Index > Briefing
Thursday, September 10, 2020
Options in Dealing with Economic Depression

The current global economy still maintains positive growth, and neither main advanced economies nor emerging economies have experienced economic recession, let alone worsened into a major depression. However, the sustainability of global economic growth is facing challenges, and the deterioration of the global trade war has exacerbated the slowdown in global economic growth. The economy of the United States has begun to show signs of slowing down, and many investment banks expect that the possibility of a recession in the U.S. economy is increasing. The recovery of the European economy has been relatively fragile. The economic growth of Germany and France has slowed down, while the economic "internal friction" caused by Brexit has further weakened the European economy. Meanwhile, the deterioration of the trade war has increased the downward pressure on China's economy. If the trade war extends to science and technology, as well as the finance, it may also trigger China's domestic economic conflicts and deep-seated economic structural problems, which will cause more troubles to the Chinese economy.

In the past century, the United States has experienced two long-term debt cycles, leading to the prosperity of the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. History repeated itself where the United States enjoyed prosperity in the early 21st century and experienced the financial crisis began in 2008. 11 years after the 2008 financial crisis, will there be another Great Depression? This remains to be seen. However, in the context of the current deterioration of the global trade war, the global economy is still unable to rid itself of the laws of the "Crisis Triangle" (Chan Kung, 2015). With the structural problems of global overproduction and excess capital, we cannot help but consider the economic downturn and the possibility of an economic depression.

When the economic depression is approaching, how should policies respond? In other words, how to manage economic depression through policy adjustments? From the perspective of dealing with the debt crisis, Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, provides some policy management options in the face of economic depression: one is fiscal austerity, the other is debt default/restructuring, the third is debt monetization or money printing, and finally there is the redistribution of wealth (from the rich to the poor). Each policy choice has a different impact on the economy, and the key is for policymakers to find the right policy combinations.

When the economic and capital market bubbles burst, it is almost an instinctive response for the government to tighten fiscal policy, hoping to reduce the degree of the bubble and promote deleveraging. But in many cases, wrong choices would be made. Dalio believes that in an economic depression, the better way of managing is that the central bank should promote ample liquidity, such as rapidly reducing short-term interest rates to 0%; while bad management is slowing down and providing limited liquidity and tightening up prematurely. If the government is unwilling to take action at the beginning, this will make the economic depression worse. During the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s and the Lost Decade of Japan in the 1980s, the governments of these countries were slow to act, which resulted in a long depression. However, when the financial crisis broke out in 2008, the U.S. government learned the lessons well and quickly moved to inject liquidity into the market, leading to a shorter economic depression.

To deal with the economic recession, an important task that cannot be avoided is debt restructuring. There are usually several approaches: The first is to provide liquidity, including bank liquidity and emergency lending. The second is to solve the debt problem of lenders, including debt restructuring, recapitalization, and debt nationalization. The third is to divest debts, including setting up asset management companies to absorb these debts. For example, in the late 1990s, China established four major asset management companies to absorb bad debts from banks. The fourth is sovereign default and reorganization. After the 2008 financial crisis, the United States nationalized some banks, which is also a common practice. In the short term, debt restructuring is intended to diversify the impact of the debt crisis, so that short-term debt pain is not unbearable; in the long run, policymakers must realize that institutional reforms must be carried out to solve the root cause of the debt problem.

During economic depressions, loan institutions, especially those that are not protected by ordered guarantees, often encounter "runs." The central bank and the central government ordered the need to determine as soon as possible which institutions are systemically important and need rescue. Most importantly, the central government needs to do its best to ensure the security of the financial/economic system and minimize government/taxpayer costs. Part of the funds needed for rescue comes from the government (through budget allocations) and part from the central bank (money printing). In the process of alleviating the credit crisis and stimulating the economy, if the government finds it difficult to raise funds through taxation and borrowing, the central bank will be forced to increase the amount of money printed and provide more funds to purchase national debt. The central bank and central government’s response actions should focus on several key points: 1) provide debt guarantees to reduce panic; 2) provide liquidity; 3) support the solvency of systemically important institutions; 4) recapitalize/nationalize/cover loss of systemically important financial institutions.

When the economy is in depression, the gap between rich and poor will become huge, and might even cause serious social problems. From historical experience, if the rich and the poor share social resources and the economy is in recession at this time, there may be economic and political conflicts. At this time, both left-wing and right-wing populism will rise. How the people and the country respond to populism will determine whether the economy and society can smoothly survive the depression. At this time, increasing taxes on the rich often becomes a politically attractive policy choice, because the rich use assets and wealth to make more money, and the central bank’s purchase of financial assets also allows the rich who hold more financial assets to earn more. This will also be the time for the "left-leaning" political trend to accelerate the redistribution of social wealth. If taxes are increased, they will usually be increased in the form of income tax, real estate tax and consumption tax. However, tax increases should not reach the stage that drives the rich to transfer their funds to safer places, leading to the "hollow" policy of tax increases for the rich.

The above-mentioned four types of policy ideas to deal with economic depression provide a brief policy framework for decision-makers to choose when an economic depression occurs. It should be pointed out that although this framework has a certain degree of versatility, it is mainly built on the basis of a market economy with a relatively complete system, and is mainly from the perspectives of investment and of dealing with debt crises. In the real world, the Great Depression is often a systemic collapse of the economy and finance of the world or a country. To cope with this extreme and complex systemic crisis often requires more complex policy responses and economic and financial resources. In any case, thinking about extreme risk scenarios in advance will enable us to find more rational and forward-looking policy responses, thereby reducing risks and losses.

Final analysis conclusion:

The downward pressure on both global economy and Chinese economy is increasing. Although there is still a gap between the economic recession and depression, policymakers need to plan ahead, think ahead and prepare for policy measures when an economic depression occurs in the face of an increasingly uncertain world.

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