Recent large equity sell-offs across Asia and safe haven flows into Japan illustrate perfectly the region’s vulnerabilities to further global shocks. While the region’s fundamentals—built up over the past decade—remain relatively strong, economic uncertainties in Europe and the United States pose large downside risks. The world economy has entered a dangerous new phase and, as the IMF’s Managing Director stated recently, “what makes the situation all the more urgent is that it has implications for every country.” Our Regional Economic Outlook for Asia and the Pacific emphasizes these risks, and stresses the need for policymakers to remain vigilant and nimble in this extraordinarily uncertain climate. The view from here in Tokyo—looking out at the region—may be more serene than the view from other advanced country capitals, but there are storm clouds on the horizon.
It was pretty clear to me on a recent visit that China has become one of the biggest global markets for Angry Birds. The game was everywhere and around 100 million Chinese downloads are expected this year. It made me wonder if this was somehow linked to rising concerns over inflation and a way of getting back at those (increasingly expensive) mischievous green pigs. During the past year, views on China’s economy have yo-yoed from concerns about the recovery, to hand-wringing about inflation and overheating, and then back to talk of hard landing. Inflation peaked in July and was all set to quickly retreat in the latter part of this year. Unfortunately, just as China appeared to be heading out of the (inflationary) woods, pork happened. An ongoing (and literal) hog cycle caused pork prices to skyrocket. While the hog-cycle will soon turn and the effects should wash out reasonably quickly, the bad news is that the return to more normal times and lower inflation will be postponed once again.
Ultimately, the solution has to involve higher interest rates (on both deposits and loans), efforts to create a broader set of financial assets for the population to invest in, and a broad-based property tax that covers the majority of China’s housing stock.
Capital flows emerging Asia should be high on the ‘watch list’ for policymakers in the region. But, perhaps, not in the way we had previously anticipated. Twelve months ago we were keenly attuned to the risks posed by the foreign capital that flooded into Asia from mid-2009 onwards. Now, what we’re seeing is not really all that “exceptional.” With the recent surge, net overall capital flows to emerging have not surpassed the peaks reached in past episodes of large inflows to the region. Of course, that’s not to say it's all blue skies. The nature of inflows is different this time—dominated by portfolio flows—and that poses new challenges and risks for policymakers.
Nemat Shafik, who took over as IMF Deputy Managing Director in April, says she has been surprised by the vigor of internal policy debate at the IMF. “From the outside looking in, you have the impression that the IMF is a monolith with a very single-minded view of the world. When you are inside the Fund, what is really striking is how active the internal debate is,” she says. At a time when the global economy is being buffeted by continued uncertainty in Europe, uprisings in the Middle East, and signs of overheating in some emerging market economies, there’s a lot to discuss. And, it addition to global economic problems, the IMF’s work environment has come under increased scrutiny, in particular how women are treated and its professional code of conduct. In an interview, Ms. Shafik discusses some of these issues.
Asia’s vigorous pace of growth has seen the region play a leading role in the global recovery. But there are signs that higher commodity prices are spilling over to a more generalized increase in inflation. Expectations of future inflation have picked up. And accommodative macroeconomic policy stances, coupled with limited slack in some economies, have added to inflation pressures. Against this backdrop, the need for policy tightening in Asia has become more pressing than it was six months ago, especially in economies that face generalized inflation pressures. How should policymakers address these challenges?
As the economic recovery has matured across much of Asia, the region has continued to be a driving force in the strengthening global recovery. Yet, recent tragic events—around the globe, and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan—are an all too poignant reminder of the fragility of our economic circumstances and, indeed, life. Much of this weighs on my mind as I am here in Hong Kong to launch our April 2011 Regional Economic Outlook: Asia and Pacific. While the outlook is by no means gloomy, policies will need to tackle new downside risks that have emerged and how to manage the next phase of Asia’s growth.
Finance ministers and central bank governors from around the world, gathering at the Spring Meetings of the IMF and World Bank in Washington last week. With the recovery solidifying but still fragile, ministers put the spotlight on how to strengthen the IMF’s surveillance—its economic assessment and analysis—to help countries take the action needed to address risks and avoid future crises. As the meetings were wrapping up in Washington DC, the IMF’s First Deputy Managing Director talked about the outcomes of the meetings. While there are concerns about risks in the global economy, there was important progress on a “multilateral cooperative approach on the various challenges we face.” Watch his interview to hear more about what Mr. Lipsky has to say about progress by the G-20 and about the likely changes to the IMF’s multilateral surveillance.
In various guises, the “Year of Living Dangerously” has been used to describe the global financial crisis, the policy response to the crisis, and its aftermath. But, we’ve slipped well beyond a year and the financial system is still flirting with danger. Financial stability risks may have eased, reflecting improvements in the economic outlook and continuing accommodative policies. But those supportive policies—while necessary to restart the economy—have also masked serious, underlying financial vulnerabilities that need to be addressed as quickly as possible. Many advanced economies are “living dangerously” because the legacy of high debt burdens is weighing on economic activity and balance sheets, keeping risks to financial stability elevated. At the same time, many emerging market countries risk overheating and the build-up of financial imbalances—in the context of rapid credit growth, increasing asset prices, and strong and volatile capital inflows. Here is our suggested roadmap for policymakers to address these vulnerabilities and risks, and achieve durable financial stability.