Inflation: another symptom of the zombie economy

In both the UK and the US, the monthly inflation figures released this week came in well above the forecasts. These announcements have added to fears from many economists that we could be seeing a return to inflation rates not seen for 40 years.

Led by Jay Powell, chair of the US Federal Reserve, most central bankers believe that the current high levels of inflation are ‘transitory’, and will fade away once the lockdowns have been fully lifted. Meanwhile, critics say any delay in monetary tightening will simply force the central banks to slam on the policy brakes harder at a later point, resulting in even greater economic disorder and perhaps an even harsher recession.

So who is right? The inflation hawks or the apparently dovish central bankers?

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A post-Covid boom? Not so fast

Some pundits are getting a little carried away by the signs of a rapid economic bounce-back. The uniqueness of the past year has distorted the data, creating a misleading impression of our economic prospects. We would be well advised to be more sceptical than usual about the economic stories being told.

The biggest worry is that politicians will overinterpret the contemporary statistical fog in a way that allows them to evade the deeper, more substantial economic issues they should be addressing. We have been complacent for too long about the state of the Western economies. If we get too excited about high growth rates and other anomalous data, we are much more likely to waste the opportunity for real change thrown up by this crisis.

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A ‘rebound’ to the Old Normal is not good enough

At the end of April, Barclays boss Jes Staley was forecasting that 2021 would see the strongest boom in Britain since the aftermath of the Second World War. The emerging consensus among economists is only a little less ebullient in anticipating the fastest pace of growth since 1989. The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, captured the upbeat mood: ‘As I’ve been saying for months – drawing on the economics of coiled springs, and crouching tigers, and “Chicken Lickens” – I do think more likely than not we are [set] for a rapid-fire recovery. That is coming, and I think that is coming soon.’

The upgraded forecasts for Britain’s economic growth this year and next from the likes of the IMF and the EY ITEM Club are quite feasible. However, it is short-sighted to think a rapid bounce-back over the next year or so will mean a robust long-term recovery. Moreover, talk of a ‘great rebound’ could also reinforce the tendency of successive governments to abandon their economic responsibilities to help the private sector create new growth sectors with enough decent well-paying jobs for people.

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A culture war against China

After the defeat of Donald Trump many international relations commentators think that Western politicians and diplomats can now revert to their postwar multilateralist ways, without having to deal with an unpredictable and erratic American president. No more unilateralist antics. No more disregard and contempt for America’s allies. And no more capricious provocation of China, with the dire potential consequence of a military standoff.

But this expectation of a reassuring return to international norms could actually be much more dangerous to global peace than anything Trump initiated. A resumption of Western complacencies about international affairs would only compound the existing deep-rooted challenges – challenges that have in fact been exacerbated by the response to Covid-19 far more than by Trump.

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Don’t blame Covid for economic devastation

It is unhelpful to present the economic disruptions over 2020 as costs of the pandemic itself. Claims that it is the virus, and not the restrictions, that is causing today’s devastating economic damage to production and jobs are misleading.

Understanding better how the economy is being hit is important for several reasons. A firmer grasp of all the costs arising from lockdowns and other official social restrictions is necessary for sound policymaking. Making decisions based on epidemiological models without a broader assessment of the costs – social, health and economic – and of how they have arisen is a reckless approach from political leaders.

Moreover, these other impacts from the pandemic measures are helpful in assessing the lessons to be learned in preparing for and managing future pandemics.

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