Does the crisis protect us from creating another bubble?

bubblesLast month, President Obama warned that “[w]hen wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy.” On August 10, he further cautioned that even in a slow-growth environment, we have to avoid the creation of “artificial bubbles.”

These warnings come after a prolonged period of historically low interest rates and the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented Quantitative Easing (QE) program. Although recent talk of tapering has sent bond yields up, the program has seen the central bank increase its balance sheet from $900 billion before the collapse of Lehman Brothers to $3.6 trillion. The S&P 500 index is chasing new highs and is up over 240% since its lowest point during the crisis, despite slow growth in the economy. Even Ben Bernanke hinted that low interest rates may incentivize risk-taking by financial institutions.

In this environment, fears about new bubbles are widespread. Some claim that—following an unhealthy pattern of artificial recoveries since the tech-bubble of the 1990s—the driving forces of the current recovery are again real estate and automobile sales. As these are mostly debt-financed, the argument goes, the recovery is fuelled by cheap credit and far from being structural. It is true that house prices have seen an impressive recovery, rising 15% year-on-year in June. Similarly, one can find a very high correlation between car sales and economy-wide growth figures. However, correlation does not imply causation. After 5 years of deleveraging, job uncertainty, and a significant reduction in net household wealth, it seems likely that buyers would postpone important investment decisions. The recovery in housing and automobile markets is therefore also a consequence of increased consumer confidence that results from an improved economic outlook, something that can be seen as a positive sign.

Others see bubbles in gold, investment in China, in emerging markets generally (though this risk might have been reduced after important capital outflows following the Fed’s announcement of tapering), treasuries, college tuition, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Another interesting example is the so-called “carbon bubble,” according to which oil-exploring firms do not factor in the possibility of government action on climate change, which could see two-thirds of fossil fuel reserves remain buried. Most convincing, along with Ben Bernanke’s concerns, is the argument that looks at the structural impact of central bank policy on the economy: while large corporations have access to cheap credit that boosts their profits and sends their share prices up; small firms cannot obtain loans at all, and sorely needed investment is postponed.

But does the current rise in stock prices really indicate a growing bubble? After the 2008 crisis, everyone can tell the tale: it all started with the housing bubble that turned into the subprime-mortgage crisis as loans turned sour. Because the financial sector was then forced to curtail lending, the global economy was pushed into a recession, which turned into a sovereign debt crisis in Europe as tax revenues declined and exposed structural imbalances that had been hidden by the bubble.

In hindsight, this is an easy story to tell, but people know little about what creates bubbles in the first place, and—more importantly—what drives investors to make such seemingly irrational decisions when, ex post, it is so easy to identify a “bubble”. As Harold L. Vogel writes, financial asset bubbles are broadly seen as inflations of price beyond what would be expected based on fundamental economic features alone. However, it is very difficult to identify what prices these fundamental features give rise to.

Economic research has produced many theories about the emergence of bubbles but so far, no model has been found to describe—or even predict—patterns of financial bubbles. Among the most debated issues are the assumptions of efficient markets and the rationality of actors. Although it might be rational for single investors to participate in bubbles when they expect others to remain in the market, Vogel rightly points out that the very idea of a bubble requires that there is a wave of irrationality that carries a majority of investment decisions in the excitement of the moment.

Several explanations for this irrationality have been investigated, and behavioral economics will have much to contribute to the debate over the coming decades. At the heart of the creation of a bubble seems to lay a tendency of humans to linearly extrapolate from past performance. Neurological research suggests that investors even override more cautious instincts to sell at times when they fear markets might crash. Furthermore, dynamic prospect theory posits that people change their very attitude to risks over time. The more they have already gained, the less risk-averse they become—implying a strong departure from rationality.

Overall, academic research suggests that a (limited) departure from the investor rationality and efficient markets hypothesis is warranted. Under conventional assumptions, statistical theory would suggest that daily market return amplitudes of 4% would only be observed once every 63 years (but it has been observed on several days in 2008). Clearly, markets do not always behave rationally.

The question that naturally follows is whether this is necessarily bad. Some claim that bubbles might actually spur much-needed technological investment that can drive future growth. Furthermore, bubbles might just be part of the economic cycle of boom and bust. After all, household wealth took a $5 trillion hit with the implosion of stocks in the 1990s, without causing anything like the current crisis.

But this does not square with the common narrative of the post-2008 financial crisis. Paul Krugman has argued that what makes this time different is the concentration of risk in the financial sector. The reason the burst of the bubble caused so much damage to the economy was that banks had to repair their balance sheets and therefore curtailed lending, which caused the economy to contract and the governments to bail out banks in order to prevent further damage. More worryingly, these bail-outs came with few strings attached, so that banks have no incentives to avoid similar behavior in the future.

