By John Mauldin
Smackdown: smack•down, ?smak?doun/, noun, US informal
1. a bitter contest or confrontation.
“the age-old man versus Nature smackdown”
2. a decisive or humiliating defeat or setback.
The term “smackdown” was first used by professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson (AKA The Rock) in 1997. Ten years later its use had become so ubiquitous that Merriam-Webster felt compelled to add it to their lexicon. It may be Dwayne Johnson’s enduring contribution to Western civilization, notwithstanding and apart from his roles in The Fast and The Furious movie series. All that said, it is quite the useful word for talking about confrontations that are more for show than actual physical altercations.
And so it is that on a beautiful July 4 weekend we will amuse ourselves by contemplating the serious smackdown that central bankers are visiting upon each other. If the ramifications of their antics were not so serious, they would actually be quite amusing. This week’s shorter than usual letter will explore the implications of the contretemps among the world’s central bankers and take a little dive into yesterday’s generally positive employment report.
The opening riposte came from the Bank for International Settlements, the “bank for central banks.” In their annual report, released this week, they talked about “euphoric” financial markets that have become detached from reality. They clearly – clearly in central banker-speak, that is – fingered the culprit as the ultra-low monetary policies being pursued around the world. These are creating capital markets that are “extraordinarily buoyant.”
The report opens with this line:
“A new policy compass is needed to help the global economy step out of the shadow of the Great Financial Crisis. This will involve adjustments to the current policy mix and to policy frameworks with the aim of restoring sustainable and balanced economic growth.”
The Financial Times weighed in with this summary: “Leading central banks should not fall into the trap of raising rates ‘too slowly and too late,’ the BIS said, calling for policy makers to halt the steady rise in debt burdens around the world and embark on reforms to boost productivity. In its annual report, the BIS also warned of the risks brewing in emerging markets, setting out early warning indicators of possible banking crises in a number of jurisdictions, including most notably China.”
“The risk of normalizing too late and too gradually should not be underestimated,” the BIS said in a follow-up statement on Sunday. “Particularly for countries in the late stages of financial booms, the trade-off is now between the risk of bringing forward the downward leg of the cycle and that of suffering a bigger bust later on,” the BIS report said.
The Financial Times noted that the BIS “has been a longstanding sceptic about the benefits of ultra-stimulative monetary and fiscal policies, and its latest intervention reflects mounting concern that the rebound in capital markets and real estate is built on fragile foundations.”
The New York Times delved further into the story:
There is a disappointing element of déjà vu in all this,” Claudio Borio, head of the monetary and economic department at the BIS, said in an interview ahead of Sunday’s release of the report. He described the report “as a call to action.”
The organization said governments should do more to improve the performance of their economies, such as reducing restrictions on hiring and firing. The report also urged banks to raise more capital as a cushion against risk and to speed efforts to deal with past problems. Countries that are growing quickly, like some emerging markets, must be alert to the danger of overheating, the group said.
The signs of financial imbalances are there,” Mr. Borio said. “That’s why we are emphasizing it is important to take further action while the time is still there.”
The B.I.S. report said debt levels in many emerging markets, as well as Switzerland, “are well above the threshold that indicates potential trouble.” (Source: New York Times)
Casual observers will be forgiven if they come away with the impression that the BIS document was seriously influenced by supply-siders and Austrian economists. Someone at the Bank for International Settlements seems to have channeled their inner Hayek. They pointed out that despite the easy monetary policies around the world, investment has remained weak and productivity growth has stagnated. There is even talk of secular (that is, chronic) stagnation. They talk about the need for further capitalization of many banks (which can be read, of European banks). They decry the rise of public and private debt.
Read this from their webpage introduction to the report:
To return to sustainable and balanced growth, policies need to go beyond their traditional focus on the business cycle and take a longer-term perspective – one in which the financial cycle takes centre stage. They need to address head-on the structural deficiencies and resource misallocations masked by strong financial booms and revealed only in the subsequent busts. The only source of lasting prosperity is a stronger supply side. It is essential to move away from debt as the main engine of growth.
“Good policy is less a question of seeking to pump up growth at all costs than of removing the obstacles that hold it back,” the BIS argued in the report, saying the recent upturn in the global economy offers a precious opportunity for reform and that policy needs to become more symmetrical in responding to both booms and busts.
Does “responding to both booms and busts” sound like any central bank in a country near you? No, I thought not. I will admit to being something of a hometown boy. I pull for the local teams and cheered on the US soccer team. But given the chance, based on this BIS document, I would replace my hometown team – the US Federal Reserve High Flyers – with the team from the Bank for International Settlements in Basel in a heartbeat. These guys (almost) restore my faith in the economics profession. It seems there is a bastion of understanding out there, beyond the halls of American academia. Just saying…
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