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Strengthening the global balance sheet

Olivia White, Jonathan Woetzel, and Jan Mischke
Olivia White, Jonathan Woetzel, and Jan Mischke • 4 min read
Strengthening the global balance sheet
Faster productivity gains would support strong GDP growth, bolster incomes and wealth, and lead to a healthier balance sheet / Photo: Bloomberg
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In recent decades, the world’s wealth has soared — at least on paper — as low-interest rates drove up asset prices. But the global balance sheet remains rife with fragilities, which recent financial-sector turbulence has exposed. Now, how the world borrows, lends, and creates wealth may be set to change fundamentally.

From 2000 to 2021, asset-price inflation created about US$160 trillion in paper wealth. But while asset valuations grew rapidly, investment and growth remained sluggish. Moreover, every US$1 ($1.34) investment generated US$1.90 in debt. But, recently, headwinds have confronted the world economy: In 2022, households lost US$8 trillion of wealth.

The only certainty now is an unusually high degree of uncertainty. The economic, banking, and investment landscape may look materially different in the next 10 years than in the last 20. But the range of possible paths forward is wide. As part of its ongoing research exploring the global balance sheet, the McKinsey Global Institute has modelled four plausible scenarios.

The first scenario is a “return to the past,” in which the current volatility proves temporary and balance-sheet expansion resumes. This may sound attractive to some, but an expanding balance sheet would continue to raise the risk of economic shocks. It would also come at the expense of real economic growth and exacerbate inequality.

In the second “higher for longer” scenario, inflationary pressure becomes entrenched, but concerns about financial stability moderate policy tightening. Demand would remain strong as investment picked up to support imperatives like the clean-energy transition, the reconfiguration of supply chains, and defence. The savings glut would wane.

Long recession

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This scenario parallels the stagflation the US experienced in the 1970s, albeit with lower inflation — around 4% rather than 9%. In 2030, the balance sheet would look healthier relative to GDP than today because inflation would lower the debt burden and asset prices in real terms.

The third scenario, a “balance-sheet reset,” represents the worst case. Here, interest rates would continue to rise, contributing to financial-system stress or even failures. This would lead to a sharp correction in asset values, with many debt-financed assets ending underwater.

A drawn-out deleveraging process and a long recession could follow, with the value of US equities and real estate potentially dropping by more than 30% in real terms between now and 2030. This scenario recalls what happened in Japan in the 1990s after its real-estate and equity bubble burst.

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But a fourth, far more desirable “productivity acceleration” scenario is also plausible. This is the Goldilocks scenario that is good for both growth and wealth. Faster productivity gains would support strong GDP growth, bolster incomes and wealth, and lead to a healthier balance sheet.

Achieving this best-case scenario would require fiscal and monetary policymakers to strike a delicate balance: Tightening is needed to mitigate inflation, but too much tightening would deplete wealth and cause financial stress.

The difference between the best- and worstcase scenarios — in terms of growth and (even more so) balance-sheet health — would be enormous. In the US, annual average GDP growth in a balance-sheet-reset scenario would be an estimated 1.7 percentage points lower than in a productivity-acceleration scenario. Household wealth would be US$48 trillion lower.

With such a wide variety of possible future shapes of the economic, banking, and investment landscape, businesses will find it unusually difficult to define their strategies. Reacting to shifts in the macro environment will no longer suffice.

Firms must plan for a sufficiently broad set of outcomes, identify signs that can help indicate which scenario is taking shape, and solidify risk-management approaches while adjusting their business models and seeking new growth opportunities.

Best outcome

Businesses must ensure that they are prepared for anything. But they should also strive for the best outcome: Higher productivity growth. While doing both simultaneously will take some effort, it is imperative. If firms act only defensively, based on the expectation of a negative outcome, the investment climate could become hostile.

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Expectations of a growth slowdown or recession could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than making investments that could contribute to better economic outcomes, firms might decide to wait. Real-estate developers anticipating lower prices might delay new projects. Banks focused on strengthening their balance sheets could raise lending standards, reducing the credit supply.

To avoid such a spiral, public and private sector leaders can make a case for a productivity-acceleration scenario and devise policies and strategies that advance it. Higher productivity growth is achievable. But it will not happen by itself. — © Project Syndicate

Olivia White, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, is a director of the McKinsey Global Institute. Jonathan Woetzel, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, is a director of the McKinsey Global Institute. Jan Mischke is a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute

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