Triple-A Ratings Are So Yesterday

A company’s credit rating is a lot like a person’s credit score. The better the score, the more easily—and cheaply—you can borrow money through the debt markets. The highest score a company can get is AAA. The lowest is D. And for many years, companies strove to get that AAA rating. It wasn’t just the key to low borrowing rates, it was also a sign of solidity and reliability. And it came with serious bragging rights.

Back in the 80s, there were dozens of AAA-rated companies. Today, though, there are just two. Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson. That’s it. Most other companies appear to have given up aiming for that AAA gold standard. They don’t see the point. In fact, many companies seem quite happy to get a BBB-, which is the lowest rating that many investment companies will tolerate, and just one notch above a ‘high-yield’ or ‘junk’ rating.

How can this be? How is it that corporations have gotten okay with letting themselves go like this? We talk with Moody’s Analytics Chief Capital Markets Economist John Lonski and Bloomberg Credit Reporter Claire Boston about what’s changed in the bond market and why companies are content to get a passing grade.

Historic Asset Boom Passes by Half of Families

Scant wealth leaves families vulnerable if recession hits, economists say

The decadelong economic expansion has showered the U.S. with staggering new wealth driven by a booming stock market and rising house prices.

But that windfall has passed by many Americans. The bottom half of all U.S. households, as measured by wealth, have only recently regained the wealth lost in the 2007-2009 recession and still have 32% less wealth, adjusted for inflation, than in 2003, according to recent Federal Reserve figures. The top 1% of households have more than twice as much as they did in 2003.

This points to a potentially worrisome side of the expansion, now the longest on record. If another recession comes, it could be devastating for people who have only just recovered from the last one.

Wealth Rebound

Wealth, also called net worth, is the value of assets such as houses, savings and stocks minus debt such as mortgages and credit-card balances. Net worth is different from income, the cash a household receives each month such as wages, dividends and government benefits. It is common for countries to have a highly skewed wealth distribution. Nonetheless, in the U.S., wealth inequality has grown faster than income inequality in the past decade, making the current wealth gap the widest in the postwar period, according to a study by Moritz Kuhn, Moritz Schularick and Ulrike Steins, economists at the University of Bonn.

Behind this trend: More than 85% of the assets of the wealthiest 1% are in financial assets such as stocks, bonds or stakes in private companies. By contrast, slightly more than half of all assets owned by the bottom 50% of households comes from real estate, such as the family home. Economic and regulatory trends over the past decade have not only favored stock over housing wealth, but have also made it harder for the less affluent to even buy a home.

Since 2009, home prices have outpaced incomes, making it harder for families to purchase their first home.

Home prices have increased 41% since 2009

40

%

30

20

Percentage change in price of a starter home

10

Income has grown 8%

0

Percentage change in median income

-10

-20

2009

’10

’11

’12

’13

’14

’15

’16

’17

Note: Adjusted for inflation

Sources: CoreLogic (home prices); Commerce Department (incomes)

Until the mid-2000s, the net worth of households across the wealth distribution increased at roughly the same pace, keeping inequality stable. That started to change when housing prices took off in the early 2000s. For the bottom 50%, rising home values were more than offset by mortgage debt, which almost doubled between 2003 and 2007. For the top 1%, debt was flat between those years. When the housing bubble burst, many less-affluent households saw housing wealth wiped out; some lost their homes altogether.

Today, the bottom half of American households aren’t carrying so much debt compared with the prerecession peak, after adjusting for inflation. And starting in 2012, a recovery in home prices has allowed their net worth to inch up. But house prices, adjusted for inflation, have yet to reach their 2006 peak, according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index. Meanwhile, a decade of rising equity prices has buoyed the 1% wealthiest households, pushing the value of their financial assets up 72% since the recession, after adjusting for inflation.

