Scary Words From Martin Wolf: End of Global Imbalances

Martin Wolf, the Financial Times’ highly regarded chief economics editor, has a particularly sobering article today, “Challenge of rescuing world economy,” and Wolf is a serious sort to begin with.

Wolf uses a couple of less widely discussed presentations from the Fed’s conference at Jackson Hole as his point of departure. He contrasts one by Harvard’s Martin Feldstein, who urged a rate cut (and also argued for a policy bias in favor of inflation), versus Stanford’s John Taylor, who thinks that what got us into this mess in the first place was excessively loose monetary policy from 2002 to 2006 (and by implication, continuing down that route will only make things worse).

So far, the piece covers largely familiar territory. It’s a more-erudite-than-usual treatment of the “to cut or not to cut” dilemma facing the Fed.

But then Wolf veers off in a new direction. He points out the Feldstein and Taylor, and many of their peers, are framing the problem in purely domestic terms, when the problems facing the market are component of a much bigger story: the unwinding of the pattern of funds flows generally called “global imbalances,” namely capital flows from high savings countries such as China, Taiwan and Japan, funding current account deficits (meaning consumption) in the US.

Global imbalances have become as fundamental to the operation of the world economy as the Gulf Stream is to the climate, and changes in it would produce a similar level of disruption.

Wolf points out the constraint on Fed action that has not gotten enough consideration in the US: the need to shore up the dollar. Anything more than modest rate cuts would lead to a further decline of the dollar, which could more than offset the impact of a Fed funds rate cut. If enough foreign investors become disenchanted with the dollar, purchases of Treasuries would fall. Even if the Fed lowers the Fed funds rate, the increases along the rest of the yield curve could more than offset the effect of a Fed move.

And Bernanke is worried about the dollar. That was the focus of his talk Tuesday, and I was surprised that more note was not made of it in the financial press (although that may be what triggered Wolf’s line of thought). And the fact that the dollar is at a record low relative to the Euro isn’t a plus.

Wolf proclaims that the era of the US as the world’s engine of consumption is at an end, and he foresees an ugly readjustment period, including the possibility of a global slowdown and housing price declines in other countries. Some economists such as Michael Spence and Mohamed El-Erain had hoped that global imbalances would correct themselves gradually, but we were skeptical. However, it would have been much better had we been proven wrong.

It’s still possible that policy makers will be able to steer a sound course through these treacherous changes, but the worried tone of Wolf’s piece suggests that he regards it as unlikely.

From the Financial Times:

The financial markets have taken the world economy hostage. This has presented the world’s central banks with a dilemma. They fear the consequences of paying off those responsible for the mess. But they cannot let hundreds of millions of innocents suffer. Last week’s announcement of the first US monthly fall in employment for four years has made a cut in interest rates from the Federal Reserve this month a virtual certainty. So act it will. But making the right decisions is going to be hard.

Martin Feldstein of Harvard university put the case for big cuts in a powerful summing up at this year’s Jackson Hole monetary conference.* He argued that the US housing sector was at the heart of three interrelated events. First was “a sharp decline in house prices and the related fall in home-building that could lead to an economy-wide recession”. Second was “a subprime mortgage problem that has triggered a substantial widening of all credit spreads and the freezing of much of the credit markets”. The third was “a decline in home equity loans and mortgage refinancing that could cause greater declines in consumer spending”.

Prof Feldstein pointed, for example, to a 3.4 per cent year-on-year decline in US house prices, with the chance of substantially more to come. Robert Shiller of Yale argued at the same conference that US house prices might ultimately fall by as much as 50 per cent, which would lower US household wealth by more than $10,000bn.

Prof Feldstein also noted the damage done to the financial markets by the crisis in subprime lending. This is partly because credit spreads are correcting, albeit modestly so far. More important, “as credit spreads widened, investors and lenders became concerned that they did not know how to value complex risky assets”. With confidence gone, banks have been forced to advance loans to their off-balance-sheet “special investment vehicles”, which uses up their capital and so starves other borrowers.

Finally, as house prices and borrowing fall, household saving rates will rise towards more normal levels and residential investment fall still further. This combination seems sure to generate a rapid decline in the personal sector’s financial deficit (discussed in my column of August 21 2007).

Prof Feldstein concluded by recommending a “risk-based approach”, which treats the risk of a recession as more important than that of an upsurge in inflation. If the latter were indeed to happen, “the Fed would have to engineer a longer period of slower growth to bring the inflation rate back to its desired level. How well it would succeed in doing this will depend on its ability to persuade the market that a risk-based approach in the current context is not an abrogation of its fundamental pursuit of price stability.”

If the Fed did what Prof Feldstein recommends, it would risk undermining its credibility. How, then, did it get into this mess? At Jackson Hole, John Taylor of Stanford university – inventor of the “Taylor rule” (which relates monetary policy to movement in output and inflation) – blamed the Fed for excessively loose policy between 2002 and 2006.

Thus, Prof Taylor believes the Fed made a mistake under Alan Greenspan’s leadership. Prof Feldstein suggests it should risk repeating it. But these distinguished academics and, indeed, most of the US academic discussion ignore the international dimension to both the origin and resolution of this turmoil.

