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Autumn’s known unknowns


During the height of the Iraq war, then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke of “known unknowns” – foreseeable risks whose realization is uncertain. Today, the global economy is facing many known unknowns, most of which stem from policy uncertainty.

In the United States, three sources of policy uncertainty will come to a head this autumn. For starters, it remains unclear whether the Federal Reserve will begin to “taper” its open-ended quantitative easing (QE) in September or later, how fast it will reduce its purchases of long-term assets, and when and how fast it will start to raise interest rates from their current zero level. There is also the question of who will succeed Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman. Finally, yet another partisan struggle over America’s debt ceiling could increase the risk of a government shutdown if the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies cannot agree on a budget.

The first two sources of uncertainty have already affected markets. The rise in US long-term interest rates – from a low of 1.6% in May to recent peaks above 2.9% – has been driven by market fears that the Fed will taper QE too soon and too fast, and by the uncertainty surrounding Bernanke’s successor.

So far, investors have been complacent about the risks posed by the looming budget fight. They believe that – as in the past – the fiscal showdown will end with a midnight compromise that avoids both default and a government shutdown. But investors seem to underestimate how dysfunctional US national politics has become. With a majority of the Republican Party on a jihad against government spending, fiscal explosions this autumn cannot be ruled out.

Uncertainties abound in other advanced economies as well. Germany’s general election appears likely to produce a repeat of the current government coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Free Democrats, with opinion polls suggesting that a grand coalition between the CDU and the Social Democrats is less likely. In the former case, current German policies toward the eurozone crisis will not change, despite austerity fatigue in the eurozone’s periphery and bailout fatigue in its core.

Political risks in the eurozone’s periphery include the collapse of Italy’s government and a fresh election as a result of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s criminal conviction. Greece’s ruling coalition could collapse as well, and political tensions may rise even higher in Spain and Portugal.

On monetary policy, the European Central Bank’s forward guidance – the commitment to keep interest rates at a low level for a long time – is too little too late and has not prevented a rise in short- and long-term borrowing costs, which could stifle the eurozone’s already-anemic economic recovery. Whether the ECB will ease policy more aggressively is also uncertain.

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