Soaring prices hammer Argentinians, businesses
Buenos Aires, Argentina — In times like these in Argentina, prices are one thing you cannot guarantee.
Ask Diego Barrera and Claudio Cayeta, who own a small aluminum and glass shop in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo. The business partners spent two weeks last month navigating a virtual paralysis because of the volatile economic situation gripping the country, unable to source the material they needed, and as a result unable to quote prices to their customers.
“Our providers won’t give us anything because the [United States] dollar goes up every day, so they don’t want to lose money,” said Barrera, 43, whose stock has dwindled as the uncertainty around them climbs.
“I understand because the same thing happens to me,” he said. “I’ve already lost money on the prices that I quoted some of my customers.”
This reality has become alarmingly common in Argentina, with its economy unravelling at an accelerating rate. The rising value of the US dollar is actually a measure of the plummeting value of the Argentinian peso, which sank by as much as 25 percent on the black market over the month of April. On April 25 it hit a record low, grazing 500 pesos for one US dollar at the unofficial rate, the one that is most often used as a benchmark for average Argentinians because currency controls limit how much they can buy at the official exchange rate.
With inflation at more than 104 percent over the last 12 months, according to official statistics, it is increasingly difficult to know what anything is worth, let alone budget for everyday items. Food prices alone jumped an average of 10 percent in March over the previous month in the Greater Buenos Aires region — fruits and vegetables around 15 percent; eggs 25 percent.
Raw materials, like the ones Barrera and Cayeta work with, are also impossible to predict, because the prices rise and fall with the value of the currency. The price of glass went up 10 percent mid April, said Barrera, and his provider advised him of a second increase by the same amount two weeks later.
All of this has fuelled a climate of political instability during an election year. The deeply unpopular President Alberto Fernandez formally announced he would not seek re-election, and later blamed the depreciating currency on rumours and speculation driven by right-wing politicians.
In a tweet, Economy Minister Sergio Massa said he would use “all the tools of the state to order this situation”, and that included redefining the terms of a controversial agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to pay back a $44bn loan.
After the Central Bank of Argentina intervened and traded bonds on April 25, a move contrary to its agreement with the IMF, the unofficial exchange rate plummeted to 460 pesos per one US dollar. Argentina also announced that it would start to pay imports from China with the yuan, rather than the dollar, a move that will help safeguard its greenback reserves.
But on the street, the damage from the volatility has already been done.
‘Hunt for the best price’
“Don’t ask me how it is that I adapt, but somehow I manage to do it,” said Emiliano Espindola, 47, as he mixed feta cheese with spices, tomatoes and cucumber in the back of a Middle Eastern take-out shop. He’s a cook in Belgrano, an affluent part of Buenos Aires where, he noted, people were perhaps insulated from the financial volatility of the week. But not him, a worker, who commutes an hour and a half each way by bus from the outskirts of Buenos Aires so he can provide for his adolescent daughter. Espindola will pick up odd jobs as a construction worker to make ends meet.
“I’m just always on the hunt for the best price, but at the same time reducing my costs,” he said. “In general, the economic pain is across the board. The cost of the bus ticket goes up every month. And let’s not even talk about groceries. One week you have one price, the next week you have another.”
For Yolanda Gonzalez, a 53-year-old nurse and the main breadwinner in her home, the solution is cutting back on the number of meals her family eats. They can’t replace their clothes, and they limit their outings to ones that are free, such as a sunny afternoon in the park, with the traditional yerba mate infusion as a companion. “You work 24 hours, and it’s not enough, you work 30 days and it’s not enough,” she said.
Argentina has spent most of the last 12 years either in a recession or stagnant, said economist Martin Kalos, a director at the Buenos Aires-based firm EPyCA Consultores.
The latest figures from 2022 show poverty afflicts nearly 40 percent of the population, and one out of every two children live under the poverty line, according to the national census collector. This crisis is one that dates back four decades, with the gradual erosion of the country’s productive capacity, and the widening gap between rich and poor.
