It now looks like the War on Savings will be as eternal as the War on Terror. Previously, Paul Krugman et al. had confined their upside-down prescriptions to this apparently temporary abnormality, but once things returned to normal they would go back (we were assured) to worrying about budget deficits and the stability of the currency.
However, at a recent IMF conference Larry Summers revealed the awful truth that the U.S. economy is stuck in this Keynesian Twilight Zone for the foreseeable future–and it has been this way for decades already. Here’s Paul Krugman summarizing the dire prognosis:
[Summers] works from the understanding that we are an economy in which monetary policy is de facto constrained by the zero lower bound…and that this corresponds to a situation in which the “natural” rate of interest…is negative.
But now comes the radical part of Larry’s presentation:
[H]ow can you reconcile repeated bubbles with an economy showing no sign of inflationary pressures? Summers’s answer is that we may be an economy that needs bubbles just to achieve something near full employment – that in the absence of bubbles the economy has a negative natural rate of interest. And this hasn’t just been true since the 2008 financial crisis; it has arguably been true, although perhaps with increasing severity, since the 1980s.
…In other words, you can argue that our economy has been trying to get into the liquidity trap for a number of years, and that it only avoided the trap for a while thanks to successive bubbles.
And if that’s how you see things, when looking forward you have to regard the liquidity trap not as an exceptional state of affairs but as the new normal.
If you take a secular stagnation view seriously, it has some radical implications – and Larry goes there.
One way to [deliver a negative real interest rate] would be to reconstruct our whole monetary system – say, eliminate paper money and pay negative interest rates on deposits. Another way would be to take advantage of the next boom – whether it’s a bubble or driven by expansionary fiscal policy – to push inflation substantially higher, and keep it there. Or maybe, possibly, we could go the Krugman 1998/Abe 2013 route of pushing up inflation through the sheer power of self-fulfilling expectations.
Any such suggestions are, of course, met with outrage. How dare anyone suggest that virtuous individuals, people who are prudent and save for the future, face expropriation? How can you suggest steadily eroding their savings either through inflation or through negative interest rates? It’s tyranny!
But in a liquidity trap saving may be a personal virtue, but it’s a social vice. And in an economy facing secular stagnation, this isn’t just a temporary state of affairs, it’s the norm. Assuring people that they can get a positive rate of return on safe assets means promising them something the market doesn’t want to deliver – it’s like farm price supports, except for rentiers.
I could go on, but by now I hope you’ve gotten the point. What Larry did at the IMF wasn’t just give an interesting speech. He laid down what amounts to a very radical manifesto. And I very much fear that he may be right. [Bold added.]
For once, Krugman and I agree: Larry Summers’ very radical manifesto is indeed cause for very much fear. Their assault on saving and the strength of the currency is now a never-ending war.