Thursday, 11 July 2013

Why is the economy still stuck in a rut?

As the last hope for an economic recovery, monetary policy has proven lacklustre at best and here is why things have not turned out as planned.

It has been more than five years since the onset of the global financial crisis but it still seems as if we are stuck cleaning up the mess.  The task of getting the economy back on track has been made even trickier with policy makers being side-tracked by a number of misadventures such as the Eurozone crisis and the fiscal cliff in the US.  Governments everywhere have been shackled by large debts and central banks have been relied on to save the day.  Despite having a better track record in the past, the inability of central banks to use monetary policy to fix the problems created by the unique circumstances of our current dilemma have prolonged the economic stagnation.  Your Neighbourhood Economist looks at why the central banks had to try new things and why even this fresh approach has not improved the outlook for the future.

Monetary policy had always provided a road map back to economic recovery in the past.  The directions were simple – lower interest rates would help get the economy back on the right path. The theory behind this was that making it cheaper for firms or households to borrow would give the economy a boost at a time when other sources of growth were flagging.  Interest rates could be topped up again once the economy had been kick started with inflation used as a gauge on the strength of the economy (i.e. low inflation suggests weak demand with rising inflation seen as a sign of an overheating economy). 

However, even interest rates close to zero have failed to gain traction amid the consequences of the global financial crisis.  There are two main reasons for this which relate to borrowers and lenders.  On the lending side, banks have shrunk their operations due to chronic uncertainty that pervaded both the financial well-being of the banks themselves and any borrower they might lend to – banks were unsure of the potential for losses on their own books, let alone those of other business which they may lend to.  A wave of new regulations also acted to hamstrung banks who reacted by lending less to lower the level of risk on their balance sheets with other options such as selling shares not available (this problem was most pronounced in Europe – see Another reason not to bank on Europe for more). 

Borrowers too weren't in the mood with many companies and households having already taken on too much debt during the years of cheap credit which led up to the crisis.  Uncertainty was another factor as wage earners worried about their jobs while firms were more concerned with their own survival rather than borrowing to expand their operations.  Rather than borrowing, the opposite was more likely to be the case as consumers paid down their credit cards while firms repaid their debt and kept cash for a rainy day.  A lack of willingness on both sides (lenders and borrowers) meant that more debt was out of the question no matter how low interest rates would be set.  This put pay to conventional notions of monetary policy and required a fresh approach.

Quantitative easing was taken on-board as a possible solution.  This involved central banks buying bonds to provide funding for banks and companies wanting a different source of cheap funding.  The bond buying also lowered the returns on these safer assets and pushed investors to put their money into more risky assets such as buying bonds of struggling countries in Europe like Greece or Spain.  The extra money in the global financial system was expected to help grease the wheels of banking which had seized up.  But little of this additional cash has reached the real economy and has been hoarded by banks or companies or has gone to pump up share prices.

The limited extent to which their policies fed through to the economy prompted central banks to throw more and more funds at the problem with the Federal Reserve in the US buying US$85 billion in bonds each month and the Bank of Japan pledging to double the money supply in two years (for more on this gamble, see All bets are ON).  The acceleration of monetary policy has not driven the economy much faster through the slowdown.  However, even just the notion of an eventual retreat by central banks has caused jitters among investors who have benefited most up to now from the real-world consequences of monetary policy (refer to Caution - Windy Road Ahead to see how monetary set the tone of stock markets).

So the outlook for the stagnating economy is not good.  Governments remained mired in their debt with even relative bright spots such as the recovery in the US economy in peril when factoring in likely cuts to government spending in years to come.  Central banks have dug themselves into deep holes by trying to do too much and even the limited effects of monetary policy will be difficult to maintain (for more on why thus might be the case, see The perils of doing too much).  The result being that problems in the economy such as a shortfall in demand and uncertainty over the future continue to drag on consumer and business sentiment.  All it would take to ignite economic growth again is a commonly held belief that the future will be brighter.  But, considering all of the above, it is proving a hard sell.  

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