“Argentina needs to urgently recover its growth, but first it needs an economic stabilisation that it hasn’t been able to achieve,” said Kalos. “Argentina’s inflation rates are not only above 100 percent, but they are moving faster, and we don’t know how close they will get to 130 or 150 percent in the next year.”
Argentina’s government has turned to price-fixing schemes to try to soften the blow of ravenous inflation, hammering out deals with big grocery store chains. But even these programmes have their limitations — supply varies from store to store, and smaller grocers are outside of the price-fixing agreements, and have to stock their shelves at wholesalers, making it impossible for them to compete with the cheapest price on offer.
The incessant rise of prices means that cheaper brands of products are flooding the market.
Victoria Alcober holds out a handful of “unofficial” cigarette packets that she started offering at her small grocery store in the city of Ensenada, about one hour from the capital of Buenos Aires. It was her own clients who alerted her to the packs, which cost about one-third the price of the bigger, better-known brands.
“As a merchant, you have to go looking for them because it’s what people are buying today,” she said. “There are a lot of alternative brands that they’re using now because of all the price increases.”
Argentinians are also looking for political alternatives. Presidential and legislative elections will occur in October, and the deepening recession has resuscitated radical positions, including ditching the peso altogether and using the US dollar as official tender, a proposal that is pushed in particular by libertarian candidate Javier Milei.
Barrera, the glass store owner, is deeply frustrated and exhausted by day-to-day financial uncertainty and the inability of the political class to rein in the chaos. But he fears that such extreme positions as the dollarisation of the economy will only make matters worse, and he worries that good leadership alternatives will not materialise. “The iron is hot now,” he said. “They know they’re going to get burned.”
Canada’s largest solar farm, GDP growth and an immigrant jobs boom: Must-read business and investing stories
Getting caught up on a week that got away? Here’s your weekly digest of the Globe’s most essential business and investing stories, with insights and analysis from the pros, stock tips, portfolio strategies and more.
Canada’s first-quarter GDP rose higher than expected
Canada outperformed expectations on its first-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) reading earlier this week, prompting some speculation the Bank of Canada could raise interest rates again – perhaps as early as next week. The Canadian economy grew at an annualized rate of 3.1 per cent in the first quarter, buoyed by strong exports and robust consumer spending. Mark Rendell reports, however, that this economic resilience is a problem for Canada’s central bank, which is deliberately trying to slow down the economy to bring inflation back under control. David Parkinson also writes that the quarter’s brisk growth rate is “too much of a good thing” because it implies more inflationary pressure in the quarter, not less.
A recession might be just what Canada needs
What if a recession – or a prolonged economic slump – is exactly what Canada needs? According to Tim Kiladze and Matt Lundy, the R-word might be the only way to reset the country’s overheated economy. Historically, the economy has gone into recession roughly once a decade. And not every recession is as painful as the 2008-09 global financial crisis. A group of prominent economists recently put out a paper looking at advanced economies since the end of the Second World War, and concluded that a recession now would help to quash runaway inflation, sky-high price increases and cool down the housing market.
Canadian consumer spending is at an all-time high
Can we shop our way out of a recession? Consumers in Canada are giving it their best shot. This week’s strong first-quarter GDP growth was powered by two sectors – exports and consumer spending. Consumer spending, specifically, rose 5.7 per cent on an annualized basis. That growth was twice as fast as economists expected, and it pushed consumer spending to its highest share of GDP since records began in 1961. Resilient consumers have been credited for helping stave off recession in the United States, but Canadian shoppers are outspending their U.S. counterparts. Jason Kirby takes a closer look in this week’s Decoder.
Greek company Mytilineos to launch Canada’s largest solar farm in Alberta
Mytilineos, one of the top industrial and power companies in Greece, is launching a $1.7-billion solar-energy project in Alberta that it says will be the largest of its kind in Canada. The project will be built on separate plots in Southern Alberta, one of the sunniest areas in Canada and home to many of the country’s biggest solar farms. Once finished, it will have enough capacity to power 200,000 homes. Eric Reguly reports that fossil fuels account for almost 90 per cent of power generation in Alberta, and the province is under pressure to bring that share down as Ottawa strives to meet the net-zero emissions goal by 2050.
