Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman discusses why the U.S.'s balance-sheet recession could lead to many years of deflationary malaise.
Paul Krugman Is in His Element. The Nobel Prize-winning economist in December put out an updated edition of The Return of Depression Economics, his prescient study from 1999 in which he laid out the risks to nations when recessions spiral into long-term malaise. Timely reading, indeed, and worth picking up, if you haven't already; a copy can be purchased online here. Krugman was kind enough to expand upon his thoughts regarding President Obama's stimulus package and what changes may be in store for the U.S. and world economies in coming years in an e-mail exchange with Barrons.com.
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Barrons.com: What's the stupidest thing you've heard said about the current economic crisis and how to solve it? What's the smartest?
Paul Krugman: The stupidest is a very tough competition; I tend to think of whichever mind-numbingly stupid thing I've just heard, like [U.S. House of Representatives] Minority Leader [John] Boehner's statement that we shouldn't "reward" Fannie and Freddie by increasing their resources (he apparently doesn't understand the meaning of "government owned.") But I guess the statements from many players that the Obama plan is a spending bill, not a stimulus bill -- when spending is the whole point -- top the list.
The smartest thing probably comes from Richard Koo, [chief economist for Japan's Nomura Research Institute, part of Nomura Securities] who was one of the first to point out that this isn't just a housing crisis, or even a banking crisis -- it's a balance sheet crisis.
Barrons.com: You've written that the gap between the economy's potential shortfall in production over the next three years -- $2.9 trillion -- and the $800 billion in economic stimulus is a big problem. Why does this gap between production and bailout matter so much?
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Krugman: My big concern here is that the economy digs itself into a deflationary hole, which is what can all too easily happen if you have a large, sustained output gap. Once prices start falling, and people start to expect continuing deflation, the balance sheet problems will become much worse than they already are, and much harder to resolve. Watching that happen in Japan is what led me to write the original, 1999 version of The Return of Depression Economics, and now the same thing is all too possible here.
Barrons.com: What's a worst-case scenario if this stimulus fails to kick-start a recovery, as you've argued?
Krugman: A lost decade or more. I don't think, even now, that we're headed for 20+ percent unemployment, Depression-style. But I can see a strong possibility of an economic and political trap: low investment and high savings thanks to deflation and a depressed economy, with effective government action blocked by a combination of concerns about debt and the widespread belief that we tried stimulus and it didn't work.
Barrons.com: Will the $80 billion in aid to holders of underwater mortgages make a material difference?
Krugman: It depends on the meaning of the word "material." It will help millions of families, and somewhat reduce the financial system's losses. It won't revive the housing market, nor will it end the banks' problems.
Barrons.com: Will we ever become a nation of savers again?
Krugman: Actually, we ARE becoming a nation of savers again -- which is part of the reason GDP is plunging. I think the asset wipeout will have a long-term impact on consumer behavior; remember, we had a 9% savings rate as recently as the 80s.
Barrons.com: There's been a dramatic collapse in asset values in the stock market, as measured by the decline in the P/E of the S&P 500. Do you think asset values will bounce back with an economic recovery, or has there been some fundamental long-term shift in asset values that will linger even after recovery?
Krugman: Believe it or not, housing prices are still above-normal, as measured either by the price-rent ratio or the price-income ratio. So housing prices won't bounce back. As for stocks, when I take [Yale University economist] Bob Shiller's data, which give prices relative to a long trailing average of profits, and update, I get a P/E right now of about 13, not so far from historical norms. So it's not clear how much bounceback we can count on, if any. Maybe the bull market was the aberration.
Barrons.com: You've advocated a stimulus for the U.S. along the lines of the Public Works project during the Depression. Assuming such a thing could produce another economic boom, what are the downside risks to a massive infusion of public money?
Krugman: Well, large-scale government borrowing does pose long-term fiscal risks; the U.S. has substantial room for additional borrowing, but it's not unlimited. Aside from that, I don't see big risks.
Barrons.com: One of the themes you explore in your writing is the notion that world economic relationships can change over the course of decades (e.g., from globalism to nationalism to globalism). What are a couple of the biggest economic changes you see playing out over the next ten years, and what might be their social impact in the U.S. and abroad?
Krugman: I think we're heading for a new regime of financial regulation, which might significantly reduce financial globalization, for both good reasons and bad: the good reason is that a lot of what looked like globalization was actually regulatory arbitrage, the bad reason is that governments that are bailing out financial system will tend to insist that the benefits stay at home. I don't think this will affect most Americans' lives much; but a lot of the highest incomes have come from finance, and the Masters of the Universe will definitely end up less masterful.
We're also, I think, going to see some significant reindustrialization, because the conveyor belt moving Chinese and other funds to America will be slowed if not shut down. This will mean a greater reliance on domestic production.
Mainly, though, how society changes will depend on the political response -- whether this really ends up being a new New Deal or just a slight course correction.
Barrons.com: What great books have you read recently that you can recommend?
Krugman: I just reread a good part of John Maynard Keynes's Essays in Persuasion, especially "The Great Slump of 1930," which is awesomely relevant right now. And while it has nothing much to do with the crisis, I'd highly recommend Dan Koeppel's Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, which tells you a lot about the history of globalization along the way.
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