Is this what we are witnessing right now? By historical standards, price-to-earnings ratios are normal, but some analysts claim that these are unsustainable because profits are held artificially high by low borrowing costs. While the profit-to-GDP ratio has historically been at 6%, it is currently at 10%, and Smithers & Company, a London-based market-research firm estimates stocks are overvalued by forty to fifty per cent compared to historic values. Counterarguments cite lower taxes, globalization (profit-to-GDP ratios are inadequate as companies make much of their profit abroad), and high unemployment (that allows companies to cut payrolls) as reasons for the relative surge in profits.

It comes in the nature of a bubble that it is quite difficult to realize when one is in it. Prolonged periods of low interest rates and QE certainly bear the danger of providing excess liquidity to financial speculators. With sluggish growth, investors are sitting on large piles of cash and seek returns, which can prepare an irrational environment prone to the development of bubbles. Although the stock markets are high, the money supply remains low, and there does not seem to be the same sense of euphoria that we have seen during earlier bubbles. Furthermore, one has to remember that central bank policies often follow a Taylor rule of monetary policy, which is highly dependent on economic performance—low interest rates therefore indicate, above all, bad economic performance. For the moment, the danger of a financial bubble does not seem to be imminent, but both the President and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve are right to keep an eye on financial markets as the economy gathers pace.

Posted by: Marvin Gouraud

Sources: Harold L. Vogel (2010) “Financial Market Bubbles and Crashes”, Bloomberg, U.S. Census, Financial Times, Forbes, Wired, Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, NBC News, Leir Center for Bubble Research, The Telegraph, CNN Money, The Economist, IMF, Federal Reserve,

Photo credit courtesy of Maricel Cruz (edited)


Currency Devaluation and the Threat of Global Currency War

moneyThe rapid devaluation of the Japanese yen has created fresh fears of global currency instability. Citing perennially slow economic growth, Shinzo Abe—the newly elected Prime Minister of Japan—decided to crackdown on deflation through aggressive monetary policy easing that would significantly devalue the yen. However, policy-makers from the EU and the US have decried Japan’s move as an attempt to gain a competitive trade advantage by cheapening its currency so that its goods and services cost less, thereby increasing export trade. The Euro in particular has seen a marked rise that may hurt the EU’s economic recovery if growth and demand for European goods were to slow down.  Japan has stressed that it is not deliberately trying to devalue its currency, saying the yen’s decline has more to do with a market correction following a period of strength. Nevertheless, there has been heated rhetoric demanding that Japan halt, or at least slow down, yen devaluation.

In order to diffuse tensions, the G7 (Group of Seven) countries—comprising the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan—said they would “consult closely” on any action in foreign exchange markets. Furthermore, the G7 avoided criticizing Japan and stated that “We reaffirm that our fiscal and monetary policies have been and will remain oriented towards meeting our respective domestic objectives using domestic instruments, and that we will not target exchange rates.” Japanese policy-makers were reassured by the announcement and according to Taro Aso, the Japanese finance minister, the statement “properly recognizes that steps we are taking to beat deflation are not aimed at influencing currency markets.”

The statement by the G7 comes ahead of a meeting of G20 finance ministers and central bankers in Moscow on Friday. It is expected that Japan will come under scrutiny for its currency policy. Hopefully, the members of the G20 will be able to reach some sort of agreement to regulate and resolve tensions that have arisen from exchange rate discord in order to avoid a potential currency war.

Posted by: Matthew Goldberg

Sources: New York Times, Reuters, Financial Times, CNN Money, Finance Enquiry

Photo Credit: Forex Money for Exchange in Currency Bank courtesy of flickr user epSos. de

Techonomy Conference 2012: Objectives of Technology-Driven Economic Revitalization

On Wednesday, September 12th business leaders, political figures, and technology experts came together for the annual Techonomy Conference in Detroit. Hosted by the Detroit Economic Club, the conference’s agenda focused on the role of technology as a vital component of achieving social progress and economic growth.  This single day program is especially committed to the issues of “reigniting U.S. competitiveness and economic growth, creating jobs, and revitalizing cities in a technologized age”. Featured speakers included Grady Burnett, the Vice President of Facebook’s Global Market Solutions, James Dougherty, an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Business and Foreign Policy on the Council of Foreign Relations, and Justin Fox, the Editorial Director of the Harvard Business Review. They addressed the crowd on topics ranging from challenges in the era of globalization to the democratization of finance and product development to the future of manufacturing and its impact on employment. Audience members were also greeted by the founder of Techonomy, David Kirkpatrick, and treated to speeches on individual entrepreneurial development and other related topics.