The good and bad of Canada’s immigrant jobs boom
Canada’s labour boom is creating plenty of opportunities for recent immigrants, according to Matt Lundy. The employment rate for recent immigrants – those who landed in Canada within the past five years – has topped 70 per cent, the strongest level on record. What’s contributing to the unequivocally positive trend? The biggest factor in the employment surge is that Canada has moved toward a two-step immigration process, meaning a larger share of people who become permanent residents have already worked in Canada as temporary residents.
Gen Z thinks you need to make $100,000 to live comfortably
How much do you think you need to live comfortably in Canada? According to a recent poll by Abacus Data, Gen Z believes they need to earn an average of $100,953 to live a comfortable life. For reference, boomers said $63,753, Gen X said $84,700, and millennials said $87,386. According to Rob Carrick, it seems clear in these numbers that the older and more established you are, the less you figure you need to live a comfortable life. He writes that young people know what they’re up against trying to afford adulthood. Do the rest of us?
Sign up for MoneySmart Bootcamp: If you want to improve your financial fitness, The Globe’s MoneySmart Bootcamp newsletter course is for you. This new five-part course written by personal finance reporter Erica Alini will improve your personal finance skills, including budgeting, borrowing and investing. Subscribe to the MoneySmart Bootcamp and you’ll receive an e-mail a week to work a different financial muscle. Lessons will land in your inbox Wednesday afternoons.
Now that you’re all caught up, prepare for the week ahead with the Globe’s investing calendar.
Can market veteran Simsek pull Turkey’s economy back from brink?
Mehmet Simsek, a former Turkish finance chief popular among foreign investors, has taken the helm of the economy again, signalling a return to more orthodox economic policies.
The United Kingdom-educated Simsek, a former strategist at London-based Merrill Lynch, was appointed treasury and finance minister on Saturday as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his new cabinet after winning the May 28 presidential run-off that extended his rule for five more years and into a third decade.
Turkey is in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis stemming from soaring inflation, which peaked at 85.5 percent in October compared with a year ago before easing to 43.7 percent in April with a favourable base effect.
Analysts largely blame the crisis on Erdogan’s unorthodox economic strategy of low interest rates and credit expansion with increasing state control on financial markets that the government says it pursued to push investments, production, exports and growth.
The Turkish lira has lost some 150 percent of its value in the last two years as the country’s $900bn economy came under immense pressure amid depleted foreign reserves, a swiftly increasing current account deficit, and a snowballing state-backed scheme of lira deposits protected against the currency’s depreciation.
The lira lost about 23 percent of its value since the beginning of this year and stood at a record low of nearly 21 against the United States dollar on Sunday.
‘Transparency, consistency, predictability’
Simsek, 56, who was finance minister between 2009 and 2015 and then deputy prime minister until July 2018, is a market-friendly figure known to foreign investors as an advocate of conventional economic policies, transparency and an independent central bank.
He said during a handover ceremony on Sunday that the country “has no other choice than to return to a rational ground” and that a “rules-based, predictable Turkish economy will be the key to achieving the desired prosperity”.
“Transparency, consistency, predictability and compliance with international norms will be our basic principles in achieving this goal,” he said, adding that among the main targets was “establishing fiscal discipline and ensuring price stability for sustainable high growth”.
Seref Oguz, a senior economist and columnist, said the negotiations between Simsek and Erdogan for the position took a long time because the former wanted to secure his conditions before accepting.
“Simsek put forward three conditions to get on board with the position,” Oguz told Al Jazeera.
The first condition, according to Oguz, was the authority to make his own decisions. The second was to be able to design the country’s economy teams, and the third was for him to be given adequate time to fix the economy’s problems.
Local and international media started reporting about talks over Simsek’s possible reappointment before the first round of the presidential elections on May 14.
After none of the candidates failed to secure more than 50 percent of votes for an outright victory, media close to the government intensified its reporting on a likely nod for Simsek provided Erdogan remained in power.
Addressing his supporters after his election victory on May 28, Erdogan said that he would have “internationally reputed finance management”, in an apparent reference to his former minister.
