Will A Rise in Interest Rates Lead to a New Debt Crisis?

by Joseph Joyce

Will A Rise in Interest Rates Lead to a New Debt Crisis?

The question of when the Federal Reserve will begin to reverse its loose policy stance continues to be a topic of widespread speculationAt last month’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, its members showed a willingness to cut back on asset purchases in 2022 and to raise interest rates in 2023 but kept monetary policy on its current setting due to slower growth in employment than desired. The latest inflation reading may bring forward the Fed’s tightening measures. If and when interest rates do rise in the U.S. and other advanced economies, what will be the impact for holders of foreign assets?

There is a split in opinions on the vulnerability of emerging market economies (EMEs) to rising interest rates. In an interview with Finance & Development, Richard House of Allianz Global Investors and David Lubin of Citibank played down the chances of disruption of foreign markets when the Federal Reserve begins its reversal. They cite the increase in foreign exchange reserves and the decrease in the number of countries with fixed exchange rates as reasons why systemic crises can be avoided. In the same issue, however, Şebnem Kalemli-Özcan of the University of Maryland points out that country-dependent risk will affect the response to a new external environment. Many EMEs used monetary policy to finance their fiscal spending in response to the pandemic. There is a concern that their bond purchases and monetary creation could lead to higher inflation that will raise the cost of new financing at the same time as the U.S. is raising its interest rates. 

The author of the Buttonwood column of The Economist, however, notes that the central banks in several EMEs have already raised their policy rates in response to concerns of rising inflation following currency depreciations. Higher rates attract capital from foreign investors looking for higher yields, which strengthens the currency. An appreciating currency keeps down import prices and inflation in check.

Jasper Hoek and Emre Yoldas of the Federal Reserve Board and Steve Kamin of the American Enterprise Institute show that the response of emerging market economies to rising U.S. interest rates will depend in part on the reasons for the increase. If rates rise because of favorable economic growth in the U.S., then the EMEs should benefit from the increase in U.S. demand for their goods and increased investor confidence. If, on the other hand, the higher rates are due to higher inflation that requires a marked tightening of the U.S. policy stance, then interest rates on the debt of EME issuers will rise as their currencies fall in value.

The response to the pandemic in the EMEs is the biggest challenge those nations face.  While firms in the U.S. and Europe are busy meeting surging consumer demand, the virus continues to spread in Africa, South American, and South Asia. The response in advanced economies to a recovery that brings with it higher inflation may threaten the ability of the EMEs’ policymakers to maintain their accommodative stance. Agustín Carstens, General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements, warns: “… it could be hard for EME policymakers to maintain accommodative policy stances should global financial conditions tighten materially. But the tighter policy will make economic recovery even more difficult.”

The record of responses to Federal Reserve policy retrenchment is not encouraging. In May 2013, then Fed Chair Ben Bernanke responded to a question at a Congressional committee meeting about future Fed policy by noting that “If we see continued improvement and we have confidence that that’s going to be sustained then we could in the next few meetings … take a step down in our pace of purchases.” This innocuous remark led to turbulence in the financial markets, which became known as the “taper tantrum.” Increases in the Federal Funds Rate in 2018 under Fed Chair Jerome Powell met widespread criticism and concerns about their impact on slow economic growth, and the Federal Reserve reversed course in 2019.

Economists can always provide well-reasoned narratives as to how and why financial markets respond to events. Unfortunately, market volatility is almost always unanticipated. No matter how careful policymakers are with their statements, there is the potential for an unforeseen response. The continuation of the pandemic heightens the uncertainty, and the current elevated levels of stock prices and the increase in debt leave asset markets vulnerable to a “Minsky moment” when an initial reversal leads to a demand for liquidity and cascading falls in financial markets. The EMEs will become part of the collateral damage of such a collapse.