Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University.
With the disastrous U.S. exit from Afghanistan, the parallels between the 2020s and the 1970s just keep growing. Has a sustained period of high inflation just become much more likely? Until recently, I would have said the odds were clearly against it. Now, I am not so sure, especially looking ahead a few years.
Many economists seem to view inflation as a purely technocratic problem, and most central bankers would like to believe that. In fact, the roots of sustained inflation mainly stem from political economy problems, and here the long list of similarities between the 1970s and today is unsettling.
In the United States, following a period in which the president challenges institutional norms (Richard Nixon was the 1970s version), a thoroughly decent person takes office (back then, Jimmy Carter). Abroad, the U.S. suffers a humiliating defeat at the hands of a much weaker, but much more determined adversary (North Vietnam in the 1970s, the Taliban today).
On the economic front, the global economy suffers a lingering productivity slowdown. According to the Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon’s magisterial account of innovation and growth, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the 1970s marks a turning point in U.S. economic history, thanks to a sharp slowdown in meaningful economic innovation. Today, even if productivity pessimists grossly underestimate the phenomenal gains the next generation of biotech and artificial intelligence will bring, a large body of work finds that productivity growth has been slowing in the twenty-first century, and now the pandemic looks to be inflicting another heavy blow.
The global economy suffered a massive supply shock in the 1970s, as Middle East countries massively hiked the price of oil they charged the rest of the world. Today, protectionism and a retreat from global supply chains constitute an equally consequential negative supply shock.
Finally, in the late 1960s and 1970s, huge increases in government spending were not matched by higher taxes on the wealthy. The spending increases stemmed in part from president Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs in the 1960s, later amplified by the soaring cost of the Vietnam War. In recent years, first the Trump tax cuts, then pandemic-related catastrophe relief, and now progressive plans to expand the social safety net have hit the federal budget hard. Plans to fund these costs by raising taxes only on the rich will likely fall far short.
It is true that despite all these similarities, today’s independent central banks stand as a bulwark against inflation, ready to raise interest rates if inflation pressures seem to be getting out of hand. In the 1970s, only a few countries had independent central banks, and in the case of the U.S., it did not act like one, fuelling inflation with massive monetary expansion. Today, relatively independent central banks are the norm across much of the world. It is also true that today’s ultralow global real interest rates provide rich-country governments a lot more room to run deficits than they had in the 1970s.
On the other hand, the challenges of providing for aging populations has become vastly more difficult over the past five decades (at least in advanced economies and China). Underfunded public pension schemes arguably are a much larger threat quantitatively to government budget solvency than debt. At the same time, social pressures to increase government spending and transfers have exploded across the world, as inequality becomes more politically salient for many countries, and improving growth less so. And confronting climate change and other environmental threats will almost certainly put additional pressure on budgets and slow growth.
Sharply rising government debts will inevitably make it more politically painful for central banks to raise nominal interest rates if global real rates start turning upward. High debts are already a reason why some central banks today will hesitate to raise interest rates if and when postpandemic normalization occurs. Private debt, which has also soared during the pandemic, is perhaps an even bigger problem. Widespread private defaults would eventually have a huge fiscal impact via lower tax collection and higher social safety net costs.
Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike. Leading central bankers today such as Jay Powell of the U.S. Federal Reserve and Christine Lagarde of the European Central Bank are a far cry from pliable Fed Chair Arthur Burns in the 1970s. They both have superb staffs to support them. Yet all central banks still face constant pressures, and it is hard for them to stand alone indefinitely, especially if politicians become weak and desperate.
America’s humbling defeat in Afghanistan is a big step toward recreating the perfect storm that led to slow growth and very high inflation of the 1970s. A few weeks ago, a little inflation seemed like a manageable problem. Now, the risks and the stakes are higher.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021. www.project-syndicate.org
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Dollar set for another week of losses even as Fed tapering looms
The dollar was heading for a second week of declines on Friday as sentiment stayed tilted towards riskier assets, while an intervention by the Australian central bank put a halt to the Aussie dollar’s recent surge.
The dollar index was last at 93.733, little changed in Asian hours but off 0.24% on the week, as it continues its fall from a 12-month high of 94.565 hit in earlier this month.
It had managed to stem losses on Thursday, bouncing on better U.S. jobs and housing data, but the rally petered out on Friday morning in Asia, where risk sentiment was boosted news that beleaguered developer China Evergrande Group has supplied funds to pay interest on a U.S. dollar bond, averting a default.
But traders are still trying to assess whether the dollar has scope to fall further, or if this is a temporary blip on a march higher.