The bottom 50% of households saw a much bigger rise in mortgage debt during the housing boom than wealthier households

Aggregate mortgage debt, in trillions ($)

0

Top 1%

Next 9%

Bottom 50%

-1.5

-3.0

-4.5

-6.0

2005

’10

’15

2005

’10

’15

2005

’10

’15

Note: Figures shown in 2019 dollars

Source: Federal Reserve

Structural economic forces have affected the wealth of the rich and the lower-middle class differently. The Fed kept interest rates near zero and bought bonds in the years after the crisis to revive the economy, in the process amplifying the run-up in asset prices. “Who owns that stuff? Rich people,” said Karen Petrou, managing partner at Federal Financial Analytics.

Meanwhile, the share of families in the bottom half who own a home has fallen to about 37% in 2016, the latest year for which data are available, from 43% in 2007, according to the Fed. Homeownership among the entire population has crept up since 2016.

Homes in Las Vegas. More than half of all assets owned by the bottom 50% of households comes from real estate, such as the family home.PHOTO: ROGER KISBY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

For those who lost a house during the recession or never had one, getting a toehold in homeownership has become more difficult. Partly because of regulations designed to prevent another crisis, banks have toughened credit standards and down-payment requirements, said Susan Wachter, a University of Pennsylvania economist. Had the looser, prerecession credit standards stayed, the proportion of Americans who own their home would have been 5.2 percentage points higher in 2010-2013, a study by Ms. Wachter and three co-authors estimates.

Why the Economic Expansion Missed Many Americans
00:00 / 11:39
How the Other Half Lives
The net worth of the bottom half of American households has been slow to come back from the recession.
Wealth for the bottom 50% of Americans

Assets

Liabilities

Net worth

Net debt

RECESSION22.533.544.555.566.5$7 trillion20042006200820102012201420162018
Note: Figures shown in 2019 dollars
Source: Federal Reserve
Danny Dougherty/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
When the housing bubble burst, asset values plummeted, while debt fell much more slowly.
In 2010, the bottom 50% of American households had more debts than assets.
Wealth grew as the recession ended, as assets outpaced debt.
In recent years, the growth in assets has outpaced debt, allowing net worth to recover.
Households with little wealth, however, are more exposed to the vagaries of the economy. Areas that saw a bigger drop in housing wealth after the recession also suffered a sharper decline in consumption, according to research by economists Atif Mian, Kamalesh Rao and Amir Sufi.

“If no shock is happening then everything is fine, but if a shock is happening you have a much more fragile economy,” said Mr. Kuhn.

How can lawmakers address the gap in household wealth, if at all? Join the conversation below.

Leticia Segura ’s house in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago lost about half its value during the recession, she said. Today, it is worth about $250,000, still almost $30,000 short of its value in 2007, she said.

Ms. Segura and her husband, Jesus, almost lost the home to foreclosure during the crisis after Mr. Segura lost his job and the couple fell behind on mortgage payments. A government program helped the couple get current, but they remained underwater on their mortgage until just a few months ago, meaning they owed more than their home’s value.

Today, both have new jobs and Ms. Segura feels more comfortable financially. But the couple remains cautious. They have set aside some money to cover the mortgage for three or four months should disaster strike again. “After that we’d just have to pray,” she said.

Here’s what a normal White House would be doing to prepare for a recession

This is how the Trump administration should be getting ready, if it could just admit the peril.

The Trump administration, in its predictably weird way, is flailing because of the idea that a recession might someday strike. White House officials told The Washington Post this month that they hadn’t yet done anything to prepare for this eventuality. Then President Trump added that “we’re very far from a recession” and claimed that any talk of one was a media conspiracy to hurt his reelection prospects. But he also said he was considering a payroll tax cut to protect against the downturn he’d said wasn’t possible. The following day, he reversed himself: That move was now off the table.

Perhaps the president is right and the threat is not imminent; no one knows for sure when it will hit, but based on a broad range of indicators, the risks are rising. At least his aides now seem to be mulling the possibility that the U.S. economy may fall into a recession on their watch — and considering the actions they might take if it does. The smartest thing they could do is cancel Trump’s China tariffs. (Waging a trade war while fighting a downturn is like punching the economy in the face while treating its bruises.) But given Trump’s victory-at-any-cost attitude, and the joy he evidently takes in contradicting expert opinion on this matter, the tariffs will probably remain.

