Confronting the Fiscal Bogeyman

BERKELEY – The world economy is visibly sinking, and the policymakers who are supposed to be its stewards are tying themselves in knots. Or so suggest the results of the G-20 summit held in Shanghai at the end of last month.

The International Monetary Fund, having just downgraded its forecast for global growth, warned the assembled G-20 attendees that yet another downgrade was pending. Despite this, all that emerged from the meeting was an anodyne statement about pursuing structural reforms and avoiding beggar-thy-neighbor policies.

Once again, monetary policy was left – to use the now-familiar phrase – as the only game in town. Central banks have kept interest rates low for the better part of eight years. They have experimented with quantitative easing. In their latest contortion, they have moved real interest rates into negative territory.

The motivation is sound: someone needs to do something to keep the world economy afloat, and central banks are the only agents capable of acting. The problem is that monetary policy is approaching exhaustion. It is not clear that interest rates can be depressed much further.