Dubbed ‘The Great Lockdown’ in a recent IMF report, the sudden halt of the world economy has sparked an imminent recession unlike anything we have seen since the second world war.
The estimated loss of global wealth is $9T (equivalent of Germany & Japan’s economies falling off the face of the earth for an entire year) and IMF project a 6% decline in GDP across Europe & the US – twice that of the 2009 global financial crisis.
However unlike 2009, interest rates today are at record lows, rendering any change from here ineffective. This means we need to print money to generate liquidity and spend money to fuel growth, both of which are problematic.
Why do Interest Rates Matter?
Interest rates are set using Monetary Policy which refers to the actions undertaken to control the money supply of a given currency in an economy. In each case, a central bank determines the minimum interest rate in which a currency can be borrowed. Monetary policy is set by the European Central Bank (ECB) in the Eurozone and the Federal Reserve (Fed) in the US.
The lower rates are, the cheaper it is for businesses to borrow which then incentives investment and fuels economic growth.
It is one of two primary tools used to achieve macroeconomic goals and is fundamental in stimulating growth. Without strategic monetary policy, inflation can go out of control (currency loses value) or a recovery can be stalled. For this reason, the UK choose to set their monetary policy independent of the Eurozone via the Bank of England.
Where is Monetary Policy at Today?
Prior to the Global Financial Crisis, monetary policy across the west was in fairly good shape. At the beginning of 2008, interest rates were 4.2% in the Euro, 5.25% in the Dollar and 5.5% in Sterling. This meant that once the crisis hit, central banks were able to lower rates and effectively fuel growth to curb the downturn.
Today, 12 years on, rates are lower than ever; 0% in the Euro, 0.25% in the Dollar and 0.1% in Sterling. This gives central banks virtually no ability to use them to generate further liquidity using interest rates during this crisis.
To put it simply, borrowing money can’t get any cheaper than it is today meaning that central banks can’t reduce the cost of borrowing to tackle this downturn like they could in 2009.
As a result they’ve turned to what’s called quantitative easing (QE) to increase the money supply. This is another word for printing money and is highly contentious as it creates inflation (decrease in the value of money) which may go out of control if not strictly measured. As a result it has a very limited capacity to generate liquidity.
Outside of QE, economies are reliant on fiscal policy to restore growth.
Fiscal policy refers to the use of government spending and tax policies to influence economic conditions, namely macroeconomic conditions such as growth. It is set at the domestic level by national governments. Although the 3 economies in question are aligned on the issue of low interest rates, they face different problems individually when it comes to fiscal policy.
European Policy is Limited
ECB rates have been at 0% since 2016. If they go any lower they will be paying people to borrow money, if they go any higher the Euro Area will be shocked with tighter rates than have been seen in the last four years and economic recovery will be inhibited. So as it stands, the ECB can’t do anything for Europe with interest rates.
This means monetary policy is reliant on QE. Which has recently hit a major roadblock in Germany where a recent ruling stated that the ECB’s QE Program is excessive (destabilising) and that the German Central Bank must cease cooperation with the ECB in the next 3 months unless they can prove otherwise.
This puts the ability of the ECB to tackle a downturn in serious jeopardy. Given that Germany is responsible for a third of the Eurozone’s GDP, a cease of cooperation will make the ECB’s policy ineffective.
This means that Eurozone countries must turn to fiscal policy for stimulus.
In the EU, fiscal policy is primarily set at the domestic level – meaning it’s up to each national government to choose how they’ll spend their money. Undoubtedly there will be an effort to coordinate spending in Eurozone countries to minimise the downturn’s impact across the continent. However, such efforts have historically been politically contentious and will likely be no different this time round. Coordination means that smaller countries (Ireland, Greece etc.) will have to base their spending on that of the larger countries (Germany & France). If one country fails to emerge from stagnated growth, other Eurozone countries will feel the burden.
With nationalism on the rise in Europe over the last half decade, we may see sharp resistance towards EU intervention in fiscal policy decisions, threatening the stability of the Euro entirely.
The UK still has to deal with Brexit
With interest rate constraints the UK has also resorted to QE, recently announcing a £200bn purchase of UK government and corporate bonds. However, they still need to finalise Brexit agreements before they leave the Customs Union and Single Market by the end of the year. This may be prolonged but will inhibit fiscal policy going forward.
Limitless QE and High Debt in the US
Similarly to the ECB, the Fed can do little with interest rates to aid growth from here, turning to QE as for liquidity generation. However, it has slightly more independence than the ECB when it comes to its monetary policy. As a result, they’ve announced a limitless QE program. This effectively means they will print as much money as they believe is necessary to achieve their macroeconomic targets. The stock markets have reacted well to this announcement as it increases the likelihood of high returns. However, the stock market is not the economy, printing money has historically never been favourable and if the Fed isn’t careful they may devalue the dollar beyond their capacity to control it.
To destabilise matters even further, US officials have announced that they are considering writing off some of their debt to China. Such a move would be catastrophic for their credibility and will send the bond market into panic, this would be unprecedented.
Aside from issues with QE, fiscal policy in the US is also under constraints. As it stands, the US national debt is at a record $25T. This has more than doubled since 2008 and stands around $75,757 per person. Evidently, this is becoming less sustainable as time goes on and seriously calls into question how the US government can reliably borrow any further
In either case, an effort to restore growth now will be paid for in the near future. Undoubtedly, the debt is a long-term issue to be faced by millennials, of whom are currently already burdened with $1.6T in student loan debt (owed by 40 million borrowers). Whichever approach the government chooses to adopt, it will make the macroeconomic situation increasingly unsustainable. If the government are not responsible today, the US public will have to pay for it down the line.
In essence, to reboot the economy, the US government will need to spend more money, mounting on their ever growing, unsustainable debt which may lose all its value should QE go out of control.
In Europe & the US monetary policy is restricted to QE as a mechanism for generating liquidity. This is limited at best and destructive at worst.
The West will have to fight this battle without the monetary tools we’ve had in the past – which means national governments need to strategically set their fiscal policies to coordinate a quick recovery across both continents.
In Europe, this involves a coordinated effort among distinctively different economies who are each faced with their own problems and political pressures. In the US, it likely requires an increase in the ever-growing national debt which will have to be paid for at some point in the future. It is hard to imagine a sustainable “V Shaped” recovery in such a global climate. If there is, it will entail a lot of borrowing.
Economics can be convoluted and politics can be misleading, which has taken this conversation out of mainstream news reports. Monetary policy will not be able to help us out of this crisis and extensive efforts to do so could make it worse. Fiscal policy will take on all the responsibility for recovery, which implies increased debt and a need for smart spending.
Whether or not the economy gets back on its feet next year, interest rates will eventually have to rise, and government debt will eventually have to be paid back. In order to do so, we need long term strategic vision and strong underlying growth. If not, we may see the demise of the Euro over the next decade and potentially the Dollar.
The sooner we recognise this, the better we can act. The longer we ignore it, the less we can do.