The conference took a local look at Michigan and Detroit’s economic struggles for revitalization and at the challenges faced auto-mobile industry. Described as the Silicon Valley of an “earlier era”, Detroit is said to represent the larger issues facing American cities, including adapting to changes in education, employment, and infrastructure brought on by an increasingly globalized market society. Some have questioned the conference’s location of Detroit due to current economic struggles. Techonomy’s founder sends a different message, citing Detroit’s troubles as emblematic of cities that have missed the opportunities of technology in the past but have the potential to resolve these issues. Even a recently hurting automobile industry, a defining characteristic of Detroit, stands to make substantial gains from strengthening its tech culture of efficiency and educational achievement.

What were the goals and expectations of Techonomy? The event sought to utilize the revitalization of industry through technological advances, entrepreneurship, and innovation as major strategies for economic recovery. A focus on the increasing globalization of business and industry practices seemed also to be an objective of the conference. Intent on keeping America pushing the technological envelope, speakers discussed the future of expanding innovation and inspiring competitive growth. Complementarily, lecturers represented a diverse background of national industry and intellectual leadership, to address the concern of declining US competitiveness in detail and tackle the issue from unique viewpoints.

What can the public expect to come from this meeting of multi-disciplinary minds? Perhaps policy-makers will be influenced by the incredible support from the business community for this technology initiative as a means of creating jobs and stimulating urban development. Another possible outcome is a renewed emphasis on education for current and future generations to establish a more highly-skilled workforce with improved techno-literacy. Finally, perhaps Americans will see more pressure for regulatory reform easing start-up business restrictions. Ultimately, conference publicity should push technology to the forefront of economic recovery initiatives as a tool for improving US competitiveness and improving urgent urban issues to speed along city development.

Forbes highlights examples of innovative entrepreneurs in the Detroit area who exemplify these aims and serve as best-practice models for aspiring start-up companies. With the help of the Techonomy and its conference speakers, the American public may be able to look forward to more success stories like these.

Posted by: Sophia Higgins

Sources: Techonomy, Forbes, CNBC

Photo Credit: 2010_08_05_techonomy_105 @ Techonomy courtesy of Flickr user dserals


You are invited to: The New Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Report

 You are invited to: 

The Program on America and the Global Economy (PAGE) presents:

The New Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Report

Thursday, September 20, 2012

1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.

5th floor Conference Room, Woodrow Wilson Center

Martin A. Schmidt, Co-Technical Lead, Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Report; Associate Provost; Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT


Theresa Kotanchek, Co-Technical Lead, Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Report,

Vice President, Sustainable Technologies and Innovation Sourcing, Dow Chemical Company



Thomas Kurfess, Prof., Georgia Tech, Assistant Director for Advanced Manufacturing, Office of Science and Technology

The recently released Advanced Manufacturing Partnership report, Capturing Domestic Competitive Advantage in Advanced Manufacturing, details the unique role that manufacturing plays in the broader U.S. economy-as a direct source of jobs, as a spur to additional job growth across the economy, and as an important force for addressing the nation’s trade deficit.  Most importantly, the report reveals that the nation’s continued strength in innovation depends on sustaining a close, two-way connection between the innovation and manufacturing processes.  “Proximity to the manufacturing process creates innovation spillovers across firms and industries leading to the ideas and capabilities that support the next generation of products and processes,” the report notes.  “In this way, a vibrant manufacturing sector is inextricably linked to our capacity as a nation to innovate.”  At this forum the two technical co-leads for the AMP report will discuss its findings.

RSVP here or to receive further information, send an email to

Directions to the Wilson Center:

You Are Invited: Leading the Second Century of Flight

You are invited to:


Leading the Second Century of Flight


Jim Albaugh

Executive Vice President, The Boeing Company

 With an introduction by

The Honorable Jane Harman

Director, President and CEO

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars


Since the Wright brothers’ first flight, America’s leadership in aerospace has helped build our economy and ensured our security. Today our leadership is threatened by budget constraints at home and heavy investment by other nations abroad. In this National Aerospace Week address, Jim Albaugh will highlight what’s at stake and what steps the U.S. must take to lead the second century of flight.

Jim Albaugh is an executive vice president of The Boeing Company. A 37-year Boeing veteran, Albaugh has led the company’s commercial, defense, space and security businesses.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

10:00 to 11:00 a.m.

