The credit crunch and associated debt crisis has elicited an unprecedented response from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Today, the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kohn, told the Financial Times that the new IMF economic forecasts would ‘show a serious economic slowdown that needs a serious response’.
Just last autumn, the IMF was calling for ‘continued fiscal consolidation’ in the USA to reduce the budget deficit. Now, however, M Strauss-Kohn said he not only approved the US tax cut package, but also called on other countries to develop ‘a new fiscal policy to answer this crisis’.
Behind the IMF’s change of direction is a recognition that lower interest rates on their own ‘will not be enough to get us out of the turmoil we are in’. As I noted back on 7 January, many experts now believe that cutting interest rates is like ‘pushing on air’.
This is because the problem is not one of stimulating demand via interest rate cuts, but of trying to encourage lenders to resume lending. In this environment, lower interest rates may actually make matters worse, by reducing lenders’ incentive to lend.
Policy makers are therefore stuck between a rock and hard place. Higher rates might well encourage more lending, but would bankrupt all those many highly-geared people and companies who have borrowed beyond their means. The new head of Merrill Lynch, John Thain, has already ‘predicted that the problems in mortgage markets will spread to credit cards and consumer loans’.
If the IMF is right, then chemical industry sales to key consumer markets such as housing and autos look set to come under further pressure. Contagion from the growing crisis in financial markets may well now start to spread into the ‘real economy’ in which we live and work.