easing (qe), ie, buying bonds. This strange state of affairs once looked temporary, but it has become the new normal. As a result the rules of economic policy need redrafting—and, in particular, the division of labour between central banks and governments. That process is already fraught. It could yet become dangerous.

The new era of economic policy has its roots in the financial crisis of 2007-09. Central banks enacted temporary and extraordinary measures such as qe to avoid a depression. But it has since become clear that deep forces are at work. Inflation no longer rises reliably when unemployment is low, partly because the public has come to expect modest price rises, and also because global supply chains mean prices do not always reflect local labour-market conditions. At the same time an excess of savings and firms’ reluctance to invest have pushed interest rates down. So insatiable is the global appetite to save that more than a quarter of all investment-grade bonds, worth $15trn, now have negative yields, meaning lenders must pay to hold them to maturity.

Economists and officials have struggled to adapt. In early 2012 most Fed officials thought that interest rates in America would settle at over 4%. Nearly eight years on they are just 1.75-2% and are the highest in the g7. A decade ago, almost all policymakers and investors thought that central banks would eventually unwind qe by selling bonds or letting their holdings mature. Now the policy seems permanent. The combined balance-sheets of central banks in America, the euro zone, Britain and Japan stand at over 35% of their total gdp. The European Central Bank (ecb), desperate to boost inflation, is restarting qe. For a while the Fed managed to shrink its balance-sheet, but since September its assets have started to grow again as it has injected liquidity into wobbly money-markets. On October 8th Jerome Powell, the Fed’s chairman, confirmed that this growth would continue.

One implication of this new world is obvious. As central banks run out of ways to stimulate the economy when it flags, more of the heavy lifting will fall to tax cuts and public spending. Because interest rates are so low, or negative, high public debt is more sustainable, particularly if borrowing is used to finance long-term investments that boost growth, such as infrastructure. Yet recent fiscal policy has been confused and sometimes damaging. Germany has failed to improve its decaying roads and bridges. Britain cut budgets deeply in the early 2010s while its economy was weak—its lack of public investment is one reason for its chronically low productivity growth. America is running a bigger-than-average deficit, but to fund tax cuts for firms and the wealthy, rather than road repairs or green power-grids.

While incumbent politicians struggle to deploy fiscal policy appropriately, those who have yet to win office are eyeing central banks as a convenient source of cash. “Modern monetary theory”, a wacky notion that is gaining popularity on America’s left, says there are no costs to expanding government spending while inflation is low—so long as the central bank is supine. (President Donald Trump’s attacks on the Fed make it more vulnerable.) Britain’s opposition Labour Party wants to use the Bank of England to direct credit through an investment board, “bringing together” the roles of chancellor, business minister and Bank of England governor.

In a mirror image, central banks are starting to encroach on fiscal policy, the territory of governments. The Bank of Japan’s massive bondholdings prop up a public debt of nearly 240% of gdp. In the euro area qe and low rates provide budgetary relief to indebted southern countries—which this month provoked a stinging attack on the central bank by some prominent northern economists and former officials (see Free exchange). Mario Draghi, the ecb’s outgoing president, has made public appeals for fiscal stimulus in the euro zone. Some economists think central banks need fiscal levers they can pull themselves.

Here lies the danger in the fusion of monetary and fiscal policy. Just as politicians are tempted to meddle with central banks, so the technocrats will take decisions that are the rightful domain of politicians. If they control fiscal levers, how much money should they give to the poor? What investments should they make? What share of the economy should belong to the state?

A new frontier
In downturns either governments or central banks will need to administer a prompt, powerful but limited fiscal stimulus. One idea is to beef up the government’s automatic fiscal stabilisers, such as unemployment insurance, that guarantee bigger deficits if the economy stalls. Another is to give central banks a fiscal tool that does not try to redistribute money, and hence does not invite a feeding frenzy at the printing presses—by, say, transferring an equal amount into the bank account of every adult citizen when the economy slumps. Each path brings risks. But the old arrangement no longer works. The institutions that steer the economy must be remade for today’s strange new world. ■

Print edition | Leaders
Oct 10th 2019
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