What, then, can the administration do to soften the blow, whenever it lands? When I was the chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden — the implementer in chief of the 2009 Recovery Act — my colleagues and I divided preparations for a downturn into three parts: diagnosis, prescription and politics.

First, the type of recession informs the response. A freeze-up of the credit system when a swath of home loans (and bets on those loans) goes bad requires a different answer than a downturn caused by disrupted global supply chains and collapsing business and consumer confidence. The magnitude of the problem matters, too. The $800 billion Recovery Act passed in 2009, for instance, would have been an excessive stimulus to treat the much milder 2001 recession.

It is too soon to accurately diagnose the cause or depth of the next recession, but there are some hints worth minding. There’s no obvious bubble in credit markets, and most banks appear less exposed to a 2008-style crisis. The bigger problem appears to be trade-sensitive sectors like manufacturing and farming (which have less access to export markets that buy their goods) along with the increasing insecurity of the business community, which is causing executives to halt the kind of investment in jobs and structures that stimulates growth. Business investment declined slightly last quarter, down 0.6 percent. One producer of ear buds and headphones told The Post this month, for instance, that he suspended hiring after Trump tweeted his intention to slap another round of tariffs on Chinese imports.

Trump on trade war: ‘I am the chosen one’

President Trump on Aug. 21 again defended his trade war with China and downplayed fears of a recession. 

Second, the prescription is already somewhat baked-in. Our system has a set of “automatic stabilizers,” programs that, without any new legislation, ramp up to help economically vulnerable people when the market fails. Unemployment insurance, which is a joint federal/state program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are examples of services that answered needs during the last recession. One similar but overlooked tool is the tax code itself. Because it is still progressive (income tax rates rise with income), if your salary takes a big enough hit, you can be pushed into a lower bracket and thus pay less in taxes.

Yet these automatic responders can offset only the mildest of recessions, and actions by the Trump administration have weakened their effect even more. By reducing personal and corporate tax rates, the 2017 tax cut has dampened the stimulus inherent in the code, as tax expert Bill Gale has noted (a less-progressive code means smaller changes in liabilities as people move between income brackets). Also, Trump’s approval of work requirements for health care and various low-income programs have restricted the number of people eligible to use them. A good recession plan would help restore access to such programs for the people who suddenly need the most help. Another problem, not of Trump’s doing, is that 18 state unemployment insurance coffers — including in highly populated states like California, New York, Texas and Illinois — do not meet the minimum Labor Department standard for recession readiness.

In other words, the administration and Congress need to get to work on a package of temporary measures that would pick up where traditional unemployment insurance and SNAP leave off.

One such measure should be state fiscal relief. Unlike the federal government, states must balance their budgets, even in recessions, and their actions typically involve layoffs and higher charges (like college tuition hikes). In the last recession, fiscal relief to states worked well and garnered bipartisan support. Plus, it’s administratively straightforward: Congress can temporarily bump up federal matches to federal/state programs, like Medicaid. Lawmakers would also need to move speedily to send states money to supplement their unemployment insurance systems. In the last crisis, lawmakers dithered while people’s unemployment checks ran out. In 2010, I battled with Congress for an extension as the job market was just beginning to recover and as many as 7 million unemployment insurance recipients were at risk of losing benefits. In later rounds, such squabbling caused millions more unemployed people to lose checks that they later received retroactively, a big administrative hassle that could have been avoided with planning.

Another tool, one often preferred by Republicans (and the only one Trump has touted so far), is tax cuts. About one-fourth of the 2009 Recovery Act went to tax cuts, and they can be useful in terms of putting money in the pockets of people who need it. But such plans make sense only if they’re well-targeted and temporary. Giving a tax cut to rich people who don’t need it, even in a recession, is a waste. Because they’re not income-constrained in the first place, they won’t increase their spending, delivering no extra stimulus.