Prof Taylor dismisses the “savings-glut” explanation for the low US interest rates, with the observation that global savings rates are lower than three decades ago. But the world, without the US, had a rapidly rising excess of savings over investment in the early 2000s, much of it directed to the US. Given the huge capital inflow, the Fed’s monetary policy had to generate a level of demand well above potential output.

The international dimension also shapes the resolution of the crisis. The Fed has a delicate judgment to make, not just between saving the hostages and rewarding the hostage-takers, but also between saving the US economy and risking confidence in the dollar.

In essence, the dollar needs to weaken, but not to crash. The Fed cannot risk a big rise in long-term interest rates, in response to loss of confidence in US price stability and an exchange-rate collapse.

Yet when house prices are expected to fall, lower interest rates themselves are unlikely to persuade people to borrow and spend. Thus a large part of the impact of lower interest rates must come via a weaker dollar and large improvements in the external balance.

This is another way of saying that the era in which the world could rely on the engine of US consumption is now at an end. If anything, the engine is more likely to go into reverse.

So the long-awaited and much-discussed “rebalancing” of the world economy is about to accelerate. Should the rest of the world fail to respond appropriately, a significant global slowdown is foreseeable.

Yet the US is not the only country in such a predicament. In an era of low interest rates, house prices soared in a number of developed countries. These also are vulnerable to a house price correction.

Much of the adjustment to lower growth, or even a decline, in US consumption must come elsewhere. Among others, China will be in the eye of this storm. Suppose, for example, that the dollar went down against the floating currencies, notably the euro, accompanied by the renminbi. Suppose, too, that the Chinese authorities took no measures to expand domestic demand. Then the external adjustment would fall elsewhere in the world. This would prove highly disruptive, particularly in continental Europe. Even the commitment to open markets might be endangered.

The combination of house price falls with a financial crisis in the core country of the world economy means big challenges for policymakers everywhere, particularly for the Fed, since it must respond without destroying trust in the dollar, and for policymakers in savings-surplus countries, who must anticipate a world in which the US demand engine slows sharply. Will they manage to keep the world economy expanding stably? A year or so from now we will have a far better idea of the answer.

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  1. a

    “a sharp decline in house prices and the related fall in home-building that could lead to an economy-wide recession”.

    But housing prices have become unaffordable. To a large extent the problem we’re having in the financial markets is that housing prices got too high, so Americans borrowed on a wing and a prayer to afford the house they thought they deserved. Housing prices need to correct, by as much as dividing by 2. Sure, you can keep housing prices up to “avoid recession”, but this is favoring the old over the young, the house owner (who is already greatly favored in the tax code) over the renter. And in the end, it probably wouldn’t work anyway.

    There was a time when recessions happened and didn’t threaten economic catastrophe. Because of Greenspan, this is no longer the case, because everyone is so leveraged that the first whiff of recession may send the entire pyramid of cards crashing down. Continuing this game is a fool’s gambit. (I’ve used this metaphor before, but think of a recession as a forest fire. It’s awful, but it burns up all the dry tinder, so that the next forest fire won’t be so bad. Not fighting a forest fire looks like a waste – think of all those trees – but eventually it’s become standard policy, because over the long-term it’s better.)

    But, let’s continue this idea about global imbalances. If the U.S. consumer consumes less, then either other countries will step to the plate and consume more, and buy American products, thereby softening the impact of the lower American consumption. Or they won’t; and maybe we should just have economies where consumption is less, with global warming and peak oil and all.

  2. Anonymous

    We’re at the end of a period of time where demand exceeded supply. This is why houses sold for prices far above what they could be built for, and commodities such as copper sell for several multiples of the cost of production. The US consumer has lost access to the cheap credit that has been fuelling the high global demand. If a seamless transition to another global consumer cannot be made, house and commodity prices will fall, and no, a 50% reduction in prices across the board is not out of the question.

  3. Aron Roberts

    Martin Wolf’s article brings to mind this classic op-ed piece about the dangers of “global imbalances” from former Fed Chair Paul Volcker:

    An Economy On Thin Ice
    Washington Post, April 10, 2005

    Volcker wrote: “under the placid surface, there are disturbing trends: huge imbalances, disequilibria, risks — call them what you will. Altogether the circumstances seem to me as dangerous and intractable as any I can remember …”

    “I don’t know whether change will come with a bang or a whimper, whether sooner or later. But as things stand, it is more likely than not that it will be financial crises rather than policy foresight that will force the change.”

  4. Estragon

    “Global imbalances have become as fundamental to the operation of the world economy as the Gulf Stream is to the climate, and changes in it would produce a similar level of disruption”

    Interesting analogy.

    There’s a critical flaw in the analogy though, in that the gulf stream is a cyclic process by which heat is moved around the planet, but without resulting in the accumulation of heat in any particular place. The money convector, in contrast, leaves a buildup of debt in one place and a buildup of excess reserves in another.

    In other words, the gulfstream is a self-correcting system, whereas the debtstream is an unsustainable buildup of forces which are liable to unwind violently.

    A better analogy might be a thunderstorm. If the pressures equalize sooner rather than later, we get a bit of rain and wind, but we’re okay otherwise. If the pressures build to far though, we get hurricanes and tornadoes.

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