US’s need to tackle inflation worries the world

History is a potent reminder of how destructive the Fed’s policies can be for the rest of the world. One only has to look back to the 1980s for evidence of defaults by nations that had borrowed heavily from global institutions
US’s need to tackle inflation worries the world
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By: JAMIE MARTIN

As the Federal Reserve begins to raise interest rates to tackle the highest inflation the United States has seen in decades, it confronts a growing risk that it will spark a recession in the process. The trade-off faced by the Fed — between price stability and employment — is usually framed in strictly domestic terms. But aggressive efforts to quell inflation in the United States can have major, unpredictable effects around the world, often with long-lasting, negative consequences for countries in the Global South. And the United States will not be immune to worldwide economic trends. The inflation hawks should consider all of this as they figure out how to address rising prices in the United States today.

History is a good guide to how destructive the Fed’s policies can be for the rest of the world. Just look back to the 1980s. After several years of rising prices, President Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker to lead the Fed in 1979. Volcker raised the federal funds rate — the interest rate that banks charge one another for short-term borrowing and which guides other interest rates — up to nearly 20 percent. By the end of 1982, unemployment had reached 10.8 percent in the United States, but inflation slowed, and Volcker acquired a mythic status as a far-sighted leader unafraid to make tough decisions. That’s why he is cited in so many calls for the Fed to aggressively tackle inflation today.

But the effects of Volcker’s decisions were felt beyond the United States’ borders. As interests rates rose, debts accrued by foreign countries became more difficult to service. This led to a wave of defaults among countries that had borrowed heavily on international markets in the years before, beginning with Mexico in 1982 and then spreading throughout Latin America and beyond. In developing countries, the debt crisis that followed the so-called Volcker shock was profoundly traumatic. Across Latin America, it led to a collapse in G.D.P., rising unemployment and skyrocketing levels of poverty, from which the region made a slow and imperfect recovery over the “lost decade” that followed. Even those who claim Volcker made the right decision admit that he precipitated what may have been the “worst financial disaster the world had ever seen” in Latin America — the consequences of which were even worse than those of the Great Depression. Among heavily indebted states in Africa, the effects were similar. But American policymakers at the time did not give much attention to the global repercussions of their decisions. As Volcker himself later admitted, “Africa was not even on my radar screen.”

An even more relevant example may be from the early 20th century. The first time that the Fed — along with other major central banks — helped spark a global recession was in 1920. By the end of World War I, two years earlier, the world was facing a serious inflationary crisis caused by many of the same forces at work today: global supply chain disruptions, shipping shortages and loose monetary policies. Then, as now, the price of wheat soared as Russian sources disappeared from global markets. From the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to Argentina, food, fuel and clothing became unaffordable, at the same time that an influenza pandemic killed millions. As wages failed to keep pace with rising costs of living, a wave of uprisings, racist mob violence and mass strikes broke out around the world.

The immediate cause was the war’s effects on trade, shipping and finance. But even after the war’s conclusion, these inflationary pressures did not subside. In early 1920 the Fed, alongside other major central banks, sharply raised interest rates. This reined in inflation, but it came at the cost of a worldwide recession: In 1920-21, unemployment in Britain reached heights rivalling those of the Depression; the United States saw a deep, though relatively short-lived, deflationary crisis.

The longest-lasting effects of this recession were in poorer, non-industrialised economies throughout Europe’s colonial empires and Latin America. When commodity prices collapsed, the producers and exporters of goods like wheat, sugar and rubber were devastated. The long-term effects of the crash of 1920-21 on these economies was similar to those of the Depression and the slump of the 1980s.

What will be the effects of the Fed’s efforts to tackle inflation today? It’s not just distant history that counsels caution. In 2013, the slightest hint by Ben Bernanke, then the chairman of the Fed, that monetary tightening was around the corner was enough to send many emerging market economies into a tailspin. The prospect of higher borrowing costs led to capital outflows and currency instability that battered Indonesia, Brazil, India, South Africa and Turkey with particular severity. The decade that followed saw sluggish performance for many emerging market economies.

Conditions are now ripe for the Fed to precipitate another global crisis. Of particular concern are extremely high levels of emerging-market debt. The International Monetary Fund estimates that about 60 percent of low-income developing countries are experiencing debt distress or are close to it. Sri Lanka’s recent default may be the first domino to fall. Tighter monetary policy in the United States will push many other countries to raise their interests rates to prevent capital flight and currency instability. But this will contract their economies, threatening recovery from the pandemic and delivering another blow to their long-term growth.

These conditions should give pause to the inflation hawks calling on the Fed to act aggressively. Yet the institution has a mandate that is nationally bound: to promote price stability and maximum employment in the United States alone. What this means is that the Fed is a national institution that, in effect, sets monetary policy for the entire world.

If institutions of global economic governance are to cope with the risks posed by sharp rate hikes in the United States, they need to change how they mobilise and distribute resources and treat their most vulnerable member states. One start would be for the I.M.F. to expand its issuance of special drawing rights, which provide a financial lifeline to member states without strings attached — but which Congress has opposed out of fear that the money will go to strategic rivals. The I.M.F. should also reduce the punitive surcharges it demands of vulnerable debtors, which add an enormous burden to their already crushing debt loads. The United States, which has tremendous influence over the I.M.F., should help push for this — especially since it could be decisions made in Washington that make such reforms urgent right now.

There’s little question that inflation is real and painful today. But great care is needed to ensure that the United States’ response to it does not lead, as it has in the past, to yet another lost decade for much of the world.

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