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Stephen Roach argues that growing economic, financial, and monetary policy risks warrant concern about a major shock

Stephen Roach argues that growing economic, financial, and monetary policy risks warrant concern about a major shock

Predicting the next crisis – financial or economic – is a fool’s game. Yes, every crisis has its hero who correctly warned of what was about to come. And, by definition, the hero was ignored (hence the crisis). But the record of modern forecasting contains a note of caution: those who correctly predict a crisis rarely get it right again.

The best that economists can do is to assess vulnerability. Looking at imbalances in the real economy or financial markets gives a sense of the potential consequences of a major shock. It doesn't take much to spark corrections in vulnerable economies and markets. But a garden-variety correction is far different from a crisis. The severity of the shock and the degree of vulnerability matter: big shocks to highly vulnerable systems are a recipe for crisis.

In this vein, the source of vulnerability that I worry about the most is the overextended state of central-bank balance sheets. My concern stems from three reasons.

First, central banks’ balance sheets are undeniably stretched. Assets of major central banks – the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of Japan – collectively stood at $14.5 trillion in November 2019, which is down only slightly from the peak of around $15 trillion in early 2018 and more than 3.5 times the pre-crisis level of $4 trillion. A similar conclusion comes from scaling assets by the size of their respective economies: Japan leads the way at 102% of nominal GDP, followed by the ECB at 39%, and the Fed at a mere 17%.

Second, central banks’ balance-sheet expansion is essentially a failed policy experiment. Yes, it was successful in putting a floor under collapsing markets over a decade ago, in the depths of the crisis in late 2008 and early 2009. But it failed to achieve traction in sparking vigorous economic recovery.

Central banks believed that what worked during the crisis would work equally well during the recovery. That didn’t happen. The combined nominal GDP of the United States, eurozone, and Japan increased by $5.3 trillion from 2008 to 2018, or only about half their central banks’ combined balance-sheet expansion of $10 trillion in over the same period. The remaining $4.7 trillion is the functional equivalent of a massive liquidity injection that has been propping up asset markets over most of the post-crisis era.

Third, steeped in denial, central banks are once again upping the ante on balance-sheet expansion as a means to stimulate flagging economic recoveries. The Fed’s late 2018 pivot led the way, first reversing the planned normalisation of its benchmark policy rate and then allowing its balance sheet to grow again (allegedly for reserve management purposes) following steady reductions from mid-2017 through August 2019. Asset purchases remain at elevated levels for the BOJ as a critical element of the “Abenomics” reflation campaign. And the recently installed ECB president, Christine Lagarde, the world’s newest central banker, was quick to go on the record stressing that European monetary authorities will “turn (over) each and every stone” – which presumably includes the balance sheet.

So why is all this problematic? After all, in a low-inflation era, inflation-targeting central banks seemingly have nothing to fear about continuing to err on the side of extraordinary monetary accommodation, whether conventional (near zero-bound benchmark policy rates) or unconventional (balance-sheet expansion). The problem lies, in part, with the price-stability mandate itself – a longstanding, but now inappropriate, anchor for monetary policy. The mandate is woefully out of sync with chronically below-target inflation and growing risks to financial stability.

The potential instability of the US equity market is a case in point. According to the widely cited metrics of Nobel laureate economist Robert Shiller, equity prices relative to cyclically adjusted long-term earnings currently are 53% above their post-1950 average and 21% above the post-crisis average since March 2009. Barring a major reacceleration of economic and earnings growth or a new round of Fed balance-sheet expansion, further sharp increases in US equity markets are unlikely. Conversely, another idiosyncratic shock – or a surprising reacceleration of inflation and a related hike in interest rates – would raise the distinct possibility of a sharp correction in an overvalued US equity market.

The problem also lies in weak real economies that are far too close to their stall speed. The International Monetary Fund recently lowered its estimate for world GDP growth in 2019 to 3% – midway between the 40-year trend of 3.5% and the 2.5% threshold commonly associated with global recessions. As the year comes to a close, real GDP growth in the US is tracking below 2%, and the 2020 growth forecasts for the eurozone and Japan are less than 1%. In other words, the major developed economies are not only flirting with overvalued financial markets and still relying on a failed monetary-policy strategy, but they are also lacking a growth cushion just when they may need it most.

In such a vulnerable world, it would not take much to spark the crisis of 2020. Notwithstanding the risks of playing the fool’s game, three “Ps” are at the top of my list of concerns: protectionism, populism, and political dysfunction. An enduring tilt toward protectionism is particularly troubling, especially in the aftermath of a vacuous “phase one” trade accord between the US and China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Hindu nation” crusade in India could well be the most disturbing development in a global swing toward populism. And the great American impeachment saga takes Washington’s political dysfunction further into uncharted territory.