“People are wondering whether we are at an inflection point, as the dollar has been weakening and that doesn’t really fit with the broader narrative that global growth is cooling and the Fed is on the path to tapering, which should be supportive for the dollar,” said Paul Mackel, global head of FX research at HSBC.
On Friday, benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury yields were at 1.6872%, slightly off from Thursday’s multi-month high of 1.7%, as markets continue to prepare themselves for an announcement by the Federal Reserve that it will start to wind down its massive bond buying programme, which is widely expected for November.
Mackel said part of the reason for the dollar’s weakness had been strong performances by currencies from most commodity exporting countries.
These were quieter on Friday, however, as traders took profits, analysts said, and energy prices softened.
Brent crude, which had risen above $86 dollars a barrel on Thursday, continued its tumble and was last at $84.10.
The Australian dollar was at $0.7475, off Thursday’s three-month top, as the boost to the China-exposed currency from Evergrande’s news was outweighed by action from the Reserve Bank of Australia to stem a bond sell off, as well as the pause in energy price rises.
The RBA said on Friday it had stepped in to defend its yield target for the first time in eight months, spending A$1 billion ($750 million) to dampen an aggressive bonds sell-off as traders have bet on inflation pulling forward rate hikes.
Also affected by energy prices, the Canadian dollar slipped to C$1.2352 per U.S. dollar, off Thursday’s C$1.2287, a level last seen in June.
The British pound paused for breath at $1.3798, off a month peak hit earlier in the week, to which it had been carried by growing expectations of an interest rate hike to combat rising inflationary pressures.
The euro was little changed at $1.1627, while the yen wobbled within sight of its multi-year lows, with one dollar worth 114.01 yen, compared with 114.69 earlier in the week, a four-year low.
China’s yuan eased against the dollar on Friday after the FX regulator warned of possible action if the currency market is hit by greater volatility following its recent rally. But the yuan still looked set for the biggest weekly gain since May.
Bitcoin was at $63,928, a little off Wednesday’s all-time high of $67,016
(Reporting by Alun John; Editing by Sam Holmes and Kim Coghill)
UN sets up trust fund for 'people's economy' in Afghanistan – The Globe and Mail
The United Nations said on Thursday it had set up a special trust fund to provide urgently needed cash directly to Afghans through a system tapping into donor funds frozen since the Taliban takeover in August.
With the local economy “imploding”, the aim is to inject liquidity into Afghan households to permit them to survive this winter and remain in their homeland, it said.
Achim Steiner, the U.N. Development Programme’s (UNDP) administrator said Germany, a first contributor, had pledged 50 million euros ($58 million) to the fund, and that it was in touch with other donors to mobilize resources.
Some 97% of Afghan households could be living below the poverty line by mid-2022, according to UNDP.
“We have to step in, we have to stabilize a ‘people’s economy’ and in addition to saving lives we also have to save livelihoods,” Steiner told a news briefing.
“Because otherwise we will confront indeed a scenario through this winter and into next year where millions and millions of Afghans are simply unable to stay on their land, in their homes, in their villages and survive,” he said.
The International Monetary Fund said on Tuesday that Afghanistan’s economy was set to contract https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/afghanistans-economic-collapse-could-prompt-refugee-crisis-imf-2021-10-19 up to 30% this year and this was likely to further fuel a refugee crisis that would affect neighbouring countries, Turkey and Europe.
The Taliban takeover saw billions in central bank assets frozen https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/un-chief-liquidity-needed-stem-afghanistan-economic-humanitarian-crises-2021-10-11 and international financial institutions suspend access to funds, although humanitarian aid has continued. Banks are running out of money, civil servants have not been paid and food prices have soared.
Steiner said the challenge was to repurpose donor funds already earmarked for Afghanistan, where the Taliban, the de facto authorities, are not recognized internationally. The fund allows the international community to be “confident enough that these funds are not meant as government-to-government funding”, he said.
VIRTUALLY NO LOCAL CASH
The U.N. has discussed the programmes with the Taliban, he said, noting that 80% of the micro-businesses being helped were led by women.
“Our greatest challenge right now is that there is a economy in which there is virtually no domestic currency in circulation,” Steiner said, adding that the U.N. wanted to avoid foreign currencies dominating, which would undermine the economy.
“Our intent is to find ways very quickly in which we can convert international support into local currency in order to be able to stimulate local markets, local livelihoods. This is how you keep an economy alive,” he said.
Kanni Wignaraja, director of UNDP’s regional bureau for the Asia Pacific, said that cash would be provided to Afghan workers in public works programmes, such as drought and flood control programmes, and grants given to micro-enterprises. Temporary basic income would be paid to the vulnerable elderly and disabled, she said.
The UNDP had costed activities to be covered over the first 12 months at approximately $667 million, she said.
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