Hence, foreign investors already knew that Simsek’s appointment was highly probable before Saturday’s announcement.
Erdogan named Cevdet Yilmaz – another cabinet member who backs orthodox economic policies – as Turkey’s vice president.
Simsek said on Sunday that the government’s main purpose is to increase social welfare in Turkey.
Ceyhun Elgin, a professor of economics at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, said Simsek is expected to pursue a monetary policy aiming for low inflation rather than credit expansion and growth.
“This means there will be higher policy interest rates to fight inflation,” he told Al Jazeera.
Elgin added that the new minister would not abolish the lira deposits scheme protected against foreign currencies amid depleted foreign currency reserves, but that he might do so “after Turkey’s foreign reserves reach a certain level with the influence of increasing interest rates”.
The indirect state controls on the lira’s exchange rate against foreign reserve currencies are expected to be gradually lifted, Elgin said, leading to controlled depreciation of Turkey’s currency.
Erdogan is known for his belief that high interest rates are the cause of high inflation, not the cure for it.
“Interest and inflation are directly proportional. Interest is the cause, inflation is the effect. There may be people who do not believe this, but this is what I believe,” the president said earlier this year.
Simsek said that it was vital for Turkey “to reduce inflation to single digits again in the medium term … and to speed up the structural transformation which will reduce the current account deficit”.
Turkey’s central bank, the independence of which is seen to have eroded over time, has cut its policy rate to 8.5 percent from 19 percent since late 2021 because of Erdogan’s economic views.
The lira deposit scheme protected against the currency’s depreciation was launched in 2021 in an attempt to keep the lira valuable. It now holds the equivalent of about $125bn.
Erdogan has also followed a policy of credit expansion, at times utilising public banks to provide loans with extremely low borrowing costs, which skyrocketed purchases of properties and cars among other consumption in the last few years.
Oguz said Simsek’s name and appointment are important for Turkey to attract foreign investment, but that investors will want to see the autonomy and authority of the new finance chief.
“Therefore, the first 100 days of Simsek are crucial, in which we will see what authorities he will be able to use, and how he will oversee or change the economy-related positions, including the chief of the central bank,” Oguz said.
He added: “The investors will, in particular, watch the actions that will be taken on the interest rates and lira’s exchange rate, which was kept valuable up until now, but is slowly being released to depreciate against the dollar.”
The awkward economic truth: A recession might be just what Canada needs – The Globe and Mail
This time last year, the R-word was on everyone’s lips – and panic was setting in.
With energy prices soaring and consumers rushing back to restaurants and hotels, annual inflation spiked to 8.1 per cent, forcing central banks to get aggressive with their interest rate hike campaigns. In July, the Bank of Canada went so far as to surprise with a full percentage point rate increase, its largest since 1998. The question wasn’t whether Canada would have a recession, but, rather, just how painful it would be.
The early indicators were pretty grim. Canada’s national home price index dropped 16 per cent from its peak; the S&P 500 Index, a benchmark for U.S. stock market performance, slumped 25 per cent; and the tech sector seized up, leading to tens of thousands of layoffs – and, ultimately, the collapses of Silicon Valley Bank and First Republic Bank.
A year later, the economic outlook is much less gloomy. That recession everyone feared? It never materialized – at least not yet. Unemployment rates in Canada and the United States are sitting near record lows. And earlier this week, Canada reported stronger-than-expected economic growth in the first quarter, fuelled by resilient consumers.
If anything, the economy might still be running too hot, which puts more pressure on the Bank of Canada ahead of its next rate decision on Wednesday. The central bank has kept its policy rate at 4.5 per cent since January, but now it must weigh whether a new hike is needed, even if it increases the chances of tipping the economy into recession.
What no one seems to ask is: What if a recession is a good thing? What if a prolonged economic slump is exactly what Canada needs?
Historically, the economy has gone into recession roughly once a decade because, in simple terms, it overheats and needs a reset. Yet at this point Canada and the U.S. haven’t actually faced a recession in more than a decade. This doesn’t include the COVID-19 pandemic, but that was more like a natural disaster, and the crisis prompted governments to unleash trillions of dollars worth of recovery spending.
