The Anatomy of the Coming Recession

Unlike the 2008 global financial crisis, which was mostly a large negative aggregate demand shock, the next recession is likely to be caused by permanent negative supply shocks from the Sino-American trade and technology war. And trying to undo the damage through never-ending monetary and fiscal stimulus will not be an option.

NEW YORK – There are three negative supply shocks that could trigger a  by 2020. All of them reflect political factors affecting international relations, two involve China, and the United States is at the center of each. Moreover, none of them is amenable to the traditional tools of countercyclical macroeconomic policy.

The first potential shock stems from the Sino-American , which  earlier this month when US President Donald Trump’s administration threatened additional tariffs on Chinese exports, and formally labeled China a currency manipulator. The second concerns the slow-brewing cold war between the US and China over technology. In a rivalry that has all the hallmarks of a “,” China and America are vying for dominance over the industries of the future: artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 5G, and so forth. The US has placed the Chinese telecom giant Huawei on an “entity list” reserved for foreign companies deemed to pose a national-security threat. And although Huawei has received temporary exemptions allowing it to continue using US components, the Trump administration this week announced that it was adding an additional 46 Huawei affiliates to the list.

The third major risk concerns oil supplies. Although oil prices have fallen in recent weeks, and a recession triggered by a trade, currency, and tech war would depress energy demand and drive prices lower, America’s confrontation with Iran could have the opposite effect. Should that conflict escalate into a military conflict, global oil prices could spike and bring on a recession, as happened during previous Middle East conflagrations in 1973, 1979, and 1990.

All three of these potential shocks would have a stagflationary effect, increasing the price of imported consumer goods, intermediate inputs, technological components, and energy, while reducing output by disrupting global supply chains. Worse, the Sino-American conflict is already fueling a broader process of deglobalization, because countries and firms can no longer count on the long-term stability of these integrated value chains. As trade in goods, services, capital, labor, information, data, and technology becomes increasingly balkanized, global production costs will rise across all industries.

Moreover, the trade and currency war and the competition over technology will amplify one another. Consider the case of Huawei, which is currently a global leader in 5G equipment. This technology will soon be the standard form of connectivity for most critical civilian and military infrastructure, not to mention basic consumer goods that are connected through the emerging Internet of Things. The presence of a 5G chip implies that anything from a toaster to a coffee maker could become a listening device. This means that if Huawei is widely perceived as a national-security threat, so would thousands of Chinese consumer-goods exports.

It is easy to imagine how today’s situation could lead to a full-scale implosion of the open global trading system. The question, then, is whether monetary and fiscal policymakers are prepared for a sustained – or even permanent – negative supply shock.

Following the stagflationary shocks of the 1970s, monetary policymakers responded by tightening monetary policy. Today, however, major central banks such as the US Federal Reserve are already pursuing monetary-policy easing, because inflation and inflation expectations remain low. Any inflationary pressure from an oil shock will be perceived by central banks as merely a price-level effect, rather than as a persistent increase in inflation.

Over time, negative supply shocks tend also to become temporary negative demand shocks that reduce both growth and inflation, by depressing consumption and capital expenditures. Indeed, under current conditions, US and global corporate capital spending is severely depressed, owing to uncertainties about the likelihood, severity, and persistence of the three potential shocks.

In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession.

Given the potential for a negative aggregate demand shock in the short run, central banks are right to ease policy rates. But fiscal policymakers should also be preparing a similar short-term response. A sharp decline in growth and aggregate demand would call for countercyclical fiscal easing to prevent the recession from becoming too severe.

In the medium term, though, the optimal response would not be to accommodate the negative supply shocks, but rather to adjust to them without further easing. After all, the negative supply shocks from a trade and technology war would be more or less permanent, as would the reduction in potential growth. The same applies to Brexit: leaving the European Union will saddle the United Kingdom with a permanent negative supply shock, and thus permanently lower potential growth.

Such shocks cannot be reversed through monetary or fiscal policymaking. Although they can be managed in the short term, attempts to accommodate them permanently would eventually lead to both inflation and inflation expectations rising well above central banks’ targets. In the 1970s, central banks accommodated two major oil shocks. The result was persistently rising inflation and inflation expectations, unsustainable fiscal deficits, and public-debt accumulation.

Finally, there is an important difference between the 2008 global financial crisis and the negative supply shocks that could hit the global economy today. Because the former was mostly a large negative aggregate demand shock that depressed growth and inflation, it was appropriately met with monetary and fiscal stimulus. But this time, the world would be confronting sustained negative supply shocks that would require a very different kind of policy response over the medium term. Trying to undo the damage through never-ending monetary and fiscal stimulus will not be a sensible option.