The Trump administration has already floated a few tax cuts in this context, though it’s not clear if these are serious proposals. One idea his team has mentioned — cutting capital gains taxes — is a good example of a cut that wouldn’t help. Because 86 percent of its benefits would go to the top 1 percent, whose average income is north of $2 million, this cut wouldn’t do anything to offset the downturn. It would also be a permanent change that would cost the Treasury at least $100 billion over 10 years.

One potentially serious constraint is that, because of the deficit-financed tax cuts and spending bills under Trump, we’ll be entering the next recession with a debt-to-GDP ratio that’s more than twice the historical norm (about 80 percent vs. 30 percent). That will surely make some Republicans skittish about expensive stimulus plans. But an inadequate fiscal response to a recession is totally counterproductive, meting out economic pain for no gain. Temporary anti-recessionary measures don’t hurt our long-term fiscal outlook (research by budget analysts Kathy Ruffing and James R. Horney shows that as of 2014, Recovery Act measures were contributing almost nothing to deficits). It’s the more permanent ones — unpaid-for tax cuts and spending bills — that do.

You fix your roof when the sun shines, and you plan for recession while you’re still in recovery. No question, economic clouds are gathering. But the sky remains at least partly sunny. Now is the time to get ready.

How the Recession of 2020 Could Happen

The freeze-up in business confidence, caused in part by the trade war, could wind up affecting consumer confidence.

These three things are all true:

  1. The United States almost certainly isn’t in a recession right now.
  2. t may well avoid one for the foreseeable future.
  3. But the chances that the nation will fall into recession have increased sharply in the last two weeks.

That is the unmistakable message that global investors in the bond market are sending. Longer-term interest rates have plunged since the end of July — a shift that historically tends to predict slower growth, interest rate cuts from the Federal Reserve, and a heightened risk that the economy slips into outright contraction.

This is happening in an economy that, by most indicators, is solid. The United States economy is growing at a roughly 2 percent rate and keeps adding jobs at a healthy clip. There is no sign of the kind of huge, obvious bubbles that triggered the last two recessions, the equivalent of dot-com stocks in 2000 or housing in 2007.

So if there’s going to be a recession in 2020 — if the pessimistic signals in the financial markets prove correct — how would it happen? There are plenty of clues, in the details of recent economic reports, in signals from the markets, and in the recent history of recessions and near recessions.

It is potentially a self-inflicted-wound type of recession,” said Tara Sinclair, an economist who studies business cycles at George Washington University. “But how deep that gash goes depends on many other characteristics of the economy and the policy response thereafter.”

There are parallels to the past. Often, a recession results when some widely held belief about the world turns out to be false. In 2001, it was that a technology boom would fuel the economy and the stock market indefinitely; in 2007, it was that the housing market would never melt down across all regions at once.

This time around, the belief in doubt is that the world will only become more stable and interconnected over time, and that trade, currency and diplomatic relationships can be counted upon.

Recessions result not just when something bad happens in the economy; bad things happen all the time. Recessions occur when those initial shocks are multiplied, in ways that reverberate worldwide. The dot-com crash was accentuated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and a rash of corporate scandals. The 2007 housing bust in the United States became a global financial crisis in 2008 only because banks worldwide took huge losses on mortgage debt.

The starting point for the international tensions that could lead to a recession in the United States is business investment spending, especially in the industrial sector. As corporate C.E.O.s look around the world and make their plans for investment and hiring in the year ahead, they aren’t liking what they see.

The economies in China and many of its Asian neighbors are getting weaker, partly as a result of the trade war with the United States. The European economy, which has muddled along for years with low growth, may be tumbling into a recession, and if Britain crashes out of the European Union with no exit deal on Oct. 31, Europe could face still deeper challenges.

Already, a key measure of business capital spending in the United States, “fixed nonresidential investment,” was in negative territory in the second quarter. And in the nation’s factories, the rate of growth has slowed for five consecutive months, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s index. Although this measure still showed growth, the July reading was the weakest since August 2016.