Woodrow Wilson Center

6th Floor, Joseph H. and Claire Flom Auditorium

RSVP here or to receive further information, send an email to Please provide your name and professional affiliation.

Please allow time on arrival at the building for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required.

Directions at

Individuals attending Woodrow Wilson Center events may be audiotaped, videotaped, or photographed during the course of a meeting, and by attending grant permission for their likenesses and the content of their comments, if any, to be broadcast, webcast, published, or otherwise reported or recorded.

The Affordable Care Act and the Economy

While our focus here at the PAGE program is on areas such as innovation, education, manufacturing, immigration, and other areas that help America compete in an increasingly globalized economy, health care spending accounts for 18% of this country’s economic output and we would be remiss if we did not briefly examine the Affordable Care Act’s effect on the economy, now that the Supreme Court has ruled on the law and declared that it can be implemented essentially in its entirety.
It terms of the overall economic effect, the ACA will expand coverage to tens of millions of people (the White House estimates 32 million) which will naturally increase demand for health-services and boost health expenditures like hospital visits and medications. This increased spending should fuel growth, at least in the near-term. The legislation is financed partly by additional taxes, especially on higher-earners and their investment income. The tax hit could stifle consumer spending, offsetting the jump in health expenditures. Then again, Americans with higher incomes tend to save more cash, so it’s also reasonable to think taxing them could divert money from savings accounts to spending — boosting the economy. The overall macroeconomic effect will most likely not be discerned as positive, negative or neutral for some time.
Regarding the economic topic of the day, job creation, the effect of the legislation again, is hard to read. As noted above, spending in the health sector is likely to increase if for no other reason than tens of millions more consumers in the market so it is not unreasonable to assume jobs will be created in the health sector. On the other hand, there is much anecdotal evidence (though little empirical, since the Act’s main provisions are not yet in effect) of businesses downsizing or putting off hiring because of the new employer-provided insurance regulations. The incentive and regulation structure for businesses is complex though, with varying rules and subsidies depending on the size and nature of the business so it is hard to forecast how hiring in the private sector at-large will change if at all.
The mostly hotly debated economic factor is how the ACA will affect the deficit. As President Obama reminds anyone who will listen, the Congressional Budget Office scored the legislation as a net deficit reducer (to the tune of $140 billion) over the next ten years although conservatives have quibbled with how the bill was scored. The Court ruled on June 28th that the Federal government cannot force the states to expand Medicaid as the bill had originally intended (specifically, the Federal government could revoke a state’s entire allocation of Medicaid funding if it did not expand Medicaid coverage) so it is possible that conservative governors will not move ahead with expanding Medicaid since they are no longer compelled to. This, no doubt, would be a huge factor in both Federal and state budgets.
Of course, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and the Republicans in Congress have vowed to repeal the Act as soon as they have the chance and should President Obama stay in office, the law will not be fully in effect until 2014 at least. As a result, at this point, the only thing the American people can be sure of is that they and their economy will be affected in some way, simply due to the sweeping nature of the law and the outsized role health spending plays in our economy.
Posted by: Sean Norris

Sources: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Congressional Budget Office,

Photo Credit: Protect the Law courtesy of flickr user Brett Davis

Live Webcast August 8:The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Future of International Trade

The Program on America and the Global Economy(PAGE), the Asia Program, the Canada Institute, the Kissinger Institute, the Latin American Program (LAP) and the Mexico Institute with the Support of Wilson Center Senior Scholar William Krist Presents:

 The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the

Future of International Trade

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

2:00 – 5:00 pm

2:00 pm – 2:40 pm KEYNOTE:  Ambassador Demetrios Marantis, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative

2:50 pm – 3:50 pm PANEL 1: New and Future Participants
Canada: Laura Dawson, President of Dawson Strategic and a Former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center
China: Jeff Schott, Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics
Japan: Edward Lincoln, Professor, George Washington University
Mexico: Luz Maria De La Mora Sanchez, Professor of CIDE, former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center
Moderator: Kent Hughes – Program on America and the Global Economy

4:00 pm – 5:00 pm PANEL 2: Key U.S. Interests
Jim Grueff, Trade Consultant and former trade negotiator for the Foreign Agricultural Service
Linda Menghetti, Vice President, Emergency Committee for American Trade
Celeste Drake, Trade Policy Specialist, AFL-CIO
Stephanie Burgos, Senior Policy Advisor, Oxfam America
Moderator: Kent Hughes – Program on America and the Global Economy

Watch the live webcast here.
Posted by: PAGE Staff