Without question, recessions are painful, and they are often felt more acutely by people with lower incomes. There is no sugar-coating that. But usually they aren’t as brutal as the 2008-09 global financial crisis.
To start, a recession now would help to quash runaway inflation. Moving from 8-per-cent annual price growth to 4 per cent hasn’t been too challenging, but going lower from here will be a grind. The longer that inflation runs hot, the greater the danger that it becomes entrenched, and that’s the really scary part. Chaos ensues when businesses and households can’t predict what their costs will be.
The economy has also been warped by years of cheap debt – a byproduct of ultralow interest rates and the vast sums of money created to facilitate stimulus spending. “Fifteen years of that amount of liquidity, or free money, distorts the financial system,” says Mark Wiedman, of the global client business at BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager. “It also starts to distort the real economy.”
Inflation for day-to-day goods and services was actually anemic for decades until it finally took off in 2021. But a new study by McKinsey estimates that asset price inflation – price increases of real estate and financial assets such as stocks – created about US$160-trillion in “paper wealth” globally since 2000.
In Canada, much of the paper wealth has accumulated in the housing market. Strong demand, low supply, cheap money and rampant speculation have conspired to drive up prices to eye-watering levels. Canadian households are now the most indebted among the Group of Seven countries, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), largely due to the oversized mortgages they’re paying down.
The distortions run deep. Plenty of struggling businesses that would have failed in a normal economy have been kept alive by cheap credit. Housing has become one of the hottest investments around, pushing many prospective buyers and renters beyond their breaking points. Food prices have soared so much that visits to Canadian food banks are at record levels, even as Canada enjoys some of the strongest economic growth in the G7.
Policy makers dream of gently smoothing out business cycles, of deftly engineering a soft landing by adjusting interest rates and fiscal policy. But there are limits to how long a country can safely defy gravity.
The tech sector is already reckoning with a radical rethink. Perhaps the whole economy would benefit from a similar reset, so that financial assets stop growing faster than the real economy and GDP is less reliant on government spending. In other words, now might be the time for some very strong medicine.
How a recession could help
Early this year, a group of prominent U.S. economists put out a rather conclusive paper on what it takes to kill runaway inflation. By studying four advanced economies, including Canada’s, since the end of the Second World War, they identified every instance of sky-high price increases and how each ended. The common denominator was rather glaring.
“There is no post-1950 precedent for a sizable central-bank-induced disinflation that does not entail substantial economic sacrifice or recession,” the paper declared. The researchers included Stephen Cecchetti, the former head of the monetary and economic department at the Bank for International Settlements; Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JP Morgan; and Frederic Mishkin, a former U.S. Federal Reserve governor who has long collaborated on research with former Fed chair Ben Bernanke.
In an interview, Mr. Cecchetti made it very clear: “You need to cool the economy off.”
Because inflation has come down rather quickly over the past six months, falling to annual rates of 4.4 per cent in Canada and 4.9 per cent in the U.S., there are hopes that maybe the historical data don’t hold up any more. The pandemic was such a unique event – technically, the U.S. recession lasted a mere two months – that perhaps current prices really can be managed down without an upheaval.
What’s missing from that argument is that disinflation, or slower price growth, isn’t linear. Hiking rates is a surefire way to get some quick wins, but getting from annual inflation of 4 per cent to 2 per cent – which is where central banks want to be – is much harder to do.
Bank of Canada officials have repeatedly stressed that in order to truly tame inflation, something needs to give in the labour market. At the moment, it’s so tight that wages are rising by around 5 per cent on an annual basis. On the surface, that’s not disastrously high. But because Canada’s productivity growth is so weak, those higher compensation costs are tough to manage. The danger, then, is that consumers will foot the bill via higher prices.
The central bank’s most recent projection is that inflation will fall to around 3 per cent annually by this summer, but the last leg of the inflation battle will be challenging. “I would remind you,” Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem said in April, “that we actually need a period of weak growth.”
