Globally, interest rates have been extraordinarily low for an exceptionally long time, in nominal and inflation-adjusted terms, against any benchmark. Such low rates are the most remarkable symptom of a broader malaise in the global economy: the economic expansion is unbalanced, debt burdens and financial risks are still too high, productivity growth too low, and the room for manoeuvre in macroeconomic policy too limited. The unthinkable risks becoming routine and being perceived as the new normal.
This malaise has proved exceedingly difficult to understand. The chapter argues that it reflects to a considerable extent the failure to come to grips with financial booms and busts that leave deep and enduring economic scars. In the long term, this runs the risk of entrenching instability and chronic weakness. There is both a domestic and an international dimension to all this. Domestic policy regimes have been too narrowly concerned with stabilising short-term output and inflation and have lost sight of slower-moving but more costly financial booms and busts. And the international monetary and financial system has spread easy monetary and financial conditions in the core economies to other economies through exchange rate and capital flow pressures, furthering the build-up of financial vulnerabilities. Short-term gain risks being bought at the cost of long-term pain.
Addressing these deficiencies requires a triple rebalancing in national and international policy frameworks: away from illusory short-term macroeconomic fine-tuning towards medium-term strategies; away from overwhelming attention to near-term output and inflation towards a more systematic response to slower-moving financial cycles; and away from a narrow own-house-in-order doctrine to one that recognises the costly interplay of domestic-focused policies. One essential element of this rebalancing will be to rely less on demand management policies and more on structural ones, so as to abandon the debt-fuelled growth model that has acted as a political and social substitute for productivity-enhancing reforms. The dividend from lower oil prices provides an opportunity that should not be missed. Monetary policy has been overburdened for far too long. It must be part of the answer but cannot be the whole answer. The unthinkable should not be allowed to become routine.