As I’ve written before, this psychological shift stemmed from the fact that the financial crisis and Great Recession were largely unpredicted. Americans aren’t just deleveraging. They’re also building wealth to protect themselves against unknown dangers. Perhaps the stock market’s recent assault on record highs signals restored confidence, but remember: The market is simply regaining levels of late 2007. A report from Credit Suisse argues that returns to stocks will average about 3.5 percent annually (after inflation) in the next 20 years, down sharply from 6 percent since 1950. To compensate for lower returns, companies would need to contribute more to pensions. Wages would suffer. Consumption spending would weaken.
We are hostage to a stubborn, restraining psychology. There’s no obvious fix for slow job growth, precisely because it requires a change in public mood or some autonomous source of added demand — a burst of exports, investment in new technologies — not easily predicted or controlled. It could happen but is hardly guaranteed. Politics does matter, to a point. Constant budget and tax feuds between the White House and Congress spawn uncertainty and subvert confidence. Obamacare’s disincentives to hiring hurt, though how much is unclear. But grandiose solutions, say infrastructure spending, founder on practicality. A meaningful level of projects would take time to start and add excessively to budget deficits. We are waiting and hoping.