The Monetary Policy Endgame

Rick Rieder highlights the economic policy state-of-play today, and where it may lead to should economic growth falter, productivity not materialize, and populism continue to thrive.

The major global central banks continue to draw bigger guns in their battle against deflation, yet in some places, it appears to be of no avail. The fact is that the share of sovereign yields that are in negative territory keeps increasing and the average level of these interest rates becomes ever more negative. Further, quantitative easing (QE) purchases of sovereign debt have transitioned to purchases of corporate debt, and in some places equities; with inflation still elusive and improved growth prospects in question. That all leads one to wonder where (and how) these policies end? What is today’s monetary policy endgame?

Turn to economic history for perspective

In order to envision the monetary policy endgame several years (or a decade) from now, let’s start by stepping back and examining two of the foundational tenets that have driven the global economy and financial markets since the 1970s. The first principle is that the major central banks embraced a roughly 2% inflation target (implicit for the Federal Reserve since, at least, 1995 and explicitly stated since 2012), and the second factor is the end of the Bretton Woods monetary system; marking the shift away from the gold standard and into a world of fiat currency fluctuation. The commitment to the 2% inflation target is extremely important for understanding our current monetary policy challenges, because that target was premised around structural forces that no longer exist (given this era of demographic aging and rapid technological development, which both hold down broad-based inflation). Still, the switch to fiat currency about two decades before the 2% inflation target was set, ironically paves the way for the inflation target to be met – eventually. The question that remains, then, is just “how” this will be the case?

However, before we answer that we must examine why inflation peaked in 1979 and why it has been in a downtrend since then? In other words, what are the structural forces creating disinflation? There are four major forces that created inflation prior to 1979 and resulted in disinflation afterward. First, the population growth rate following the post war Baby Boom peaked around 1979/1980 and subsequently slowed. Second, the growth rate of female participants in the labor force also peaked around 1979/1980 and subsequently slowed. Third, the U.S. and China opened diplomatic and trade relations in 1979, as a result of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, arguably marking the beginning of the latest stage of globalization. Finally, the oil shocks of the 1970s, ending with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and a surge in oil-driven inflation were a critical factor in the price rises of that time.