This article by the Financial Times’ Wolfgang Munchau argues that the slowdown starting in the US is likely to be long lived. The main reason? Interest rate cuts are much less effective when the financial sector is impaired.
The grim action in global stock markets lats night says there is some agreement with Munchau’s reading.
From the Financial Times:
Monetary policy affects the economy with long and variable lags. This much we know. How long depends on the state of the economy in question.
In 2001, the US got away with an unusually short recession helped by aggressive interest rate cuts and an expansionary fiscal policy. But in Japan in the early 1990s, and in Germany in the early part of this decade, it took ages for low interest rates to help the real economy.
One of the reasons was that those recessions were aggravated by crises in the financial sector itself. I fear that the US recession of 2008 will be similar in quality – though not necessarily in length and depth – to those in Japan and Germany, rather than to the US recession in 2001.
Interest rate cuts work their way through to the real economy by a number of transmission channels. During the 2001 recession in the US, the most important was housing credit. The rate cuts came at a time when the housing market was already booming. They turned the boom into a super-boom. Inflationary expectations were low. People expected interest rates to remain low. It was a great moment to take on extra debt, and this was precisely what Americans did.
The current US downturn could not be more different. House prices are falling, and have further to fall before reaching a more sustainable level (in terms of the price-to-rent ratios as well as several other measures). Core inflation has been above the Federal Reserve’s comfort zone for some years now. There is no way that either the Fed, the Bank of England or the European Central Bank could, at this stage, create another housing boom even if they wanted to. Housing downturns have a strong dynamism, which is not easy to break. This is not a great time to take on debts, but to pay them off.
What about the other channels?
The corporate credit channel works more slowly. A company faced with an acute downturn in demand for its products is not going to start investing immediately when interest rates fall. At the very least, it would only do so if it expects variable interest rates to remain low for some time.
For that to happen, inflationary pressures have to be well contained, which they clearly are not.
Central banks only control the short end of the yield curve. Long-term rates are set in the financial markets. A cut in short-term interest rates that is not matched by falls in long-term interest rates will produce a steeper yield curve. That is quite normal in a recession, but an excessively steep yield curve could become a big problem for the central bank.
As this newspaper reported last week, the yield difference between the two-year and the 10-year US Treasury notes has reached 1.24 percentage points, the highest level in three years. Long-term interest rates could even go up if bond markets start to distrust the Fed’s commitment to maintain a low rate of inflation.
I assume that this is only a matter of time. With core inflation stubbornly over 2 per cent, the current 10-year yield of 3.8 per cent seems a touch optimistic. So we might be seeing a simultaneous fall in short-term rates and a rise in long-term rates.
Cui bono? The banks, of course. The bank-bailout channel will be the only monetary transmission mechanism to function like clockwork. The steeper the yield curve, the greater the profits for banks, which make a living by borrowing at short interest rates and lending at long rates. If short rates are going down and long rates are going up, the banking sector is once again in a position to reap risk-free profits.
So do not be fooled by anybody who says that the central bank should cut interest rates for the benefit of innocent citizens who have been caught up in this maelstrom. The first, second and third beneficiaries of the Federal Reserve’s pending helicopter drop of cash will be banks, not ordinary people or companies.
Eventually, of course, if one maintains an absurdly soft monetary policy for long enough, the cheap money will trickle through the financial sector to the rest of the economy, but at the cost of higher inflation and reduced purchasing power.
As time goes on, the financial sector’s health will gradually improve. Eventually, the credit squeeze will be over – and the next irresponsible lending boom can begin.
It would therefore be unwise, to say the least, for policymakers to rely on monetary policy alone. By far the best policy response – though clearly limited in scope – is a well-targeted fiscal policy stimulus, a point recently made by Lawrence Summers, the former US Treasury secretary, in his Financial Times column.
The best stimulus package would be one that could be agreed today, enacted tomorrow, targeted specifically at subprime families, and was only temporary. Back in the real world, where politicians run fiscal policy, this is obviously not going to happen. While the usual pork-barrel-type stimulus package that is now shaping up in the US is far from ideal, it is still marginally better than letting the central bank sort out this mess alone.
There is no such thing as a standard policy response to all recessions. There are recessions like the one in 2001, which respond well to a monetary policy stimulus. But not all do. This is going to be one of those.