A Good Crisis, Wasted

It is official. The rest of the world assumes the economy can pick up were we left off in 2006, with the US as the driver of global demand. And it is apparent there is little US policymakers can or will do to counter the trend. Once again, crisis – and along with it the opportunity to rebalance global growth – is wasted.

The Greek debt crisis gave Europe’s deficit hawks just the excuse they have needed to pull back on fiscal stimulus. From Bloomberg:

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany is poised for a “decisive” round of budget cuts that will shape government policy for years to come, fueling disagreement with U.S. officials who favor measures to step up growth.

Speaking at the start of two days of Cabinet talks in Berlin called to identify potential savings of 10 billion euros ($12 billion) a year, Merkel said Europe’s debt crisis underscores the need for budget tightening to ensure the euro’s stability.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a cheerleader at the ECB:

European Central Bank President Jean- Claude Trichet and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner diverged on prescriptions to sustain growth, with Europe set to tighten budgets and the U.S. seeking stronger domestic demand.

The impact of narrower budget gaps “on growth could not be considered negative because it would improve confidence,” Trichet told reporters yesterday after meeting with Group of 20 finance chiefs in Busan, South Korea. The need for such action is clear in “old industrialized economies,” he said.

In the eyes of Trichet, the tragedy of the Greek crisis was that the ECB was pulled into the fray, forced to buy sovereign debt in a move that threatened the independence of Europe’s central bank. Obviously, one way to prevent a repeat of this supposed travesty is simply to ensure that all EMU parties bring spending under control. Whether they really need to or not – no reason to go through that messy business of trying to differentiate between nations.

Elsewhere in the Euro zone, some are quite pleased to let the Euro sink:

“I see good news from the current euro-dollar rate,” French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told reporters in Paris June 4. President Nicolas Sarkozy “and I have been saying for years that the euro-dollar rate didn’t reflect reality and was penalizing our exports,” he said.

And the Chinese remain hesitant to change policy, so perhaps Europeans are wise to just throw in the towel:

“Something has to be done on the currency,” Strauss-Kahn told reporters in Busan. “The IMF still believes that the renminbi is substantially undervalued,” he said, using another term for China’s currency.

Perhaps it is naïve to believe Chinese policymakers would let the renminbi rise given their inability to manage their domestic economy. From the Wall Street Journal:

Government policy changes have thrown China’s booming property market into a period of paralysis that some industry executives say will last for several months, weighing on global growth prospects already battered by the turmoil in Europe.

A rebound in China’s property market has been central to the nation’s rapid recovery from the financial crisis, but surging housing prices had led to increasingly open discontent from middle-class families in major cities. After months of indecision, Beijing in mid-April announced a package of policies intended to blow the froth out of the market by restricting speculative purchases.

Officials may have gotten more than they bargained for. Though still too recent for their effect to show up in official economic statistics, early indications are that the new measures have sharply cooled the property market. Arriving around the same time as the debt crisis in Greece, China’s new restrictions caused many investors and businesses to question the strength of the global recovery. Domestic steel prices are down 7.4% since the April measures, and as of Thursday China’s main stock market index is down 19.4%.

Chinese policymakers are not willing to upset the export cart at the same time they are dealing with start-stop internal issues. Where this all ends for the US is painfully obvious. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote in an open letter to the G20 finance ministers:

…achieving a strong and sustainable global recovery requires that we make further progress on rebalancing global demand. Given the broader shifts underway in the U.S. economy toward higher domestic savings, without further progress on rebalancing global demand, global growth rates will fall short of potential. In this context, we are concerned by the projected weakness in domestic demand in Europe and Japan. In keeping with the Pittsburgh Framework on Strong, Sustainable, and Balanced Growth, the necessary shift toward higher savings in the United States needs to be complemented by stronger domestic demand growth in Japan and in the European surplus countries, and sustained growth in private demand, together with a more flexible exchange rate policy, in China.

Don Geithner, tilting at windmills. His battles are futile. Financial markets know it, sensing that the global growth cannot be sustained on the back of the US alone. Of course, this was always the case; demand in the US alone was never sufficient to recreate the fabled “V” recovery of the 1980s. Market participants also know that US policymakers have their finger in the dam of a tidal wave of competitive devaluations. The Dollar, for all its warts, remains the big dog of reserve currencies, and Geithner fears the global pandemonium that would result from an actual US response to the currency manipulation of others. Thus the postponed report on currency manipulators becomes another case of “extend and pretend.”

In the end, why continue to hold the Euro on what is increasingly the myth of global rebalancing? It is clear European policymakers want a weaker Euro, and US policymakers are powerless to prevent a stronger dollar. At least we are getting cheaper oil as a result.

When it all shakes out, the US will actually be asked to do more, not less. Lower interest rates will discourage saving and diffuse a political barrier to enhance fiscal stimulus in the US. Goodness, as I write this, the yield on the 10 year is again below 3.20%. Clearly, the world is looking for more, not less AAA debt, and the US will eventually be the last nation willing to issue it. Moreover, eventually the persistent unemployment problem will weigh on politicians such that while they might bluster on about deficit spending, they will forced to do just that. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve claims to be prodding banks to lend more aggressively. From Bloomberg:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said he’s concerned about the costs U.S. joblessness is imposing on the economy and that the central bank is telling field examiners to encourage lending to creditworthy businesses.

“One particularly difficult issue is the continued high rate of unemployment,” Bernanke said today at a forum at the Chicago Fed’s Detroit office, calling joblessness among the “important concerns” for the recovery. “High unemployment imposes heavy costs on workers and their families, as well as on our society as a whole.”

Again, the jobs problem. A problem that will magically receive more attention as Wall Street flails. After all, an unemployed high school dropout won’t be writing checks for $10,000 a plate campaign fundraisers, not like that nice man from the hedge fund.

Where does this all leave us? The rest of the world is intent on pursuing a begger thy neighbor strategy, with the US being the neighbor. I suspect US policymakers will eventually relent; it will be the only choice left. All we can do now is sit back and wait for the inevitable explosion in the US trade deficit, waiting idly by for the next crisis and the “chance” to bring some sanity to the global financial architecture.

About Tim Duy 348 Articles

Tim Duy is the Director of Undergraduate Studies of the Department of Economics at the University of Oregon and the Director of the Oregon Economic Forum.

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