NEW YORK – A cloud of gloom hovered over the International Monetary Fund’s annual meeting this month. With the global economy experiencing a synchronized slowdown, any number of tail risks could bring on an outright recession. Among other things, investors and economic policymakers must worry about a renewed escalation in the Sino-American trade and technology war. A military conflict between the United States and Iran would be felt globally. The same could be true of “hard” Brexit by the United Kingdom or a collision between the IMF and Argentina’s incoming Peronist government.
Still, some of these risks could become less likely over time. The US and China have reached a tentative agreement on a “phase one” partial trade deal, and the US has suspended tariffs that were due to come into effect on October 15. If the negotiations continue, damaging tariffs on Chinese consumer goods scheduled for December 15 could also be postponed or suspended. The US has also so far refrained from responding directly to Iran’s alleged downing of a US drone and attack on Saudi oil facilities in recent months. US President Donald Trump doubtless is aware that a spike in oil prices stemming from a military conflict would seriously damage his re-election prospects next November.
The United Kingdom and the European Union have reached a tentative agreement for a “soft” Brexit, and the UK Parliament has taken steps at least to prevent a no-deal departure from the EU. But the saga will continue, most likely with another extension of the Brexit deadline and a general election at some point. Finally, in Argentina, assuming that the new government and the IMF already recognize that they need each other, the threat of mutual assured destruction could lead to a compromise.
Meanwhile, financial markets have been reacting positively to the reduction of global tail risks and a further easing of monetary policy by major central banks, including the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the People’s Bank of China. Yet it is still only a matter of time before some shock triggers a new recession, possibly followed by a financial crisis, owing to the large build-up of public and private debt globally.
What will policymakers do when that happens? One increasingly popular view is that they will find themselves low on ammunition. Budget deficits and public debts are already high around the world, and monetary policy is reaching its limits. Japan, the eurozone, and a few other smaller advanced economies already have negative policy rates, and are still conducting quantitative and credit easing. Even the Fed is cutting rates and implementing a backdoor QE program, through its backstopping of repo (short-term borrowing) markets.
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