Breaking Bad Habits

NEW HAVEN – It was never going to be easy, but central banks in the world’s two largest economies – the United States and China – finally appear to be embarking on a path to policy normalization. Addicted to an open-ended strain of über monetary accommodation that was established in the depths of the Great Crisis of 2008-2009, financial markets are now gasping for breath. Ironically, because the traction of unconventional policies has always been limited, the fallout on real economies is likely to be muted.

The Federal Reserve and the People’s Bank of China are on the same path, but for very different reasons. For Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues, there seems to be a growing sense that the economic emergency has passed, implying that extraordinary action – namely, a zero-interest-rate policy and a near-quadrupling of its balance sheet – is no longer appropriate. Conversely, the PBOC is engaged in a more pre-emptive strike – attempting to ensure stability by reducing the excess leverage that has long underpinned the real side of an increasingly credit-dependent Chinese economy.

Both actions are correct and long overdue. While the Fed’s first round of quantitative easing helped to end the financial-market turmoil that occurred in the depths of the recent crisis, two subsequent rounds – including the current, open-ended QE3 – have done little to alleviate the lingering pressure on over-extended American consumers. Indeed, household-sector debt is still in excess of 110% of disposable personal income and the personal saving rate remains below 3%, averages that compare unfavorably with the 75% and 7.9% norms that prevailed, respectively, in the final three decades of the twentieth century.

With American consumers responding by hunkering down as never before, inflation-adjusted consumer demand has remained stuck on an anemic 0.9% annualized growth trajectory since early 2008, keeping the US economy mired in a decidedly subpar recovery. Unable to facilitate balance-sheet repair or stimulate real economic activity, QE has, instead, become a dangerous source of instability in global financial markets.