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The End of Free-Lunch Economics

Since the global financial crisis, and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, fiscal and monetary policymakers have operated as if there are no tradeoffs to their expansionary policy programs. Now that economic conditions have changed, they may soon have to relearn old lessons the hard way.

CHICAGO – Smart economic policymaking invariably requires trading off some pain today for greater future gains. But this is a difficult proposition politically, especially in democracies. It is always easier for elected leaders to indulge their constituents immediately, on the hope that the bill will not arrive while they are still in office. Moreover, those who bear the pain caused by a policy are not necessarily those who will gain from it.

That is why today’s more advanced economies created mechanisms that allow them to make hard choices when necessary. Chief among these are independent central banks and mandated limits on budget deficits. Importantly, political parties reached a consensus to establish and back these mechanisms irrespective of their own immediate political priorities. One reason why many emerging markets have swung from crisis to crisis is that they failed to achieve such consensus. But recent history shows that developed economies, too, are becoming less tolerant of pain, perhaps because their own political consensus has eroded.

Financial markets have become volatile once again, owing to fears that the US Federal Reserve will have to tighten its monetary policy significantly to control inflation. But many investors still hope that the Fed will go easy if asset prices start to fall substantially. If the Fed proves them right, it will become that much harder to normalize financial conditions in the future.

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