World Economy in The Grips of “Moral Hazard”

Moral Hazard. It sounds like the name of a failed town in a Clint Eastwood western. We all live there now. – The Wall Street Journal (2008)

In the past several weeks the world’s financial markets have re-entered into higher volatility mode as the ongoing trade dispute between the two largest economies is dashing hopes of speedy improvement in US-China relations. The uncertainty afflicting the markets is further exacerbated by the contradictions between the Trump camp and the Fed, with increasing trade tensions forcing the Fed to accommodate the negative effects on the US economy through monetary policy easing. The problem is that the Fed may not be ready to fully compensate the effects of escalations in trade tensions and with good reason.

August is never an easy month for Russia’s markets, but this time surges in volatility started to afflict the global markets across the board. The fear of greater uncertainty surrounding the trade dispute between the US and China is getting transformed into increasing conviction in the markets of an onset of recession as symbolized in the inversion of the yield curve. As the inversion materialized in mid-August and the yield on the 2-year US Treasuries exceeded that of the 10-year yield the markets dived – along with the developed and EM stock indexes, commodity prices as well as EM currencies joined the steep decline. 

Recessionary fears have clearly intensified as more signs of the likely global slowdown are emerging in different parts of the globe. Across the three main centers of the world economy, namely the EU, US and China, statistics and business confidence indicators point downwards. In the EU the more than 5% drop in German industrial production is feeding into the broader GDP growth slowdown, with Italy gearing up for the confidence vote for the government, while Britain is yet to finalize its Brexit travails. In China industrial production also took a hit on the back of the trade restrictions imposed by the US, while the US is set to follow a lower growth trajectory on the back of trade tensions and lower investment growth given weaker markets and business confidence.

China Is Too Strong to Lose the Trade War
Hu Angang
China enjoys a comprehensive degree of strength in addressing the trade war stirred by the US in terms of its economy, trade, science, technology and international influence.
Expert Opinions

Elsewhere, one of the bell-weather indicators of future global trends is Singapore, given high degree of openness and integration into the world economy – in this respect the unexpected GDP fall of 3.4% in Q2 2019 has been taken as yet another signs of negative global trends. A similar pattern is observed in South Korea, which sustained a contraction in Q1 2019 GDP of 0.3%, the worst performance since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Across EM the picture is also far from serene as Argentina’s markets experienced steep declines on the back of pre-electoral jitters combined with investors’ concerns regarding the impact of global shocks on vulnerable EM markets with high fiscal and external gaps. 

Against the backdrop of the swings in the financial markets all hopes are squarely focused on the largest Central Banks and in particular on the Fed to save the day. The bad news is that the longer the sequence of trade-related shocks afflicting the markets, the less the altruistic zeal of the Fed to bring back the markets in order. Part of the reason for the reluctance to signal more rate cuts ahead may be the problem of “moral hazard” – the same problem that arguably brought the onset of the 2008 financial crisis when the US authorities chose not to save Lehman Brothers. The “moral hazard” problem came to be associated with greater incentives for irresponsible/speculative behavior coming on the back of measures to provide support to economic agents pursuing high risk strategies. 

This time around the “moral hazard” problem is of a different kind – the more readiness exhibited by the Fed in monetary loosening to neutralize the adverse effects of trade tensions, the greater the scope to indulge in economic policy excesses, including in the trade sphere going forward. Given the recent dynamics in the global markets anything short of an explicit commitment to more cuts in the near term will be taken by the markets negatively as an insufficient, half-hearted response to support the markets. 

Another deterrent for the Fed in effecting a monetary stimulus is the threat of the rekindling of inflationary pressures. Indeed, the pattern characterized by increasing import tariffs and disruption of value added chains together with competitive devaluations of currencies is likely to give a boost to cost inflation. The US core inflation reading in this respect points to a pick up in price growth to over 2%. The resulting menace facing the global economy may be stagflation that may render subsequent fiscal expansion as well as rate cuts to support growth more problematic. 

The Global Economic Reshuffle: USA, China and Russia
Andrei Tsygankov
The trade conflict between the United States and China is especially important from the standpoint of on-going global geo-economic changes. In the event that the conflict is resolved in the near future, the underlying motives driving the standoff will remain, and continue to influence the nature of the relationship between the two most important economic powers in the world.
Expert Opinions

The above considerations suggest that in the end the Fed may fall short of extending a blank check to support the markets, which suggests that in dealing with the recessionary threats the largest economies may need to resort to a coordinated fiscal stimulus along the lines of what was performed in 2009 by the largest economies in coordination with the IMF. The problem with launching such a fiscal stimulus, however, is the high debt load in all of the main centers of the world economy – China, the EU and the US. Another constraint is the lack of cross-country coordination as compared to the period of 2008-2009, when the largest economies worked together in dragging the world economy out of recession. At the end of the day, the rising probability of a full-blown recession in the world economy is a vivid illustration of the costs of breakdowns in international cooperation and obsession with “zero-sum” tactics on the global scene.   

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.