Recession rehearsal

Powell under pressure

The last week has seen many different expressions of adaptive behaviour. First, the Democratic Party establishment and organisation have rallied around Joe Biden, and helped to push him to stunning turnaround in the Party’s campaign for President.

Then there has been widespread adaptation to the coronavirus – people have stopped shaking hands, travel only when necessary and it seems, lead incrementally more healthy lives (though a half-marathon I had entered was cancelled). In some cases however, stoicism wins out – the London Tube is as packed as ever.

In markets, investors – a great deal of whom are unsentimental robots – are adapting to extreme volatility. It has been one of the most extraordinary weeks in markets as investors try to position around the uncertainties introduced by the coronavirus. If and when we get it, a mid-twenties reading on the Vix volatility index would suggest that what might be described as ‘normal’ trading is getting underway. 

Then, policy makers have also been adapting, slowly. My sense is that to a large extent the policy reaction to the coronavirus is a rehearsal for how the next recession is met. So far, it has been a shambles. 

Jerome Powell, in making a 50 basis point cut in interest rates revealed that he is beholden to both equity and bond markets, and it seems, to politics. His action underlined the existence of the Fed ‘put’ – that the central bank will ride to the market’s rescue in times of turbulence.

The delivery of the rate cut was poor.  It focused insufficiently on the sense that this move would provide ‘insurance’ and on the ways it might combat the economic panic (e.g. risk of bankruptcies) associated with the coronavirus.

With the idea of a ‘rehearsal’ in mind, Powell’s move contributed to a feeling that when the ‘real’ recession comes, the Fed will have relatively little monetary ammunition and may, like the ECB and Bank of Japan (BoJ), have to resort to extraordinary measures like negative interest rates. 

If that is where the Fed is headed to, then the lesson for them from the likes of the BoJ, ECB and Riksbank in Sweden is not a happy one. The rush towards very low to negative rates in those monetary jurisdictions undercut banking sectors – a key reason why Europe and Japan have had weak recoveries, and also why to date US banks have outcompeted their international rivals. Sharply cutting rates, in tandem with a compressing yield curve, undercuts the balance sheets of banks, and in some cases can deepen a downturn. The Fed needs to study this carefully.

The second issue with the political response to the economic side-effects of the coronavirus crisis so far, is that despite G7 conference call and very general statement of intent, there is little apparent leadership and coordination.

The fracturing of international politics has made sincere collaboration difficult in practice (America might for example have announced a moratorium on sanctions on China). Moreover, the absence of a serious fiscal response in countries like Italy (the support measures announced come to only 0.3% of GDP), and the notable lack of open thinking on how deregulation might serve to boost business, is worrying.

I may be a little too critical here, but the sum of the week’s policy activity highlights depleted economic arsenals. Debt is too high and few countries have a decent fiscal surplus. Those that do, like Germany, don’t have the will to spend it.

It also points to a depleted international policy community – where the goodwill, leadership and force of mind that existed in the 1980’s or 1990’s (I am thinking of the likes of James Baker or Robert Rubin) is no longer visible. In Europe, Christine Lagarde has been strangely quiet.

There is now a need, an opportunity and hopefully time for someone like Kristalina Georgieva, or even departing Bank of England boss Mark Carney, to so a postmortem on the economic policy response to the coronavirus crisis. With world debt to GDP at its highest level since the Second World War, the next recession will be for real.

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