With the past week’s dismal jobs data in the United States, signs of increasing financial strain in Europe and discouraging news from China, the proposition that the global economy is returning to a path of healthy growth looks highly implausible.
It is more likely that negative feedback loops are again taking over as falling incomes lead to falling confidence, which leads to reduced spending and yet further declines in income. Financial strains hurt the real economy, especially in Europe, and reinforce existing strains. And export-dependent emerging markets suffer as the economies of the industrialized world weaken.
The question is not whether the current policy path is acceptable. The question is, what should be done? To come up with a viable solution, consider the remarkable level of interest rates in much of the industrialized world. The U.S. government can borrow in nominal terms at about 0.5 percent for five years, 1.5 percent for 10 years and 2.5 percent for 30 years. Rates are considerably lower in Germany and still lower in Japan.
Even more remarkable are the interest rates on inflation-protected bonds. In real terms, the world is prepared to pay the United States more than 100 basis points to store its money for five years and more than 50 basis points for 10 years. Maturities would have to reach more than 20 years before the interest rates on indexed bonds becomes positive. Again, real rates are even lower in Germany and Japan. Remarkably, the United Kingdom borrowed money last week for 50 years at a real rate of 4 basis points.
These low rates on even long maturities mean that markets are offering the opportunity to lock in low long-term borrowing costs. In the United States, for example, the government could commit to borrowing five-year money in five years at a nominal cost of about 2.5 percent and at a real cost very close to zero.