The trade war between China and the United States is a big part of the reason. The conflict has made it difficult for many global firms to plan their operations — and in some cases, it may lead them to sit on their hands rather than invest. The American strategy has been more successful at escalating trade tensions than in resolving them, so companies do not know whether tariffs will go away soon or will be a continuing cost of doing business.

The president says we’re going to get a great deal and a great deal soon, but he’s been saying that for over a year,” said Phil Levy, a former trade official in the George W. Bush administration and a chief economist at Flexport, a freight forwarder that works with many companies involved in international trade. “You end up paralyzed. You have to make plans, but there is risk all over the place, so businesses get cautious and hold back on investment.”

It’s not just companies directly involved in trade with China that may see reason to hold back on investment. The turmoil in financial markets spurred by the trade war could make businesses of all sorts more cautious.

Still, if the downturn remains confined to business spending, it will be hard — just as a matter of arithmetic — for an overall contraction to result. Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the American economy, versus about 14 percent for business investment.

So far, American consumers are spending enthusiastically, driving overall growth. But there are a few ways the freeze-up in business confidence could change that.

Turbulence in global markets — and the news reports attached to that turbulence — could reduce consumer confidence, and lead Americans to pull back on their buying. The University of Michigan survey of consumer sentiment fell sharply in its August reading, announced Friday.

Or more directly, if businesses pull back on investment spending, they may also make moves that reduce consumers’ incomes, including layoffs, hiring freezes and cuts to overtime.

If that’s the worst of it — trade wars, slower business spending and weaker overseas economies — the United States could probably weather it without falling into contraction. But there are risks out there that could multiply those shocks.

One is the buildup of corporate debt. Businesses have taken on more debt in an era of low interest rates, which leaves them more vulnerable to failure if the economy were to soften or interest rates were to rise. A pullback because of trade wars could cause a wave of bankruptcies that turns a mild slowdown into something worse.

“A highly leveraged business sector could amplify any economic downturn as companies are forced to lay off workers and cut back on investments,” the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome Powell, said in a May speech.

But the biggest risk multiplier may come out of the policy world. In past recessions, the Fed had plenty of room to cut interest rates as a stimulus measure, and fiscal policymakers have been willing to pour money into weaker economies.

The Fed’s main target interest rate is just over 2 percent now,compared with 5.25 percent heading into the last recession in 2007. Other global central banks have even less wiggle room.

And a polarizing president and a divided Congress are unlikely to find much common ground in stimulating the economy. In early 2008, for example, as a recession took hold, the George W. Bush administration negotiated a $152 billion stimulus package with a Democratic Congress to try to lessen the damage.

It seems unlikely that President Trump, heading into a re-election battle, would find the same harmony with Democrats today.

“You could get a widespread fiscal response to a recession,” said Megan Greene, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “That would be really nice, but I’d also like a unicorn for my birthday.”

International coordination would be even harder in the current geopolitical moment. In the fall of 2008, finance ministers and central bankers of the Group of 20 major economies released a joint statement pledging to work together to end the financial crisis. With many nations facing inward, it is hard to imagine that today.

How would a 2020 recession happen?

The trade wars and a breakdown in international economic diplomacy

  • cause businesses around the world to pull back. This
  • leads to further tumbles in markets and job losses, prompting American
  • consumers to become more cautious. High
  • corporate debt loads create a wave of bankruptcies. And
  • central bank policy proves impotent, combined with fiscal policy that is nonexistent.
Chances of a near-term recession are only about one in three, in the view of most forecasters. But if it does develop, the big question will be whether the usual tools to fight it are up to the task.

From Trump Boom to Trump Gloom

The smart money thinks Trumponomics is a flop.

Last year, after an earlier stock market swoon brought on by headlines about the U.S.-China trade conflict, I laid out three rules for thinking about such events.

  1. First, the stock market is not the economy.
  2. Second, the stock market is not the economy.
  3. Third, the stock market is not the economy.

But maybe I should add a fourth rule: The bond market sorta kinda is the economy.

