Mon | Dec 5, 2022
OP-ED CONTRIBUTION: DEBT CRISIS

Nouriel Roubini | The stagflationary debt crisis is here

Published:Wednesday | October 5, 2022 | 12:08 AM
Nouriel Roubini
Nouriel Roubini
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For a year now, I have argued that the increase in inflation would be persistent, that its causes include not only bad policies, but also negative supply shocks, and that central banks’ attempt to fight it would cause a hard economic landing. When the recession comes, I warned, it will be severe and protracted, with widespread financial distress and debt crises.

Notwithstanding their hawkish talk, central bankers, caught in a debt trap, may still wimp out and settle for above-target inflation. Any portfolio of risky equities and less risky fixed-income bonds will lose money on the bonds, owing to higher inflation and inflation expectations.

How do these predictions stack up? First, ‘Team Transitory’ clearly lost to ‘Team Persistent’ in the inflation debate.

On top of excessively loose monetary, fiscal, and credit policies, negative supply shocks caused price growth to surge. COVID-19 lockdowns led to supply bottlenecks, including for labour. China’s ‘zero-COVID’ policy created even more problems for global supply chains. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves through energy and other commodity markets. And the broader sanctions regime – not least the weaponisation of the US dollar and other currencies – has further balkanised the global economy, with ‘friendshoring’ and trade and immigration restrictions accelerating the trend towards deglobalisation.

Everyone now recognises that these persistent, negative supply shocks have contributed to inflation, and the European Central Bank, the Bank of England, and the US Federal Reserve have begun to acknowledge that a soft landing will be exceedingly difficult to pull off. Fed Chair Jerome Powell now speaks of a “softish landing” with at least “some pain”. Meanwhile, a hard-landing scenario is becoming the consensus among market analysts, economists, and investors.

It is much harder to achieve a soft landing under conditions of stagflationary, negative supply shocks than it is when the economy is overheating because of excessive demand. Since World War II, there has never been a case where the Fed achieved a soft landing with inflation above 5 per cent (it is currently above 8 per cent) and unemployment below 5 per cent (it is currently 3.7 per cent).

And if a hard landing is the baseline for the United States, it is even more likely in Europe, owing to the Russian energy shock, China’s slowdown, and the ECB falling even further behind the curve relative to the Fed.

Are we already in a recession? Not yet, but the US did report negative growth in the first half of the year, and most forward-looking indicators of economic activity in advanced economies point to a sharp slowdown that will grow even worse with monetary policy tightening. A hard landing by year’s end should be regarded as the baseline scenario.

While many other analysts now agree, they seem to think that the coming recession will be short and shallow, whereas I have cautioned against such relative optimism, stressing the risk of a severe and protracted stagflationary debt crisis. And now, the latest distress in financial markets – including bond and credit markets – has reinforced my view that central banks’ efforts to bring inflation back down to target will cause both an economic and a financial crash.

I have also long argued that central banks, regardless of their tough talk, will feel immense pressure to reverse their tightening once the scenario of a hard economic landing and a financial crash materialises. Early signs of wimping out are already discernible in the United Kingdom.

Faced with the market reaction to the new government’s reckless fiscal stimulus, the BOE has launched an emergency quantitative-easing, or QE, programme to buy up government bonds – the yields on which have spiked.

Monetary policy is increasingly subject to fiscal capture. Recall that a similar turnaround occurred in the first quarter of 2019, when the Fed stopped its quantitative tightening, or QT, programme and started pursuing a mix of backdoor QE and policy-rate cuts – after previously signalling continued rate hikes and QT – at the first sign of mild financial pressures and a growth slowdown.

Central banks will talk tough, but there is good reason to doubt their willingness to do ‘whatever it takes’ to return inflation to its target rate in a world of excessive debt, with risks of an economic and financial crash.

Moreover, there are early signs that the ‘great moderation’ has given way to the ‘great stagflation’, which will be characterised by instability and a confluence of slow-motion, negative supply shocks. In addition to the disruptions mentioned above, these shocks could include societal ageing in many key economies — a problem made worse by immigration restrictions; Sino-American decoupling; a ‘geopolitical depression’ and breakdown of multilateralism; new variants of COVID-19 and new outbreaks, such as monkeypox; the increasingly damaging consequences of climate change; cyberwarfare; and fiscal policies to boost wages and workers’ power.

Where does that leave the traditional 60/40 portfolio? I previously argued that the negative correlation between bond and equity prices would break down as inflation rises, and indeed it has. Between January and June of this year, US and global equity indices fell by more than 20 per cent, while long-term bond yields rose from 1.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent, leading to massive losses on both equities and bonds (positive price correlation).

Moreover, bond yields fell during the market rally between July and mid-August, which I correctly predicted would be a dead-cat bounce, thus maintaining the positive price correlation; and since mid-August, equities have continued their sharp fall, while bond yields have gone much higher. As higher inflation has led to tighter monetary policy, a balanced bear market for both equities and bonds has emerged.

But US and global equities have not yet fully priced in even a mild and short hard landing. Equities will fall by about 30 per cent in a mild recession, and by 40 per cent or more in the severe stagflationary debt crisis that I have predicted for the global economy.

Signs of strain in debt markets are mounting: sovereign spreads and long-term bond rates are rising, and high-yield spreads are increasing sharply; leveraged-loan and collateralised-loan-obligation markets are shutting down; and highly indebted firms, shadow banks, households, governments, and countries are entering debt distress. The crisis is here.

Nouriel Roubini, Professor Emeritus of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, is chief economist at Atlas Capital Team and author of the forthcoming MegaThreats: Ten Dangerous Trends That Imperil Our Future, and How to Survive Them.

© Project Syndicate 2022

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