Can America and China Avoid a Currency War?

Although the current poor state of Sino-American relations may make even a very limited currency détente unattainable, such a pact is not outside the realm of possibility. Ultimately, both America and China might see some advantage in taking currency conflict off the table, in the hope of preventing wider damage to themselves and others.

SANTA BARBARA – China’s currency, the renminbi, weakened slightly against the dollar at the start of this week. Around the world, the immediate response was panic. Financial markets tumbled, US President Donald Trump’s administration formally labeled China a currency manipulator, and fears of a new currency war spread like wildfire. To describe all this as an overreaction would be a gross understatement. A currency war has not erupted – at least, not yet.
But the danger is real. Although markets now appear to be recovering somewhat, America and China remain locked in a perilous trade war with no end in sight. The United States is still poised to impose a 10% tariff on some $300 billion worth of Chinese imports. It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that China might then retaliate by engineering a substantial devaluation of its currency. After all, a cheaper renminbi would go a long way toward offsetting the impact of Trump’s tariffs on the prices of Chinese goods in the US.

But, because devaluation would also carry significant risks for China, the country’s leaders will be hesitant to take this step. Many of China’s biggest enterprises have borrowed heavily in dollars, and a weaker renminbi would greatly increase the cost of servicing this external debt. Worse, the prospect of devaluation could spark massive capital flight from China as anxious companies and individuals seek to protect the value of their assets. That is what happened four years ago when the renminbi was allowed to weaken significantly, and the Chinese authorities subsequently had to spend $1 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves to prevent the currency from crashing.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that China is about to declare all-out currency war. What happened earlier this week was much subtler – in effect, a shot across America’s bow. The renminbi was already close to the symbolic level of CN¥7 per US dollar. By setting their daily benchmark rate for the currency at a smidgen below CN¥7, the Chinese authorities created room for currency traders to push the market rate temporarily above CN¥7 – an effective devaluation. Although the actual size of the devaluation was minuscule, the psychological impact was enormous. China was reminding America that it still has many economic arrows in its quiver.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration responded in typical blunderbuss fashion, mistaking the modest Chinese signal for something more sinister. By immediately declaring China a currency manipulator, the US succeeded only in hardening positions on both sides.

To avoid losing face, Chinese leaders may now feel compelled to respond in kind. They could make good on the threat of devaluation, or pull out some of its other arrows. For example, China could

  1. embargo exports of the rare earth minerals that are so vital to America’s tech industry, or prolong its
  2. boycott of US agricultural products. Or it could go beyond the realm of commerce and
  3. stir up trouble in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. In short, relations between the world’s two largest economies could go from bad to much worse.

Can further escalation be avoided? One way to avoid that outcome might be to look to a neutral arbiter to adjudicate the currency issue. The most obvious candidate is the International Monetary Fund, one of whose main functions is to oversee the “rules of the game” in international monetary affairs. All Fund members have pledged to avoid exchange-rate manipulation, and all are formally subject to “firm” Fund surveillance of their currency policies. In principle, if America and China truly want to avoid a monetary conflict, they could ask the IMF to step in to settle matters.

In practice, however, the Fund’s authority is sadly limited. The IMF has no powers to enforce rulings. At best, all it can do is “name and shame” currency manipulators. And in the end, it is hard to imagine either America or China kowtowing to a toothless multilateral organization. Can anyone really picture Trump submitting to the judgment of a bunch of unaccountable international civil servants?

A slightly more realistic option might be a direct bargain between the US and Chinese governments – perhaps also including the European Central Bank and one or two other monetary powers – to achieve some form of currency détente.

There is precedent for such a deal. Back in 1936, following more than a half-decade of uncontrolled competitive devaluations during the Great vDepression, the main financial powers of the day – the US, Britain, and France – agreed to an informal arrangement for mutual exchange-rate stabilization. Jokingly called the “twenty-four-hour gold standard,” the Tripartite Agreement committed each country to give 24 hours’ notice of any change in its currency’s price. Though far from perfect, the pact did manage to restore some semblance of order to monetary affairs.

A similar agreement today would be more difficult to negotiate. In the 1930s, America, Britain, and France were on reasonably good terms. Present-day America and China, by contrast, are strategic adversaries engaged in a trade war, and even a very limited exchange-rate initiative might prove unattainable. Yet it is not outside the realm of possibility. Ultimately, both sides might see some advantage in taking currency conflict off the table, in the hope of preventing wider damage to themselves and others.