Four times in the past century, a large chunk of the industrial world has fallen into deep and long depressions characterized by persistent high unemployment: the United States in the 1930’s, industrialized Western Europe in the 1930’s, Western Europe again in the 1980’s, and Japan in the 1990’s. Two of these downturns – Western Europe in the 1980’s and Japan in the 1990’s – cast a long and dark shadow on future economic performance.
In both cases, if either Europe or Japan returned – or, indeed, ever returns – to something like the pre-downturn trend of economic growth, it took (or will take) decades. In a third case, Europe at the end of the 1930’s, we do not know what would have happened had Europe not become a battlefield following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland.
In only one instance was the long-run growth trend left undisturbed: US production and employment after World War II were not significantly affected by the macroeconomic impact of the Great Depression. Of course, in the absence of mobilization for WWII, it is possible and even likely that the Great Depression would have cast a shadow on post-1940 US economic growth. That is certainly how things looked, with high levels of structural unemployment and a below-trend capital stock, at the end of the 1930’s, before mobilization and the European and Pacific wars began in earnest.
In the US, we can already see signs that the downturn that started in 2008 is casting its shadow on the future. Reputable forecasters – both private and public – have been revising down their estimates of America’s potential long-run GDP.
For example, labor-force participation, which usually stops falling and starts rising after the business-cycle trough, has been steadily declining over the past two and a half years. At least some monetary policymakers believe that recent reductions in the US unemployment rate, which have largely resulted from falling labor-force participation, are just as valid a reason for shifting to more austere policies as reductions in unemployment that reflect increases in employment. And much the same processes and responses are at work – with even greater strength – in Europe.
Most important, however, has been what looks, from today’s perspective, like a permanent collapse in the risk-bearing capacity of the private marketplace, and a permanent and large increase in the perceived riskiness of financial assets worldwide – and of the businesses whose cash flows underpin them. Given aging populations in industrial countries, large commitments from governments to social-insurance systems, and no clear plans for balancing government budgets in the long run, we would expect to see inflation and risk premiums – perhaps not substantial, but clearly visible – priced into even the largest and richest economies’ treasury debt.
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