Too many steel mills have been built, too many plants making cars, computer chips or solar panels, too many ships, too many houses. They have outstripped the spending power of those supposed to buy the products. This is more or less what happened in the 1920s when electrification and Ford’s assembly line methods lifted output faster than wages. It is a key reason why the Slump proved so intractable, though debt then was far lower than today.
Thankfully, leaders in the US and Europe have this time prevented an implosion of the money supply and domino bank failures. But they have not resolved the elemental causes of our (misnamed) Credit Crisis; nor can they.
Excess plant will hang over us like an oppressive fog until cleared by liquidation, or incomes slowly catch up, or both....
Justin Lin, the World Bank’s chief economist, warned last month that half-empty factories risk setting off a “deflationary spiral”. We are moving into a phase where the “real economy crisis” bites deeper – meaning mass lay-offs and drastic falls in investment as firms retrench. “Unless we deal with excess capacity, it will wreak havoc on all countries,” he said.
Mr Lin said capacity use had fallen to 72pc in Germany, 69pc in the US, 65pc in Japan, and near 50pc in some poorer countries. These are post-War lows. Fresh data from the Federal Reserve is actually worse. Capacity use in US manufacturing fell to 65.4pc in July.
My discovery as a journalist is that deflation is a taboo subject. Those who came of age in the 1970s mostly refuse to accept that such an outcome is remotely possible, and that includes a few regional Fed governors and the German-led core of the European Central Bank.
As a matter of strict fact, two- thirds of the global economy is already in “deflation-lite”. US prices fell 2.1pc in July year-on-year, the steepest drop since 1950. Import prices are down 7.3pc, even after stripping out energy. ...
Elsewhere, the CPI figures are: Ireland (-5.9), Thailand (-4.4), Taiwan (-2.3), Japan (-1.
, China (-1.
, Belgium (-1.7), Spain (-1.4), Malaysia (-1.4), Switzerland (-1.2), France (-0.7), Germany (-0.6), Canada (-0.3).
Even countries such as France and Germany eking out slight recoveries are seeing a contraction in “nominal” GDP...
Global prices will rebound later this year as commodity costs feed through – though that may not last once China pricks its credit bubble after the 60th anniversary of the revolution in October...
The sugar rush of fiscal stimulus in the West will subside within a few months. Those “cash-for-clunkers” schemes that have lifted France and Germany out of recession – just – change nothing. They draw forward spending, leading to a cliff-edge fall later. (This is not a criticism. Governments did the right thing given the emergency). The thaw in trade finance has led to a V-shaped rebound in East Asia as pent up exports are shipped. But again, nothing fundamental has change....People talk too much about “liquidity” – a slippery term – and not enough about concrete demand.
Professor James Livingston at Rutgers University says we have been blinded by Milton Friedman, who convinced our economic elites and above all Fed chair Ben Bernanke that the Depression was a “credit event” that could have been avoided by a monetary blast (helicopters/QE). Under that schema, we should be safely clear of trouble before long this time.
Mr Livingston’s “Left-Keynesian” view is that a widening gap between rich and poor in the 1920s incubated the Slump. The profit share of GDP grew: the wage share fell – just as now, in today’s case because globalisation lets business exploit “labour arbitrage” by playing off Western workers against the Asian wages. The rich do not spend (much), they accumulate capital. Hence the investment bubble of the 1920s, even as consumption stagnated.
I reserve judgment on this thesis, which amounts to an indictment of our economic model. But whether we like it or not, Left or Right, we may have to pay more attention to such thinking if Bernanke’s credit fix fails to do the job. Back to socialism anybody?