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The Fed Should Buy Recession Insurance

If the United States falls into recession in the next year or two, the US Federal Reserve may have very little room to loosen policy, yet it is not taking any steps to cover that risk. Unless the Fed rectifies this soon, the US – and the world – may well face much bigger problems later.

BERKELEY – The next global downturn may still be a little way off. The chances that the North Atlantic as a whole will be in recession a year from now have fallen to about one in four. German growth may well be positive this quarter, while China could rebound, too. And although US growth is definitely slowing – to 1% or so this quarter – this may yet turn out to be a blip.

Let’s hope so. Because if the next downturn is looming, North Atlantic central banks do not have the policy room to fight it effectively. Should a recession arrive, the US Federal Reserve would ideally be able to cut interest rates by five percentage points, as is customary in such situations. But with short-term safe interest rates currently at 2.4%, it cannot. And with euro and yen interest rates still around zero, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan would be unable to help much, either. 

Looking ahead, therefore, the big risk is not that inflation will start spiraling upward, with the Fed unable to raise interest rates fast enough to stabilize the economy. Rather, it is the downside risk that a year from now, the North Atlantic will be in recession, governments will not provide enough fiscal stimulus, and the Fed won’t be able to reduce interest rates enough – leaving it nearly helpless to even try to stabilize the economy.

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