Can the World Agree on a Stimulus Exit Plan?

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Uden Graham / Corbis

During the dark days of the global credit crunch a year ago, policymakers around the world had a generally easy time coordinating decisions. As asset prices tanked, lending dried up and growth shriveled, governments and central banks were forced to take similar steps — pump up fiscal spending and slash interest rates to support growth and unfreeze financial markets. Now, as an economic recovery emerges, governments are hoping for another coordinated effort to exit from their massive stimulus plans, including near-zero interest rates. That intention was clearly laid out during the September G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pa. The leaders of the world's 20 most influential economies pledged to "withdraw our extraordinary policy support in a cooperative and coordinated way."

Yet what sounds so simple on paper will be far more complicated in the real world of economic policymaking. The problem is that the upturn isn't as synchronized as the downturn. Countries are emerging from recession at different speeds, with each facing its own special mix of inflationary pressures and unemployment — both of which affect decisions for monetary and fiscal policy. "We won't get the kind of coordinated response that is the rhetoric of the G-20," says Paul De Grauwe, professor of economics at the University of Leuven in Belgium. "Each country is going to look at its own interests."

That possibility is already becoming a reality, as signs appear that central-bank policies are beginning to diverge. On Oct. 6, Australia became the first G-20 nation to raise interest rates, hiking its key rate by a quarter of a percentage point, to 3.25%. With "inflation close to target and the risk of serious economic contraction in Australia now having passed," Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Glenn Stevens said in a statement, the central bank decided that it was now "prudent to begin gradually lessening the stimulus provided by monetary policy." Meanwhile, in other industrialized nations still suffering from high unemployment and yawning excess capacity, policymakers are in no hurry to tighten. In the U.S., the Federal Reserve has indicated that it won't act aggressively anytime soon on its key interest rate, which remains in a zero to 0.25% range. "It seems likely that the recovery will be less robust than desired," William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in an early October speech. "This means that the economy has significant excess slack and implies that we face meaningful downside risks to inflation over the next year or two." The Fed's key interest-rate target, he added, "is likely to remain exceptionally low for 'an extended period.' "

A haphazard exit from stimulus measures, with countries going their separate ways, could pose its own set of problems. In this era of globalization what one government does in one corner of the world can have a knock-off effect on economies in another corner. For example, countries that raise interest rates ahead of others could end up attracting money from foreign investors seeking a higher return, potentially draining funds away from economies that are still badly in need of investment. Or if too many governments turn off the stimulus tap too quickly, global demand could fall sharply. "An unruly rush to the exits is no better in a global financial crisis than in a crowded theater," wrote Adam Posen, a member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, in the Financial Times in September.

Though governments are aware of the dangers of an uncoordinated exit, they prefer to keep their options open, since they must also address domestic political concerns. That means clearly defined time frames or targets for any exit could prove hard to achieve. The financial crisis "is affecting differently every country. Every country will have to define its exit strategy in its own time," Portugal's Finance Minister, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos, reportedly said at a conference of European Union ministers earlier this month in Sweden. "I don't think that we can have a precise, or a common, schedule. In my perspective, we need a flexible approach," he said.

Nowhere is the policy challenge bigger than in Asia. With the region's recovery gaining pace more quickly than elsewhere, it could be the first region to face inflation pressures. In China, growth is rapidly returning to pre-crisis levels. On Oct. 22, China reported that its gross domestic product grew by a healthy 8.9% in the third quarter, from the same period a year earlier. Inflation in China "will rise faster than in most other major economies and will therefore justify earlier and stronger-than-expected rate hikes," wrote Jun Ma, an economist at Deutsche Bank in Hong Kong, in a September note. Concerns are also mounting that continued loose monetary policy in Asia could fuel dangerous and unstable asset price bubbles, especially in property. There has been some speculation in financial markets that South Korea's central bank could raise interest rates in the coming months to cool a roaring housing market. Frederic Neumann, an economist at HSBC in Hong Kong, says Asian central bankers might need to hike rates by four percentage points over the next year — much more than is expected from the Fed — in order to quash inflation and asset bubbles. "This is the real test for Asia: the region's central banks have to hike earlier and far more aggressively than the Federal Reserve," Neumann says.

However, Neumann and other economists question if Asia will take such action, even if it does prove necessary. By raising rates ahead of the rest of the world, Asia could attract capital flows and put pressure on its currencies to appreciate. Stronger currencies would make Asian exports more expensive — a consequence policymakers in the region's trade-dependent economies might wish to avoid. "Unless you are really forced to do something independent of the Federal Reserve, you are probably not going to go that route," says Duncan Wooldridge, an economist at UBS in Hong Kong.

In the end, some economists believe that a coordinated global exit strategy, especially in regard to monetary policy, will ultimately happen, but by default. The Federal Reserve holds so much influence in the world economy that other central banks might be wary of deviating too far from its policy. "The nature of the coordination is not that bankers sit around a table and do things together," says the University of Leuven's De Grauwe. "The nature is that some of the big guys make a move and force everyone to move." In the global recovery, as in the downturn, everyone may sink or swim together.