Given today’s market, it seemed appropriate to turn to “Dr Doom,” and, writing for Project Syndicate, Nouriel Roubini doesn’t disappoint, anticipating a combination of stagflation and debt crisis. Everyone is free to come to different conclusions about the likelihood of that. (For example, at least one of the supply shocks — that supposedly posed by an aging population — that he identifies seems, in my view, exaggerated, at least in developed economies.)
But for me, the most interesting part of Roubini’s argument revolved around the trap in which the Fed and other central banks now find themselves:
Central banks have effectively lost their independence, because they have been given little choice but to monetize massive fiscal deficits to forestall a debt crisis. With both public and private debts having soared, they are in a debt trap. As inflation rises over the next few years, central banks will face a dilemma. If they start phasing out unconventional policies and raising policy rates to fight inflation, they will risk triggering a massive debt crisis and severe recession; but if they maintain a loose monetary policy, they will risk double-digit inflation – and deep stagflation when the next negative supply shocks emerge.
But even in the second scenario, policymakers would not be able to prevent a debt crisis. While nominal government fixed-rate debt in advanced economies can be partly wiped out by unexpected inflation (as happened in the 1970s), emerging-market debts denominated in foreign currency would not be. Many of these governments would need to default and restructure their debts.
At the same time, private debts in advanced economies would become unsustainable (as they did after the global financial crisis), and their spreads relative to safer government bonds would spike, triggering a chain reaction of defaults. Highly leveraged corporations and their reckless shadow-bank creditors would be the first to fall, soon followed by indebted households and the banks that financed them.
To be sure, real long-term borrowing costs may initially fall if inflation rises unexpectedly and central banks are still behind the curve. But, over time, these costs will be pushed up by three factors. First, higher public and private debts will widen sovereign and private interest-rate spreads. Second, rising inflation and deepening uncertainty will drive up inflation risk premia. And, third, a rising misery index – the sum of the inflation and unemployment rate – eventually will demand a “Volcker Moment.”
When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession.
No wonder central bankers would rather talk about climate change.