Policy U-turns from the Fed and ECB are cascading around the world
Abrupt changes in the policies of the world’s largest central banks have rippled through smaller economies, leaving them with the prospect of low and even negative interest rates for years to come despite having mostly healthy economies.
The danger is that these easy-money policies could fuel destabilizing bubbles in real estate and other asset markets. They may also leave banks with little ammunition to respond to the next economic downturn.
Economies like Switzerland’s, whose central bank signaled no change in its negative-rate policies for years to come, are small compared with the U.S. and eurozone. Still, they are home to major global banks and companies that are sensitive to exchange rates and financial conditions. With financial markets so interconnected, problems in small countries can quickly spread to larger ones.
.. The Swiss National Bank said Thursday that it would keep its policy rate at minus 0.75%, where it has been since January 2015, and reduced its inflation forecast to 0.3% this year and 0.6% in 2020. The SNB cited weaker overseas growth and inflation and “the resulting reduction in expectations regarding policy rates in the major currency areas going forward.”
.. Here’s why Fed and ECB decisions matter for countries that don’t use the dollar or euro: Switzerland and countries near the eurozone but not part of it—like Sweden and Denmark—rely on the bloc for much of their exports and imports. That makes growth and inflation highly dependent on the exchange rate. Central-bank stimulus tends to weaken a country’s exchange rate, so when the ECB embraces easy-money policies as it did two weeks ago it tends to weaken the euro against other European currencies such as the Swiss franc. Because the ECB is so large, Switzerland and others can do little to offset it.
.. “They are hostage to the fortunes of what the ECB does,” said David Oxley, economist at Capital Economics.
.. “The gravity pull is very strong” from the Fed and ECB, said Sebastien Galy, macro strategist at Nordea Asset Management. “The consequence is [non-euro central banks in Europe] mostly end up importing policy from the ECB, so you end up with housing bubbles and a misallocation of capital.”
Most economic forecasts suggest that a recession in China will hurt everyone, but that the pain would be more regionally confined than would be the case for a deep recession in the United States. Unfortunately, that may be wishful thinking.
CAMBRIDGE – When China finally has its inevitable growth recession – which will almost surely be amplified by a financial crisis, given the economy’s massive leverage – how will the rest of world be affected? With US President Donald Trump’s trade war hitting China just as growth was already slowing, this is no idle question.
.. First, the effect on international capital markets could be vastly greater than Chinese capital market linkages would suggest. However jittery global investors may be about prospects for profit growth, a hit to Chinese growth would make things a lot worse. Although it is true that the US is still by far the biggest importer of final consumption goods (a large share of Chinese manufacturing imports are intermediate goods that end up being embodied in exports to the US and Europe), foreign firms nonetheless still enjoy huge profits on sales in China.
Investors today are also concerned about rising interest rates, which not only put a damper on consumption and investment, but also reduce the market value of companies (particularly tech firms) whose valuations depend heavily on profit growth far in the future. A Chinese recession could again make the situation worse.
.. High Asian saving rates over the past two decades have been a significant factor in the low overall level of real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates in both the United States and Europe, thanks to the fact that underdeveloped Asian capital markets simply cannot constructively absorb the surplus savings.
.. instead of leading to lower global real interest rates, a Chinese slowdown that spreads across Asia could paradoxically lead to higher interest rates elsewhere – especially if a second Asian financial crisis leads to a sharp draw-down of central bank reserves. Thus, for global capital markets, a Chinese recession could easily prove to be a double whammy.
.. a significant rise in global interest rates would be much worse. Eurozone leaders, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, get less credit than they deserve for holding together the politically and economically fragile single currency against steep economic and political odds. But their task would have been well-nigh impossible but for the ultra-low global interest rates
.. Today, however, debt levels have risen significantly, and a sharp rise in global real interest rates would almost certainly extend today’s brewing crises beyond the handful of countries (including Argentina and Turkey) that have already been hit.
.. Nor is the US immune. For the moment, the US can finance its trillion-dollar deficits at relatively low cost. But the relatively short-term duration of its borrowing – under four years if one integrates the Treasury and Federal Reserve balance sheets – means that a rise in interest rates would soon cause debt service to crowd out needed expenditures in other areas. At the same time, Trump’s trade war also threatens to undermine the US economy’s dynamism.
