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New Rules for the Monetary Game

NEW DELHI – Our world is facing an increasingly dangerous situation. Both advanced and emerging economies need to grow in order to ease domestic political tensions. And yet few are. If governments respond by enacting policies that divert growth from other countries, this “beggar my neighbor” tactic will simply foster instability elsewhere. What we need, therefore, are new rules of the game.

Why is it proving to be so hard to restore pre-Great Recession growth rates? The immediate answer is that the boom preceding the global financial crisis of 2008 left advanced economies with an overhang of growth-inhibiting debt. While the remedy may be to write down debt to revive demand, it is uncertain whether write-downs are politically feasible or the resulting demand sustainable. Moreover, structural factors like population aging and low productivity growth – which were previously masked by debt-fueled demand – may be hampering the recovery.

Politicians know that structural reforms – to increase competition, foster innovation, and drive institutional change – are the way to tackle structural impediments to growth. But they know that, while the pain from reform is immediate, gains are typically delayed and their beneficiaries uncertain. As Jean-Claude Juncker, then Luxembourg’s prime minister, said at the height of the euro crisis, “We all know what to do; we just don't know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it!”

Central bankers face a different problem: inflation that is flirting with the lower bound of their mandate. With interest rates already very low, advanced economies’ central bankers know that they must go beyond ordinary monetary policy – or lose credibility on inflation. They feel that they cannot claim to be out of tools. If all else fails, there is always the “helicopter drop,” whereby the central bank prints money and sprays it on the streets to create inflation (more prosaically, it sends a check to every citizen, perhaps more to the poor, who are likelier to spend it). But they can also employ a range of other unconventional tools more aggressively, from asset purchases (so-called quantitative easing) to negative interest rates.