An old economists’ joke says that the stock market predicted nine of the last five recessions. Well, an “inverted yield curve” — when interest rates on short-term bonds are higher than on long-term bonds — predicted six of the last six recessions. And a plunge in long-term yields, which are now less than half what they were last fall, has inverted the yield curve once again, with the short-versus-long spread down to roughly where it was in early 2007, on the eve of a disastrous financial crisis and the worst recession since the 1930s.

Neither I nor anyone else is predicting a replay of the 2008 crisis. It’s not even clear whether we’re heading for recession. But the bond market is telling us that the smart money has become very gloomy about the economy’s prospects. Why? The Federal Reserve basically controls short-term rates, but not long-term rates; low long-term yields mean that investors expect a weak economy, which will force the Fed into repeated rate cuts.

So what accounts for this wave of gloom? Much though not all of it is a vote of no confidence in Donald Trump’s economic policies.

You may recall that last year, after a couple of quarters of good economic news, Trump officials were boasting that the 2017 tax cut had laid the foundation for many years of high economic growth.

Since then, however, the data have pretty much confirmed what critics had been saying all along. Yes, the tax cut gave the economy a boost — a “sugar high.Running trillion-dollar deficits will do that. But the boost was temporary. In particular, the promised boom in business investment never materialized. And now the economy has reverted, at best, to its pre-stimulus growth rate.

At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that Trump’s belligerence about foreign trade isn’t a pose; it reflects real conviction. Protectionism seems to be up there with racism as part of the essential Trump. And the realization that he really is a Tariff Man is having a serious dampening effect on business spending, partly because nobody knows just how far he’ll go.

To see how this works, think of the dilemma facing many U.S. manufacturers. Some of them rely heavily on imported parts; they’re not going to invest in the face of actual or threatened tariffs on those imports. Others could potentially compete with imported goods if assured that those imports would face heavy tariffs; but they don’t know whether those tariffs are actually coming, or will endure. So everyone is sitting on piles of cash, waiting to see what an erratic president will do.

Of course, Trump isn’t the only problem here. Other countries have their own troubles — a European recession and a Chinese slowdown look quite likely — and some of these troubles are spilling back to the United States.

But even if Trump and company aren’t the source of all of our economic difficulties, you still want some assurance that they’ll deal effectively with problems as they arise. So what kind of contingency planning is the administration engaged in? What are officials considering doing if the economy does weaken substantially?

The answer, reportedly, is that there is no policy discussion at all, which isn’t surprising when you bear in mind the fact that basically everyone who knows anything about economics left the Trump administration months or years ago. The advisers who remain are busy with high-priority tasks like accusing The Wall Street Journal editorial page of being pro-Chinese.

No, the administration’s only plan if things go wrong seems to be to blame the Fed, whose chairman was selected by … Donald Trump. To be fair, it’s now clear that the Fed was wrong to raise short-term rates last year.

But it’s important to realize that the Fed’s mistake was, essentially, that it placed too much faith in Trumpist economic policies.

  • If the tax cut had actually produced the promised boom,
  • if the trade war hadn’t put a drag on growth,

we wouldn’t have an inverted yield curve; remember, the Fed didn’t cause the plunge in long-term rates, which is what inverted the curve. And the Trump boom wasn’t supposed to be so fragile that a small rise in rates would ruin it.

I might add that blaming the Fed looks to me like a dubious political strategy. How many voters even know what the Fed is or what it does?

Now, a word of caution: Bond markets are telling us that the smart money is gloomy about economic prospects, but the smart money can be wrong. In fact, it has been wrong in the recent past. Investors were clearly far too optimistic last fall, but they may be too pessimistic now.

But pessimistic they are. The bond market, which is the best indicator we have, is declaring that Trumponomics was a flop.

Why We Should Fear Easy Money

Cutting interest rates now could set the stage for a collapse in the financial markets.

To widespread applause in the markets and the news media, from conservatives and liberals alike, the Federal Reserve appears poised to cut interest rates for the first time since the global financial crisis a decade ago. Adjusted for inflation, the Fed’s benchmark rate is now just half a percent and the cost of borrowing has rarely been closer to free, but the clamor for more easy money keeps growing.