.. Its somewhat arbitrary and politically driven nature makes it at least as harmful to US growth as the regulations Trump has so proudly eliminated. Those who assumed that Trump’s stance on trade was mostly campaign bluster should be worried.
.. A recession in China, amplified by a financial crisis, would constitute the third leg of the debt supercycle that began in the US in 2008 and moved to Europe in 2010. Up to this point, the Chinese authorities have done a remarkable job in postponing the inevitable slowdown. Unfortunately, when the downturn arrives, the world is likely to discover that China’s economy matters even more than most people thought.
Across the eurozone, political leaders are entering a state of paralysis: citizens want to remain in the EU, but they also want an end to austerity and the return of prosperity. So long as Germany tells them they can’t have both, there can be only one outcome: more pain, more suffering, more unemployment, and even slower growth... The backlash in Italy is another predictable (and predicted) episode in the long saga of a poorly designed currency arrangement, in which the dominant power, Germany, impedes the necessary reforms and insists on policies that exacerbate the inherent problems, using rhetoric seemingly intended to inflame passions... Italy has been performing poorly since the euro’s launch. Its real (inflation-adjusted) GDP in 2016 was the same as it was in 2001... From 2008 to 2016, its real GDP increased by just 3% in total... the euro was a system almost designed to fail. It took away governments’ main adjustment mechanisms (interest and exchange rates); and, rather than creating new institutions to help countries cope with the diverse situations in which they find themselves, it imposed new strictures – often based on discredited economic and political theories.. The euro was supposed to bring shared prosperity, which would enhance solidarity and advance the goal of European integration. In fact, it has done just the opposite, slowing growth and sowing discord... Emmanuel Macron, in two speeches, at the Sorbonne last September, and when he received the Charlemagne Prize for European Unity in May, has articulated a clear vision for Europe’s future. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel has effectively thrown cold water on his proposals, suggesting, for example, risibly small amounts of money for investment in areas that urgently need it... In my book, I emphasized the urgent need for a common deposit insurance scheme, to prevent runs against banking systems in weak countries... The central problem in a currency area is how to correct exchange-rate misalignments like the one now affecting Italy. Germany’s answer is to put the burden on the weak countries already suffering from high unemployment and low growth rates... The alternative is to shift more of the burden of adjustment on the strong countries, with higher wages and stronger demand supported by government investment programs... Matteo Salvini, the party’s leader and an experienced politician, might actually carry out the kinds of threats that neophytes elsewhere were afraid to implement. Italy is large enough, with enough good and creative economists, to manage a de facto departure – establishing in effect a flexible dual currency that could help restore prosperity... Whatever the outcome, the eurozone will be left in tatters... It doesn’t have to come to this. Germany and other countries in northern Europe can save the euro by showing more humanity and more flexibility. But, having watched the first acts of this play so many times, I am not counting on them to change the plot.
despite the formation of an anti-establishment coalition government in Italy, and the rise of populist parties across Europe, opinion polls suggest that support for the EU is now higher than it has been in decades. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, if a referendum on EU membership were held today, 83% of Europeans would vote to remain in the bloc; and a record-high 60% regard EU membership as a “good thing” for their country.
.. In other words, while populism can certainly sow political divisions within the EU, there is little evidence that Brexit itself has caused a domino effect.
The Brexit ringleader Nigel Farage might like to think that Italy’s new populist government represents a success for his brand of go-it-alone nationalism, but it turns out that Europe’s populists are of a different breed than those in the UK. Though financial markets have grown skittish at the prospect that Italy’s new leaders could drive their country out of the eurozone, polling conducted after the election in March showed that 60-72% of Italians would not support such a move.
.. Just 32% of citizens believe that “things are going in the right direction” for the EU
.. Trump’s tariffs have thus provided a perfect opportunity for Germany’s grand-coalition government to meet Macron halfway on his ambitious proposals to reform the EU and the eurozone.
.. Trump revels in the chaos he sows. He regards international relations as a zero-sum game of winners and losers, and, to the extent that his foreign and trade policies make any sense at all, they are transactional. By contrast, the EU’s modus operandi is one of collaboration and compromise. And now that these two worldviews are colliding, each is likely to be emboldened.