Day after day new, alarming news emerges from the world’s financial markets, and day after day the public is surprised by how bad it is. But instead of wringing our hands, let’s ask ourselves an important, unconventional question: What is more surprising: that financial markets have turned from bad to worse, or that we continue to be surprised by each successive piece of adverse news?
I suggest that our repeated surprise should be more surprising. This issue is important, because if we were better at recognising the financial risks we face, we could do more to avoid them. If banks, investment houses, and American homeowners had done a better job in recognising the risks in the subprime mortgage market, we could have spared ourselves the current crisis.
Why does the public repeatedly underestimate the repercussions of the present financial crisis? The answer is simple: most of us are short-sighted; we can’t imagine a future that is radically different from the present. In particular, most of us don’t understand that economic events often unfold gradually due to the operation of important lagged adjustment processes embedded in the economy. The public, the media and politicians would do well to give them close attention. Lagged adjustment processes. After the Titanic’s hull was punctured, it took hours for its hull to fill with water; thus the passengers couldn’t imagine that it would sink.
In my judgment, there are currently four major dangers facing the world economy, and all of them are currently obscured by the fact they play themselves out slowly.
The first danger we have witnessed since August 2007: The subprime mortgage crisis gave rise to a liquidity crisis in the international banking system, due to uncertainty about who holds the losses. This is leading to reduced lending to firms and households. But that is not the end of the story, because the reduced lending will lead to reduced consumption and investment. With a lag, reduced sales of goods and services will reduce stock market valuations. And, with another lag, the lower stock market prices will – in the absence of any favourable fortuitous events – intensify the banks’ liquidity crisis.
The second danger lies in the dynamics of U.S. house prices. As more and more U.S. households find themselves unable to repay their mortgages, foreclosures are on the rise, more houses are put on the market, the price of houses falls further – with further lags – this leads to more foreclosures and declines in housing wealth. This dynamic process plays itself out only gradually, as households face progressively more stringent credit conditions and house sales gradually lead to lower house prices.
The third danger results from the interaction between wealth, spending and employment. As U.S. households’ wealth – in the housing market and the stock market – falls, their consumption is beginning to fall and will continue to do so, again with a lag. This decline in consumption is leading to a decline in profits, of which more is on the way, which in turn will lead to a decline in investment. The combined decline in consumption and investment spending will eventually lead to a decline in employment, as firms begin to recognise that their labour is insufficiently utilised. The decline in employment, in turn, means a drop in labour income, which, with a lag, leads to a further drop in consumption.
And that leaves the fourth (and possibly the nastiest) of the dangers, one that concerns the latitude for monetary policy intervention. As the Fed reduces interest rates to combat the crisis, the dollar is falling. This is leading to higher import prices and oil prices in the United States, putting upward pressure on inflation. The greater this inflationary pressure – which is currently in excess of 4 percent – the more difficult it will be for the Fed to reduce interest rates in the future, without running a serious risk of inflaming inflationary expectations and starting a wage-price spiral. U.S. firms and households will gradually recognise this dilemma and the bleak prospect of little future interest rate relief will further dampen consumption and investment spending.
Eventually, of course, the decline in spending will lead to a decline in inflation, but this will only happen with a lag. The longer the lag turns out to be, the longer the period over which the U.S. economy will endure stagflation, that is, a cruel combination of rising prices and falling aggregate demand. Much hinges on how persistent U.S. inflation is. More persistent inflation will inevitably give rise to higher inflationary expectations, leading gradually to higher inflation, and so on. It took central banks over a decade, in the 1980s and early 1990s, to get inflationary expectations under control, and the fruits of this battle are now in danger of being lost.
The international financial crisis and the decline in the U.S. economy will inevitably have an adverse effect on the growth of the world economy. Europe and the emerging markets of Latin America and the Far East cannot fill the gap that the U.S. economy leaves. There exists no economic mechanism whereby a drop in the U.S. aggregate demand will be matched by a correspondingly large increase in aggregate demand elsewhere. Germany and other European economies highly exposed to the vagaries of international trade will certainly feel the pinch.
In the longer run, the prospects for the world economy look much brighter. Eventually U.S. house prices will stabilise, rising exports will help the U.S. economy recover, the fall in world demand for goods and services will reduce the price of raw materials, U.S. households will learn the importance of saving, and global imbalances will correct themselves. These rosy prospects lie in the mists of the future. Meanwhile, however, we are well advised to stay focused on the four dangers.