Everyone wants the recovery to last and more easy money seems like the obvious way to achieve that goal. With trade wars threatening the global economy, Federal Reserve officials say rate cuts are needed to keep the slowdown from spilling into the United States, and to prevent doggedly low inflation from sliding into outright deflation.

Few words are more dreaded among economists than “deflation.” For centuries, deflation was a common and mostly benign phenomenon, with prices falling because of technological innovations that lowered the cost of producing and distributing goods. But the widespread deflation of the 1930s and the more recent experience of Japan have given the word a uniquely bad name.

After Japan’s housing and stock market bubbles burst in the early 1990s, demand fell and prices started to decline, as heavily indebted consumers began to delay purchases of everything from TV sets to cars, waiting for prices to fall further. The economy slowed to a crawl. Hoping to jar consumers into spending again, the central bank pumped money into the economy, but to no avail. Critics said Japan took action too gradually, and so its economy remained stuck in a deflationary trap for years.

Yet, in this expansion, the United States economy has grown at half the pace of the postwar recoveries. Inflation has failed to rise to the Fed’s target of a sustained 2 percent. Meanwhile, every new hint of easy money inspires fresh optimism in the financial markets, which have swollen to three times the size of the real economy.

In this environment, cutting rates could hasten exactly the outcome that the Fed is trying to avoid. By further driving up the prices of stocks, bonds and real estate, and encouraging risky borrowing, more easy money could set the stage for a collapse in the financial markets. And that could be followed by an economic downturn and falling prices — much as in Japan in the 1990s. The more expensive these financial assets become, the more precarious the situation, and the more difficult it will be to defuse without setting off a downturn.

The key lesson from Japan was that central banks can print all the money they want, but can’t dictate where it will go. Easy credit could not force over-indebted Japanese consumers to borrow and spend, and much of it ended up going to wastefinancing “bridges to nowhere” and the rise of debt-laden “zombie companies that still weigh on the economy.

Today, politicians on the right and left have come to embrace easy money, each camp for its own reasons, both ignoring the risks. President Trump has been pushing the Fed for a large rate cut to help him bring back the postwar miracle growth rates of 3 percent to 4 percent.

At the same time, liberals like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are turning to unconventional easy money theories as a way to pay for ambitious social programs. But they might want to take a closer look at who has benefited most after a decade of easy money: the wealthy, monopolies, corporate debtors. Not exactly liberal causes.

By fueling a record bull run in the financial markets, easy money is increasing inequality, since the wealthy own the bulk of stocks and bonds. Research also shows that very low interest rates have helped large corporations increase their dominance across United States industries, squeezing out small companies and start-ups. Once seen as a threat only in Japan, zombie firms — which don’t earn enough profit to cover their interest payments — have been rising in the United States, where they account for one in six publicly traded companies.

All these creatures of easy credit erode the economy’s long-term growth potential by undermining productivity, and raise the risk of a global recession emanating from debt-soaked financial and housing markets. A 2015 study of 17 major economies showed that before World War II, about one in four recessions followed a collapse in stock or home prices (or both). Since the war, that number has jumped to roughly two out of three, including the economic meltdowns in Japan after 1990, Asia after 1998 and the world after 2008.

Recessions tend to be longer and deeper when the preceding boom was fueled by borrowing, because after the boom goes bust, flattened debtors struggle for years to dig out from under their loans. And lately, easy money has been enabling debt binges all over the world, particularly in corporate sectors.

As the Fed prepares to announce a decision this week, growing bipartisan support for a rate cut is fraught with irony. Slashing rates to avoid deflation made sense in the crisis atmosphere of 2008, and cutting again may seem like a logical response to weakening global growth now. But with the price of borrowing already so low, more easy money will raise a more serious threat.

By further lifting stock and bond prices and encouraging people to take on more debt, lowering rates could set the stage for the kind of debt-fueled market collapse that has preceded the economic downturns of recent decades. Our economy is hooked on easy money — and it is a dangerous addiction.

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.