The housing market could also benefit from a cooling. The rapid interest rate hikes to date took some froth out of the system, but it’s very possible the drop in home prices will be short-lived. Many local housing markets are heating up again with bidding wars, and rebounding home prices are heaping even more pressure on the rental market, because so many people are priced out of ownership. It’s now common to see rent increases of 20 per cent and 30 per cent when units turn over in mid-sized cities such as Halifax and London, Ont.
The problem is that there simply aren’t enough dwellings being built, particularly rentals, and it’s tough to boost construction in today’s market. “Rental housing is really hard to build right now,” said Brad Jones, senior vice-president of development at Wesgroup Properties Ltd. in Vancouver. Because of higher interest rates, elevated construction costs and a shortage of skilled workers, rental development is “not really viable,” he said.
It’s tempting to blame this scenario on record immigration – Canada’s population grew by more than one million people in 2022, and the 2.7-per-cent annual growth was the most since the late 1950s – but it’s a complicated issue. Business groups have been lobbying for more immigration, because their members are desperate for lower-skilled workers to fill job openings.
An economic downturn could take the heat off the labour market, reduce the desperation for immigration and that could then ease demand for housing. In an economy, everything is connected.
Of course, some Canadian companies would inevitably fail in a recession – but many economists argue that is not necessarily a bad thing either. As of 2019, about 5.5 per cent of all businesses in Canada were “zombie firms,” according to a landmark study Statistics Canada published earlier this year. Zombies are companies that earn less than the interest payments on their debt for three consecutive years, and are at least 10 years old.
These are not harmless firms, lurching slowly through their markets. They have weaker earnings than healthy rivals. They’re more indebted. They pay their employees less. Worse yet, they hamper the performance of stronger competitors.
“They don’t exist in isolation. They compete for the same resources as healthy companies, whether it’s investment dollars or employees,” said Danny Leung, director of the economic analysis division at Statscan, and one of the paper’s co-authors.
The paper noted that financial support for businesses during COVID-19 – a necessary thing to stave off economic collapse – may have prolonged the lives of companies that were on the brink of closing. Business insolvencies fell sharply during the acute phases of the health crisis.
Insolvencies have started to pick up again as companies struggle with higher interest rates – government data show that more than 2,500 firms that collectively received around $1-billion in federal wage subsidies have become insolvent so far – but a recession could actually be a catalyst for more rapid change.
“During recessions, companies that are barely viable exit, and then that labour, that capital, that entrepreneurial talent, is freed up to move to other places,” said David Williams, vice-president of policy at the Business Council of British Columbia. “That’s the wonderful thing about a market economy, is that it rewards successes and it punishes failures.”
But instead of permitting a downturn, Canada keeps chasing economic growth at all costs – and that includes endless federal deficits. Even though federal debt-to-GDP ratio is projected to fall over time, the GDP we’re striving for papers over some weak economic results. On a per-capita basis, real GDP – which factors in inflation – is about the same today as in 2017, and it isn’t expected to improve over the next few years.
“We are in, essentially, a lost decade for improvements in living standards,” Mr. Williams said.
Reality check: Recessions can also be devastating
Diane Swonk has heard the same argument for decades: “What we need is a ‘good’ recession.” When the economy gets hot, business owners start venting about just how hard it is to hire workers, so they pray for something that restores normalcy. The same is true for people priced out of a hot housing market.
“It sounds great in theory, to have a mild recession, to get rid of all these excesses,” says Ms. Swonk, chief economist at KPMG U.S., the accounting and consulting giant. “The reality is, the pain of it is quite stark.”
That’s not to say a downturn would be all bad. She appreciates the frustrations and how a reset could take some pressure off. But recessions can be intractable. “The idea that you can calibrate it so that it is mild and short-lived,” she says, “that’s just way outside of our bounds.”
Ms. Swonk has been around long enough to see entire regions destroyed by a downturn. As the former chief economist at Chicago-based Bank One, which became part of JP Morgan, she’s seen U.S. towns that never recovered from the recession in the early 90s and another after the dotcom crash.
