Sunday, March 25, 2012

How to ensure stimulus today, austerity tomorrow

by Lawrence Summers

Financial Times

March 25, 2012

Economic forecasters divide into two groups. There are those who cannot know the future but think they can – and then there are those who recognise their inability to know the future. Major shifts in the economy are rarely forecast and often not fully recognised until they have been under way for some time. So judgments about the US economy have to be tentative. What can be said is that for the first time in five years a resumption of growth significantly above the economy’s potential now appears a substantial possibility. Put differently, after years when growth was more likely to surprise below expectations than above them, the risks are now very much two-sided.

As winter turned to spring in 2010 and 2011, many observers thought they detected evidence that the economy had decisively turned, only to be disappointed a few months later. Several considerations suggest that this time may be different. Employment growth has been running well ahead of population growth for some time now. The stock market level is higher and its expected volatility lower than at any time since 2007, suggesting that the uncertainty weighing on business has declined. Consumers who deferred purchases of cars and other durable goods have created pent-up demand that now seems to be emerging. At last the housing market seems to be stabilising. For years now, the rate of new families setting up households has been well below normal as more and more young people have moved in with their parents. At some point they will set out on their own, creating a virtuous circle of a stronger housing market, more “family formation” that boosts demand, further improvement in housing conditions and so on. And, assuming there is no punitive regulation, innovation in mobile information technology, social networking and newly discovered oil and natural gas seems likely to drive investment and job creation.

True, the risks of high oil prices, further problems in Europe and financial fallout from anxiety about future deficits remain salient. However, unlike the situation in 2010 and 2011, these risks are probably already priced into markets and factored into outlooks for consumer and business spending. There has already been a significant rise in oil prices. Europe’s situation is hardly resolved but is very unlikely to deteriorate as much in the next months as it did last year. And market participants report great alarm about the deficit situation. So even modestly good news in any of these areas could drive upward revisions in current forecasts.


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