What Will Cause the Next US Recession?

Three of the last four US recessions stemmed from unforeseen shocks in financial markets. Most likely, the next downturn will be no different: the revelation of some underlying weakness will trigger a retrenchment of investment, and the government will fail to pursue counter-cyclical fiscal policy.

BERKELEY – Over the past 40 years, the US economy has experienced four recessions. Among the four, only the extended downturn of 1979-1982 had a conventional cause. The US Federal Reserve thought that inflation was too high, so it hit the economy on the head with the brick of interest-rate hikes. As a result, workers moderated their demands for wage increases, and firms cut back on planned price increases.
The other three recessions were each caused by derangements in financial markets. After the
  1. savings-and-loan crisis of 1991-1992
  2. came the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000-2002, followed by the
  3. collapse of the subprime mortgage market in 2007, which triggered the global financial crisis the following year

.. And one can infer from today’s macroeconomic big picture that the next recession most likely will not be due to a sudden shift by the Fed from a growth-nurturing to an inflation-fighting policy. Given that visible inflationary pressures probably will not build up by much over the next half-decade, it is more likely that something else will trigger the next downturn.

Specifically, the culprit will probably be a sudden, sharp “flight to safety” following the revelation of a fundamental weakness in financial markets. That, after all, is the pattern that has been generating downturns since at least 1825, when England’s canal-stock boom collapsed.

.. Needless to say, the particular nature and form of the next financial shock will be unanticipated. Investors, speculators, and financial institutions are generally hedged against the foreseeable shocks, but there will always be other contingencies that have been missed. For example, the death blow to the global economy in 2008-2009 came not from the collapse of the mid-2000s housing bubble, but from the concentration of ownership of mortgage-backed securities.

Likewise, the stubbornly long downturn of the early 1990s was not directly due to the deflation of the late-1980s commercial real-estate bubble. Rather, it was the result of failed regulatory oversight, which allowed insolvent savings and loan associations to continue speculating in financial markets. Similarly, it was not the deflation of the dot-com bubble, but rather the magnitude of overstated earnings in the tech and communications sector that triggered the recession in the early 2000s.

At any rate, today’s near-inverted yield curve, low nominal and real bond yields, and equity values all suggest that US financial markets have begun to price in the likelihood of a recession. Assuming that business investment committees are thinking like investors and speculators, all it will take now to bring on a recession is an event that triggers a retrenchment of investment spending.

If a recession comes anytime soon, the US government will not have the tools to fight it. The White House and Congress will once again prove inept at deploying fiscal policy as a counter-cyclical stabilizer; and the Fed will not have enough room to provide adequate stimulus through interest-rate cuts. As for more unconventional policies, the Fed most likely will not have the nerve, let alone the power, to pursue such measures.

As a result, for the first time in a decade, Americans and investors cannot rule out a downturn. At a minimum, they must prepare for the possibility of a deep and prolonged recession, which could arrive whenever the next financial shock comes.

Stop attacking the Fed, Mr. President

President Trump, do yourself a favor. Stop attacking the Federal Reserve and its chairman, Jerome H. Powell (yes, the same Powell you nominated). The result would be better for you, better for Powell and — most important — better for the country.

Unfortunately, Trump can’t seem to restrain himself.

“I will tell you, at this moment in time I am not at all happy with the Fed. . . . They’re making a mistake because . . . my gut tells me more sometimes than anyone else’s brain can ever tell me. . . . I’m not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay. Not even a little bit.”

.. Until recently, there seemed to be a crude consensus among economists that the Fed should continue its gradual increases in interest rates to preempt higher inflation. The economy seems strong enough to tolerate tighter credit.

The unemployment rate of 3.7 percent is the lowest since the 1960s; inflation is around 2 percentconsumer confidence is high.

But the consensus may be fraying. There are signs of weakness.

  • The stock market has fallen;
  • housing sales and prices have softened;
  • the trade war between the United States and China remains unresolved

.. On Nov. 26, the paper ran an op-ed by

  • Harvard economist Martin Feldstein, a chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Ronald Reagan, urging the Fed to raise rates. The next day, the Journal ran an op-ed by
  • Harvard economist Jason Furman, chairman of the CEA under President Barack Obama, counseling delay.

.. One danger for Trump is that the Fed, seeking to prove its “independence,” will deliberately oppose what the president prefers.

.. One danger for Trump is that the Fed, seeking to prove its “independence,” will deliberately oppose what the president prefers.

.. “President Trump has gone completely off the rails with his criticism of Fed Chair Powell,” says economist Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. He “is using the Fed as a scapegoat for anything that goes wrong in the stock market and the economy.”

In Trump’s defense, he is not the first president to try to control the Fed and corrupt its independence.