Thousands of jobs with routine tasks – such as cashiers – are culled during recessions as companies seek efficiencies through automation, and those workers struggle to regain employment. Some never do. After the financial crisis, millions of Americans aged 25 to 54 were alienated from the labour market. Their participation rate – the percentage either working or looking for a job – took more than a decade to fully recover.
“Change means that there are going to be some losers and some winners,” says Henry Siu, an economist at the University of British Columbia. “For those specific workers who are no longer able to find employment as a machine operator, as a cashier, or as a forklift driver, clearly this phenomenon sucks.”
At its core, the idea that a recession will cleanse things is tied to renowned Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of “creative destruction.” The free market might be messy, he argued in the 1940s, but it delivers growth in the long run. Job losses and corporate bankruptcies are all part of the process.
It’s a theory former Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz knows well. “It all sounds fine on paper,” he says. But Mr. Poloz makes something very clear: “Usually, it’s really rich people who lay this out.” He wonders: “Why is it the responsibility of the regular worker to be unemployed to cause this cleansing?”
Mr. Poloz also stresses that there’s another unique variable in the current business cycle. “The pandemic is a very special case,” he says. “We have to allow for a pause in the natural cleansing process given what we went through.”
Corporate profits may have swelled during the pandemic, but many small business owners barely made it out and are still saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt they took on simply to survive. In February, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business – the small business lobby – found that 58 per cent of its members still had pandemic-related debt, at an average of $106,000 each.
But it’s also easy to get lost in the debate. Mr. Cecchetti, the lead researcher on the study of past periods with high inflation, is very sympathetic to all these arguments, but he offers a counterpoint: “We’re never going to be able to avoid all pain for all people at all times,” he says.
When inflation was scorching hot in the late 1970s and early 80s, the Federal Reserve learned its lesson. In 1979, then Fed chair Paul Volcker hiked interest rates aggressively to tame double-digit inflation, sending the U.S. into a recession. Facing blowback from politicians, the Fed started to lower rates in 1980.
But this move was premature: Inflation was still far too high, prompting another round of tightening that brought lending rates to around 20 per cent. This time, the U.S. was pushed into a second – and deeper – recession, and the unemployment rate jumped to nearly 11 per cent. It was a bruising period, but once inflation was under control, the economy took off.
Short-term pain for the long-term greater good became the gospel for central bankers.
That’s changed in the past 15 years. Now pain is avoided at all costs. It is hard to pinpoint precisely why, but one credible theory is the financial crisis was so terrifying that it forced policy makers to pull out their bazookas to restore order. Once central bankers and politicians had a whole new set of policy tools available, they got a bit addicted to their power.
“My view on monetary policy is always get in and get out quickly,” says Don Drummond, the former chief economist of Toronto-Dominion Bank, who chaired the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services in the aftermath of the 2008-09 crisis.
Today, central bankers are at the other end of the spectrum. “They’re far too activist,” he says, lamenting that they intervene in the economy through programs such as quantitative easing for much longer than they ever would have before. “That’s a grave danger.”
In defence of central bankers, global economic growth was anemic for many years after 2008-09, so it was hard to reset. And when the pandemic hit, even bigger bazookas were needed to stabilize things.
But at what point does the stimulus drip need to stop? While it props up metrics such as GDP growth, the economy’s foundation doesn’t necessarily get any stronger.
Perhaps the goal for policy makers shouldn’t be to avoid all pain, but to minimize it where they can. If that becomes the target, they might realize this is actually a rather opportune time to let the economy weaken. Corporate bankruptcies remain remarkably low; unemployment is barely noticeable; and the financial system is on much better footing following reforms made after the financial crisis. If a recession hit and everything collapsed from here, maybe this economy was all a charade to begin with.
Of course, that thinking might be ridiculous in the current political climate. Politicians are at each other’s throats and incivility is off the charts. But it is crucial that those in power remember that the economy is always a balancing act.
Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce chief economist Avery Shenfeld cautions that any cooling-off period would not be “victimless.” But he knows that is only half the picture. ”Others will find that less of their paycheque is then eroded by inflation.” And that’s a major boon.
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