A glimmer of hope?
The worst thing for the world economy would be to assume the worst is over:
Welcome to an era of diminished expectations and continuing dangers; a world where policymakers must steer between the imminent threat of deflation while countering investors’ (reasonable) fears that swelling public debts and massive monetary easing could eventually lead to high inflation; an uncharted world where government borrowing reaches a scale not seen since the second world war, when capital controls ensured that savings stayed at home.
How to cope with these dangers? Certainly not by clutching at scraps of better news. That risks leading to less action right now. Warding off deflation, for instance, will demand more unconventional steps from more central banks for longer than many now seem to foresee. Laggards, such as the European Central Bank, do themselves and the world no favours by holding back. Nor should governments immediately seek to take back the fiscal stimulus. Prolonged economic weakness does far greater damage to public finances than temporary fiscal activism. Remember how Japan snuffed out its recovery in the 1990s by rushing to raise taxes.
Japan also put off bank reform. Countries facing big balance-sheet adjustments should heed that lesson and nudge reform along, in particular by doing more to clean up and restructure the banks. Countries with surpluses must encourage private spending at home more vigorously. China’s leaders are still doing too little to boost private citizens’ income and their spending by fostering reforms, from widening health-care coverage to forcing state-owned firms to pay higher dividends.
At the same time policymakers must give themselves room to change course in the future. Central banks need to lay out the rules that will govern their exit from exotic forms of policy easing (see article). That may require new tools: the Federal Reserve would gain from being able to issue bonds that could mop up liquidity. All governments, especially those with the ropiest public finances, should think boldly about how to lower their debt ratios in the medium term—in ways that do not choke off nascent private demand. Rather than pushing up tax rates, they should think about raising retirement ages, reining in health costs and broadening the tax base.
This weekend many of the world’s finance ministers and central bankers will meet in Washington, DC, for the spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank. Amid rising confidence, they will be tempted to pat themselves on the back. There is no time for that. The worst global slump since the Depression is far from finished. There is work to do.