With interest rates so low, we’re in for a nasty surprise

If another recession comes our way with interest rates at current levels, central bankers will have to get really radical, says John Stepek.

Since 2009, the world's major economies have quietly tried to get one over on one another by using central bank policies to undermine the value of their currencies. A 25% slump in sterling in 2009 helped the UK through the worst of the recession. Japan's post-2012 revival has been helped greatly by the slide in the yen under 'Abenomics'.

In 2014, when he was still barred from doing quantitative easing (QE), European Central Bank governor Mario Draghi assisted troubled eurozone nations by talking down the euro. And even the Federal Reserve largely managed to keep a lid on the dollar until the middle of last year. So it shouldn't be that much of a surprise that China has finally joined the 'currency wars', allowing the yuan renminbi to weaken drastically this week.

There's plenty of debate over whether China is making its currency more flexible so as to secure the yuan a bigger role on the global stage, or if it's simply a ploy to boost flagging growth. But this is largely irrelevant. The reality is that China's economy is slowing, partly because it can't compete with the likes of Germany and Japan at current exchange rates. Investors realise that. So in the absence of support from China's central bank, this may well be just the start of a longer decline for the yuan.

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The problem is that currency wars are a zero-sum game. As two of MoneyWeek's favourite analysts, Russell Napier and Socit Gnrale's Albert Edwards have noted, a weak Chinese currency will export deflation to the developed world (by making imports cheaper), even as central banks struggle to push inflation to anywhere near their target levels.

For example, before this week, all the market could talk about was when the Fed will raise interest rates. But the strong dollar is already biting into the earnings of S&P 500 companies, which make much of their money overseas. Meanwhile, the weak oil price is hurting the shale industry, one of the big US success stories of recent years. So how keen will the Fed really be to raise rates? If deflation returns, expect "another financial crisis as policy impotence is soon revealed to all", warns Edwards.

That's scary enough. Yet policy impotence might be the least of our worries. Labour leadership hopeful Jeremy Corbyn, with his idea of a "people's QE", has revived debate over more radical monetary policy options, including printing money to pay for infrastructure development, or even crediting people's bank accounts directly.

In 2009, the idea of printing money to buy government bonds seemed unthinkably radical. But if we face another global recession with interest rates at today's levels, we'll find out just how much more radical central bankers can get. I have a nasty feeling that they might stretch our existing monetary framework to breaking point and beyond.

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.