As America falters, policymakers must look ahead

Three months ago I was able to write in this space that in economics “the main thing we have to fear is the lack of fear itself”. This is no longer true today. With clear evidence of a crisis in the subprime US housing sector, risks of its spread to other credit markets, sharp increases in market volatility, reminders of the fragility of global carry trades and signs of slowing economic growth, there is enough apprehension to go around.

While it would be premature to predict a US recession, there are now strong grounds for predicting that the US economy will slow down very significantly in 2007. Whether in retrospect 2007 will prove to have been a “pause that refreshed” a nearly decade-long expansion like the growth slowdowns in 1986 and 1995 or whether it will see the end of the expansion is not yet clear.

It is clear though that the global economy has been relying on the US as an importer of last resort; that the US economy has been relying on the consumer for its primary impetus; and that until now consumers have been encouraged to spend their incomes fully or more than fully by being able to access the wealth in their homes.

This growth syllogism has appeared fragile for some time, but has continued longer than many observers expected as US consumers have kept spending even after it was clear that the housing market had peaked and foreigners – particularly those in the official sector in Asia and the Middle East – have been willing to continue financing, on very attractive terms, the US in importing nearly 70 per cent more than it exports.

But the growth syllogism is now in doubt. Recent developments in the subprime sector exacerbate housing’s brake on US economic growth. Foreclosures will bloat the supply overhang of houses. At the same time reductions in capital in the housing finance sector and more rigorous credit standards will reduce the demand for new homes. Even as these developments reduce housing prices and the construction of new houses, housing finance problems are likely to magnify wealth effects on consumption as consumers face upward resets on their mortgage rates and are unable to refinance as they had planned, and as home equity, car and credit card lending conditions tighten.

If consumer spending declines and interest rates fall or appear likely to fall, there is the real possibility that the foreign lending to the US that has financed imports far in excess of exports will start to dry up, leading to a combination of higher long-term interest rates and a weaker dollar. This would tend to raise inflationary pressures, transmit US weakness to the rest of the world and could, by discouraging foreign demand for US assets, lead to further downward pressure on investment in plant, equipment and commercial real estate.

How should economic policy respond to a potential fall-off in US demand? The great irony is that just as the worst investment decisions are made by those who do today what they wish they had done yesterday – buying assets that have already risen and selling those that have just lost their value – so also the worst economic policy decisions are made by policymakers who, instead of responding to current circumstances, seek to rectify past mistakes.

It would have been desirable if policymakers had done more to restrain imprudent subprime lending to households with dubious credit in recent years. But with the sector littered with bankruptcies, this is not today’s problem. The problem is the opposite: to avoid a vicious cycle of foreclosures, declining property values, reduced consumption demand, rising unemployment, more delinquencies and more foreclosures.

Some argue that the Federal Reserve should have started tightening monetary policy earlier in the current cycle and avoided what they see as liquidity-driven bubbles. Regardless of the merits of this position, the theory that this constitutes a reason to avoid easing monetary policy, come what may, hardly follows. If, as may prove the case, the dominant economic concern becomes a shortage of demand, it is incumbent on the Fed to provide stimulus so as to maintain conditions for growth and financial stability.

Those in the rest of the world who have been insisting on the global imperative of increased US saving and a reduced US current account deficit should fear getting what they want too quickly. So also should those US observers who have insisted that foreign countries stop artificially holding their currencies down by purchasing dollar assets. While US current account adjustment is a medium-term imperative, an effort to bring it about rapidly in the face of an already declining economy could turn a soft landing into a hard one.

Similar principles can be extended to almost every macroeconomic policy area from fiscal policy to financial regulation. Good economic policies operate counter-cyclically, slowing booms and mitigating downturns. It follows that when the dominant risk changes from complacency and overheating to risk aversion and economic slowdown, the orientation of policy must change as well.

Economic policymakers who seek to correct past errors by doing today what they wished they had done yesterday actually compound their errors. They are in their way as dangerous as generals fighting the last war. We do not yet know how much economic conditions will change or whether current concerns will prove transitory. But if recent developments mark a genuine change, let us hope that policymakers look forwards rather than backwards.

The writer is Charles W. Eliot, university professor at Harvard

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