Dr. Nouriel Roubini’s Financial Times Article “How to Avoid the Horrors of ‘Stag-Deflation'”

Posted here is the text of Dr. Nouriel Roubini’s Financial Times article “How to Avoid the Horrors of ‘Stag-Deflation'” written for the December 2, 2008 edition….  Comments to follow in the next posting.

 

How to avoid the horrors of ‘stag-deflation’

 

By Nouriel Roubini

 

Published: December 2 2008 19:53 | Last updated: December 2 2008 19:53

 

The US and the global economy are at risk of a severe stag-deflation, a deadly combination of economic stagnation/recession and deflation.

 

A severe global recession will lead to deflationary pressures. Falling demand will lead to lower inflation as companies cut prices to reduce excess inventory. Slack in labour markets from rising unemployment will control labour costs and wage growth. Further slack in commodity markets as prices fall will lead to sharply lower inflation. Thus inflation in advanced economies will fall towards the 1 per cent level that leads to concerns about deflation.

Deflation is dangerous as it leads to a liquidity trap, a deflation trap and a debt deflation trap: nominal policy rates cannot fall below zero and thus monetary policy becomes ineffective. We are already in this liquidity trap since the Fed funds target rate is still 1 per cent but the effective one is close to zero as the Federal Reserve has flooded the financial system with liquidity; and by early 2009 the target Fed funds rate will formally hit 0 per cent. Also, in deflation the fall in prices means the real cost of capital is high – despite policy rates close to zero – leading to further falls in consumption and investment. This fall in demand and prices leads to a vicious circle: incomes and jobs are cut, leading to further falls in demand and prices (a deflation trap); and the real value of nominal debts rises (a debt deflation trap) making debtors’ problems more severe and leading to a rising risk of corporate and household defaults that will exacerbate credit losses of financial institutions.

 

As traditional monetary policy becomes ineffective, other unorthodox policies have been used: massive provision of liquidity to financial institutions to unclog the liquidity crunch and reduce the spread between short-term market rates and policy rates; quasi-fiscal policies to bail out investors, lenders and borrowers. And even more unorthodox “crazy” policy actions become necessary to reduce the rising spread between long-term interest rates on government bonds and policy rates and the high spread of short-term and long-term market rates (mortgage rates, commercial paper, consumer credit) relative to short-term and long-term government bonds.

 

To reduce the former spread the central bank needs to commit to maintain policy rates close to zero for a long time and/or start outright purchases of government bonds; to reduce the latter it needs to spread massive liquidity, such as by direct purchases of commercial paper, mortgages, mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and other asset-backed securities. The Fed has already crossed that bridge with facilities that are aimed at reducing short-term market rates, such as Libor spreads; it has now moved to influence long-term mortgage rates by buying MBSs.

 

Traditionally, central banks are the lenders of last resort but they are becoming the lenders of first and only resort, as banks are not lending. Central banks are becoming the only lenders in the land. With consumption by households and capital spending by corporations collapsing, governments will soon become the spenders of first and only resort as fiscal deficits surge.

 

The financial crisis has already become global as financial links transmitted US shocks globally. The overall credit losses are likely to be close to a staggering $2,000bn. Thus, unless financial institutions are rapidly recapitalised by governments the credit crunch will become even more severe as losses mount faster than recapitalisation.

 

But with governments and central banks bringing private sector losses on to their balance sheets, fiscal deficits will top $1,000bn for the US in the next two years. The Fed and the Treasury are taking a massive amount of credit risk, endangering the long-term solvency of the US government.

 

In the next few months, the flow of macroeconomic and earnings news will be much worse than expected. The credit crunch will get worse, with de­leveraging continuing as hedge funds and other leveraged players are forced to sell assets into illiquid and distressed markets, leading to further cascading falls in prices, other insolvent financial institutions going bust and a few emerging market economies entering a full-blown financial crisis.

 

The worst is not behind us: 2009 will be a painful year of a global recession, deflation and bankruptcies. Only very aggressive and co-ordinated policy actions will ensure the global economy recovers in 2010 rather than facing protracted stagnation and deflation.

 

The writer is professor of economics at the Stern School of Business, New York University, and chairman of RGE Monitor, an economic consultancy

 

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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