The Great Disconnect

Since the second half of 2012, financial markets have recovered strongly worldwide. Indeed, in the United States, the Dow Jones industrial average reached an all-time high in early March, having risen by close to 9% since September. In Europe, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s “guns of August” turned out to be remarkably effective. Draghi reversed the euro’s slide into oblivion by promising potentially unlimited purchases of member governments’ bonds. Between September 1 and February 22, the FTSEurofirst index rose by almost 7%. In Asia, too, financial markets are up since September, most dramatically in Japan.

Even the Italian elections in late February seem not to have upset markets too much (at least so far). Although interest-rate spreads for Italian and Spanish ten-year bonds relative to German bonds briefly jumped 30-50 basis points after the results were announced, they then eased to 300-350 basis points, compared to 500-600 basis points before the ECB’s decision to establish its “outright monetary transactions” program. 

But this financial market buoyancy is at odds with political events and real economic indicators. In the US, economic performance improved only marginally in 2012, with annual GDP rising by 2.3%, up from 1.8% in 2011. Unemployment remained high, at 7.8% at the end of 2012, and there has been almost no real wage growth over the last few years. Median household income in the US is still below its 2007 level – indeed, close to its level two decades ago – and roughly 90% of all US income gains in the post-crisis period have accrued to the top 1% of households.

Indicators for the eurozone are even worse. The economy contracted in 2012, and wages declined, despite increases in Germany and some northern countries. Reliable statistics are not yet available, but poverty in Europe’s south is increasing for the first time in decades.

On the political front, the US faces a near-complete legislative stalemate, with no sign of a compromise that could lead to the optimal policy mix: short-term support to boost effective demand and long-term structural reforms and fiscal consolidation. In Europe, Greece has been able – so far – to maintain a parliamentary majority in support of the coalition government, but there, and elsewhere, hyper-populist parties are gaining ground.

The Italian election results could be a bellwether for Europe. Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement emerged with 25% of the popular vote – the highest support for any single party. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, confounding those who had forecast his political demise, re-emerged at the head of a populist-rightist coalition that ended up only 0.3 percentage points away from winning.

In short, we are witnessing a rapid decoupling between financial markets and inclusive social and economic well-being. In the US and many other places, corporate profits as a share of national income are at a decades-long high, in part owing to labor-saving technology in a multitude of sectors. Moreover, large corporations are able to take full advantage of globalization (for example, by arbitraging tax regimes to minimize their payments).

As a result, the income of the global elite is growing both rapidly and independently of what is happening in terms of overall output and employment growth. Demand for luxury goods is booming, alongside weak demand for goods and services consumed by lower-income groups.

All of this is happening in the midst of extremely expansionary monetary policies and near-zero interest rates, except in the countries facing immediate crisis. Structural concentration of incomes at the top is combining with easy money and a chase for yield, driving equity prices upward.

And yet, despite widespread concern and anxiety about poverty, unemployment, inequality, and extreme concentration of incomes and wealth, no alternative growth model has emerged. The opposition to the dominant mainstream in Europe is split between what is still too often an “old” left that has trouble adjusting to twenty-first-century realities, and populist, anti-foreigner, and sometimes outright fascist parties on the right.

In the US, the far right shares many of the characteristics of its populist European counterparts. But it is a tribute to the American two-party system’s capacity for political integration that extremist forces remain marginalized, despite the rhetoric of the Tea Party. President Barack Obama, in particular, has been able to attract support as a liberal-left idealist and as a centrist-realist at the same time, which enabled him to win re-election in the face of a weak economy and an even weaker labor market.

Nonetheless, without deep socio-economic reforms, America’s GDP growth is likely to be slow at best, while its political system seems paralyzed. Nowhere is there a credible plan to limit the concentration of wealth and power, broaden economic gains through strong real-income growth for the poor, and maintain macroeconomic stability.

The absence of such a plan in the US (and in Europe) has contributed to the decoupling of financial markets from inclusive economic progress, because it suggests that current trends are politically sustainable. But, while this disconnect could continue for some time if no alternative program emerges, the huge gap between financial markets’ performance and most people’s well-being is unlikely to persist in the longer term. When asset prices overshoot reality, eventually they have nowhere to go but down.