  1. Lyndon B. Johnson lambasted then-Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin in the mid-1960s for raising interest rates against his wishes.
  2. Richard M. Nixon pressured Arthur F. Burns, Martin’s successor, to keep rates low. Likewise, President
  3. Harry S. Truman pushed the Fed to maintain easy money and credit.

.. But these and other cases occurred mainly behind closed doors. Trump’s brash innovation has been to take his complaints public; the apparent aim is to intimidate the Fed into doing his bidding. If the Fed resists, Trump might propose legislation curbing its powers. That would signal a real state of war between Trump and the Fed, with what consequences for financial markets and the economy, it’s hard to know.

.. It’s also true that attacking the Fed has long been standard operating procedure for members of Congress of both parties.

Congress depends on the Fed both to steer the economy and absorb public blame when the economy falters,” write Binder and Spindel. A lot of this criticism is political theater, designed to impress voters but not to do much else. What’s not familiar is for the president to be leading the charge.

From Economic Crisis to World War III

The response to the 2008 economic crisis has relied far too much on monetary stimulus, in the form of quantitative easing and near-zero (or even negative) interest rates, and included far too little structural reform. This means that the next crisis could come soon – and pave the way for a large-scale military conflict.

BEIJING – The next economic crisis is closer than you think. But what you should really worry about is what comes after: in the current social, political, and technological landscape, a prolonged economic crisis, combined with rising income inequality, could well escalate into a major global military conflict.

The 2008-09 global financial crisis almost bankrupted governments and caused systemic collapse. Policymakers managed to pull the global economy back from the brink, using massive monetary stimulus, including quantitative easing and near-zero (or even negative) interest rates.

But monetary stimulus is like an adrenaline shot to jump-start an arrested heart; it can revive the patient, but it does nothing to cure the disease. Treating a sick economy requires structural reforms, which can cover everything from financial and labor markets to tax systems, fertility patterns, and education policies.

Policymakers have utterly failed to pursue such reforms, despite promising to do so. Instead, they have remained preoccupied with politics. From Italy to Germany, forming and sustaining governments now seems to take more time than actual governing. And Greece, for example, has relied on money from international creditors to keep its head (barely) above water, rather than genuinely reforming its pension system or improving its business environment.

The lack of structural reform has meant that the unprecedented excess liquidity that central banks injected into their economies was not allocated to its most efficient uses. Instead, it raised global asset prices to levels even higher than those prevailing before 2008.

In the United States, housing prices are now 8% higher than they were at the peak of the property bubble in 2006, according to the property website Zillow. The price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio, which measures whether stock-market prices are within a reasonable range, is now higher than it was both in 2008 and at the start of the Great Depression in 1929.

As monetary tightening reveals the vulnerabilities in the real economy, the collapse of asset-price bubbles will trigger another economic crisis – one that could be even more severe than the last, because we have built up a tolerance to our strongest macroeconomic medications. A decade of regular adrenaline shots, in the form of ultra-low interest rates and unconventional monetary policies, has severely depleted their power to stabilize and stimulate the economy.

If history is any guide, the consequences of this mistake could extend far beyond the economy. According to Harvard’s Benjamin Friedman, prolonged periods of economic distress have been characterized also by public antipathy toward minority groups or foreign countries – attitudes that can help to fuel unrest, terrorism, or even war.

For example, during the Great Depression, US President Herbert Hoover signed the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, intended to protect American workers and farmers from foreign competition. In the subsequent five years, global trade shrank by two-thirds. Within a decade, World War II had begun.

To be sure, WWII, like World War I, was caused by a multitude of factors; there is no standard path to war. But there is reason to believe that high levels of inequality can play a significant role in stoking conflict.

According to research by the economist Thomas Piketty, a spike in income inequality is often followed by a great crisis. Income inequality then declines for a while, before rising again, until a new peak – and a new disaster.

This is all the more worrying in view of the numerous other factors stoking social unrest and diplomatic tension, including

  • technological disruption, a
  • record-breaking migration crisis,
  • anxiety over globalization,
  • political polarization, and
  • rising nationalism.

All are symptoms of failed policies that could turn out to be trigger points for a future crisis.

.. Voters have good reason to be frustrated, but the emotionally appealing populists to whom they are increasingly giving their support are offering ill-advised solutions that will only make matters worse. For example, despite the world’s unprecedented interconnectedness, multilateralism is increasingly being eschewed, as countries – most notably, Donald Trump’s US – pursue unilateral, isolationist policies. Meanwhile, proxy wars are raging in Syria and Yemen.

Against this background, we must take seriously the possibility that the next economic crisis could lead to a large-scale military confrontation. By the logicof the political scientist Samuel Huntington , considering such a scenario could help us avoid it, because it would force us to take action. In this case, the key will be for policymakers to pursue the structural reforms that they have long promised, while replacing finger-pointing and antagonism with a sensible and respectful global dialogue. The alternative may well be global conflagration.

The Global Impact of a Chinese Recession

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.