Quite possibly, the spark will be something else – or maybe there won’t be any shock at all. But the diagnosis of vulnerability needs to be taken seriously, especially because it can be validated from three perspectives – real economies, financial asset prices, and misguided monetary policy. Throw a shock into that mix and the crisis of 2020 will quickly be at hand.


Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019, published here with permission.

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13 Comments

Interesting article. In New Zealand it has occured to many that our insistance on inflationary monetary policy is actually just moving risk and creating a different set of socioeconomic issues. We can keep going with conventional approaches (ZIRP, QE etc.) but eventually we will have to return purchasing power to consumers more directly (e.g. UBI or just cancelling government debt which will probably be returning close to 0% in real terms anyway) to promote inflation.

"Quite possibly, the spark will be something else"
Here's a 'spark' not mentioned above, that could be particular to this neck of the woods - Australasia.
The current drought in Aussie has been ongoing for 4 years in places. That's not all that rare; there have been three, 5 years droughts there in the last 100 years. But The Big One, in the last 1,000 years, went on for 39 years (according to ice sheet and tree ring analysis). So...
What happens to New Zealand, if the Australian drought continues and overwhelms the country that has imported so many mouths to feed and water? The obvious first choice is to jump on a plane, visa-free, and take up residence here. Then; what happens to our capacity to cope with a mass influx of Australian 'refugees'?
Just as with the above 'sparks', it's all theoretical, but possible all the same.

What I 'might have found' confusing right now is that interest rates at the long end (US and NZ) have been trending up since August/September - I know because I've given away a lot of the prior gains in my two bond funds - yet, outside the REITs, which are yet still bubble valuations, share valuations have not corrected.

All the bulls kept citing this crazy valuation model of lower rates discounting = higher share prices (when if you think about it, all it means is paying a lot more up front for lower and lower future returns, which is nonsense in investment terms), however, why are the higher rates not lowering valuations.

Although of course I can answer my own question: because share prices are currently a central banked stimulunatic asylum, with little or no relation, especially offshore, to fundamentals.

You'll be holding on to your Bond positions then, and any long share positions you have as well? Why? Because you expect interest rates to fall back. We all saw the false start The Fed had a few months back, and expect that to get another run. It could be as simple as that.
I assume you'll have trailing take-profit triggers, probably along with a few others, and that could prove to be the signal for a Bond/Stock rout IF it gets to that.

Stoploss triggers dont help when there is zero liquidity. The price gaps down to the first available taker. Have a look at the recent history of the Swiss Franc (CHF), previously a worlds most stable currency to see how big that gap can get.

Best quote in ages...

"All the bulls kept citing this crazy valuation model of lower rates discounting = higher share prices (when if you think about it, all it means is paying a lot more up front for lower and lower future returns, which is nonsense in investment terms), however, why are the higher rates not lowering valuations."

One cant help wonder if cheaper and cheaper money is a form of economic warfare. The only winners are the governments issuing and anyone leveraging the printing.

As always, I'll point out that this is an upper-deck appraisal of why the bows seem to be closer to the water.

https://www.peakprosperity.com/dennis-meadows-the-limits-to-growth/

Note the reference to 2020......

To see things in purely financial terms, is to miss what is happening to the real underwrite. Call it the real fundamentals - Natural Capital and the exponentially-increasing draw-down thereof. That's our real problem.

Is he the one that keep on advocating for Gold? correct me if wrong please. No pun intended, but I believe the question of not about IF but WHEN is now plagued by maintain a vested interest/innocent parties that agreed being sucked into the 'game'.. the recent white island saga could be a timely reminder folks. How prepare are we..?

The risks are there (as they always are) and the central banks are acting preemptively, it takes some intense paranoia to think this preventative action increases the risks. It's going to be another great year.

Hard to ignore the fact that the lights are flashing red!

When you look at all the possible ingredients feeding into the global whirlwind, any one of them could spark something awful. The India-Pakistan gig has nuclear options available outside our control, with neither of them great fans of the west. The American political storms which rage from one end of the continent to the other, could explode at any time. Already the southern types are invading the north in hope of a better life, to much consternation in the northern circles. And as for the money, well, who knows exactly how that will play out, which is probably precisely the problem. As we head into the 'perfect vision' of the 2020 year, perhaps all will be revealed. Happy New Year everyone.

Yes but...… The article said absolutely nothing new, or particularly interesting. Indeed, I have lost count of the articles I have read in recent months saying pretty much the same thing. We all know that monetary policy has become increasingly ineffective, that QE has largely benefitted the property and share markets, that global debt is too high, that global growth is weakening, that too many countries have challenging debt/equity ratios, that despite low unemployment, incomes are not rising strongly, inequality is rising etc etc.
What we need are some ideas to get us out of the impasse we are in. I could have written this article or something quite like it, but I am simply not clever enough to see how we escape the maze.

Will the Black Swan appear in the Economic state, Political stage or the War stage ? It is a toss up.
May be Nature will trump humans and produce its own Black Swan soon ?

Days to the General Election: 28
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.