Blog - Views on the Economy and the World

Views on the Economy and the World

A blog by Jeffrey Frankel

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Views on the Economy and the World,” Views on the Economy and the World, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/views-economy-and-world.

360 posts

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What a difference a year makes!  In 2021, interest rates were close to zero in the US and the UK,  and slightly negative in the eurozone and Japan.  They were expected to remain low indefinitely.  Remarkably, as recently as January 2022, investors thought that the probability the interest rate would rise above 4.0 % within 5 years was only 12% in the US, 4 % for the euro-zone, and 7 % for the UK [p.45].  Those were short-term nominal interest rates.  Correcting for expected inflation, real interest rates were substantially negative and expected to remain so.

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A skydiver jumps out of an airplane, apparently without a working parachute. On the way down, a passing hang-glider calls out to ask how he is doing.  The plummeting man shouts back “Okay, so far!”

For many, the US economy resembles the skydiver.  But they are probably wrong.

  1. Expectations of a hard landing

Many think a hard landing became inevitable when the Fed in March 2022 began a series of interest rate hikes, which totals 5.0 percentage points so far and is expected to continue. Many economists, as well as the public, have been confidently predicting a recession for over a year now, or even saying that it has already begun.  In June 2022, 57% of respondents told pollsters that they believed the US was already in recession, versus only 21% who did not.  An inverted yield curve in bond markets suggests that the financial sector, too, has been expecting a downturn.  The word “recession” appeared far more often in public media during the last year than is usual even in the midst of a true recession.

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After an interval when little attention was paid to the long-run prognosis for government debt, its sustainability is again front-and-center in the United States, as in many other countries.  The reason is not the concocted debt ceiling crisis, which was resolved at the end of May, two days before a looming default. A likely reason is, rather, the big increase in interest rates over the last year.

So long as interest rates, both nominal and real, were historically low — even close to zero in 2021 — it seemed fine for the government to borrow.  In particular, short-term real interest rates, that is, nominal interest rates minus expected inflation, were negative.  But now that interest payments on the national debt have risen, with more to come, the situation doesn’t look so benign.

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A two-decade drought in the western United States, the worst in more than 1,000 years, has pushed chronic water shortages to a critical point, notwithstanding above-average precipitation this past winter.  Similar water shortages afflict Europe and some parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, and Latin America.

Forty million people in western US states get much of their water from the Colorado River. On May 22, their representatives reached a supposedly historic agreement to solve their conflicting claims for the time being.  California, Arizona and Nevada managed to negotiate how to allocate reductions of 14% by 2026, in water drawn from the river.

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An estimated 61 countries are currently in debt distress or at risk of it, which is almost one third of the membership of the IMF [32% of 190].  The G20’s Common Framework for Debt Treatment is supposed to facilitate debt restructuring for low-income countries.  But it has made only slow progress.

Many of these countries are in Africa.  Chad restructured its debt in 2021, the first to do so under the Common Framework. Zambia defaulted on its foreign debt in 2020, but has so far been unsuccessful in getting its creditors to agree on how to restructure its debt.  Reluctance of China to participate with other creditors in the traditional Paris Club process is a particular problem in the Zambian case.  Ghana, which defaulted on its external debt in December 2022, has apparently been better able to move forward with restructuring.  Rescheduling of the terms of Ethiopia’s debt was delayed by civil war, but may move forward now.  Angola received 3-year debt relief in September 2020, but remains in trouble.

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Fifty Years of Floating

| Mar. 26, 2023

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the date, in March 1973, when the dollar, yen, deutschemark, pound, and other major currencies went untethered, their relative values to be determined thenceforth by foreign exchange markets rather than by governments.  The abandonment of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates was generally viewed as a policy failure. The movement from fixed to flexible exchange rates, however, was better viewed as part of a natural long-term process.

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The popular ESG movement advocates judging firms, not just by what they generate for shareholders in short-term profits, but by their emphasis on environmental, social, and governance goals.  The movement has its detractors, particularly in the United States.  A counter-movement is gathering steam. It would prohibit some financial institutions from investing in firms that follow ESG practices.

To be sure, ESG does warrant some skepticism.  Often, corporate commitments are essentially mere exercises in public relations.  But those who, in the name of economic freedom, would ban private investors from pursuing ESG goals are logically confused.

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The US federal debt hit its legal limit, $31.4 trillion, on Thursday, January 19, 2023.  Everyone feels that they have seen this movie before: there is no need for alarm because the politicians will strike a deal at the last moment.  But this time, the movie could well end tragically, as a result of the intransigence of Republicans in Congress.  It is likely that they will refuse to raise the debt ceiling until after they have driven the car over the cliff.  This could mean a once unthinkable default by the US government.  Unfortunately, letting them do that may be the best strategy available to President Joe Biden when the time comes.

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Economists spent most of 2022 convincing themselves that the global economy was about to fall into recession, if it wasn’t already in one.  With the year over, the global recession has now been postponed to 2023.

  1. Tour d’horizon

In the US, reports that a recession had begun in the first half of the year clearly were premature, especially given how tight the labor market was.  It still is. The chances of a downturn in the coming year are well below 100%, despite the confidence with which many say it is certain.  It is foolish to think we can predict a recession with certainty. But the chances are indeed far above the usual 15 %.  I would put the odds at perhaps 50-50 in 2023 and 75% at some point during the next two years.  The main reason is the rapid raising of interest rates by the Fed (and other central banks), of course, which in turn is attributable to high inflation.

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The most important task in confronting global climate change is the need to enforce serious quantitative limits on Greenhouse Gas emissions, such as the Nationally Defined Contributions which were originally negotiated in the 2015 Paris Agreement.  The 27th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC,  which concluded in Sharm-el-Sheikh November 20, did not tackle this task.  Carbon border equalization measures, including tariffs against carbon-intensive imports from lax countries, might supply the teeth that have been missing from such agreements.  But they also risk advancing protectionism, which would ultimately slow the needed global energy transition.  Adjudicating the fairness of carbon tariffs would be a good job for a reinvigorated WTO.