Honesty Beats ‘Tact’–Sarawak Report


May 25, 2018

Honesty Beats ‘Tact’–Sarawak Report

http://www.sarawakreport.org/talkback/honesty-beats-tact/

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New Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng would do well to remember he is no longer an opposition politician, as while his vocal tell-all approach on the 1MDB scandal certainly wins points for honesty, it is having the opposite effect on investors…

Instead, the writer said it only risked leaving investors with an “uncertain fiscal outlook”.

“Investors are uneasy about things getting out of hand. Already, foreigners have sold out on the nation’s stocks for 13 consecutive days.

“For Lim to declare in his first press conference that government debt has exceeded one trillion ringgit ($251 billion) because of a sly public bailout of 1MDB gets him full marks for honesty, but not for tact.

Mukherjee’s opinion also ran in line with that of Najib, who warned his successor that revealing the nation’s debt level at RM1 trillion without providing adequate details would only alarm the credit rating agencies and investors’ confidence.

Meanwhile, Arul Kanda today said he is mulling legal action against Lim, as the former felt the claims made against him by Lim were unfair and did not accurately represent his answers to the ministry.

Our comment

To suggest that it is better for the Finance Minister to continue to lie ‘tactfully’, in order to gull investors is preposterous.

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Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng is off to a good start by being honest about Malaysia’s Finances

The run on stocks came after investors realised they had put money into Malaysia based on lies by the previous Prime Minister cum Finance Minister and an administration that failed to stand up to his autocratic power.  Some have been panicking to hear that Malaysia’s economic position is not the rosy picture that Najib had deceitfully pretended it was.

More fool them. Wiser investors had already seen through the blatant dishonesty, which was the reason why the ringgit plunged in 2015 after the 1MDB scandal. The recent partial recovery owed to currency manipulation and false assurances by Najib.

What sort of foundation is deceit towards building future prosperity and why should this new government continue with the cover-ups and thereby inherit the blame for Najib’s excesses?

 

As the new Finance Minister and his team set proper standards of openess and honest management in Malaysia, confidence and investors should soon come back.  Thanks to Najib’s legacy the transition may be tough in the immediate future, but the smart money ought to return soon enough.

The fundamentals for the future are being laid to bring long-term confidence back to Malaysia and that has to start with a frank assessment, followed by steps to ensure efficient and transparent governance (see, for example, the minister’s home state of Penang).  That is what investors like to deal with, not lies.

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Adei, Thamby Arul, it is time for  you and your Board colleagues to own up to the truth–1MDB is a financial mess. The burden is Malaysia’s. It is quite known in civil society that you were engaged by Najib Razak to lie on his behalf.

 

As for Arul Kanda, nothing would amuse Malaysians more than to see him attempt to sue the Finance Minister for suggesting he has been telling lies.

Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir creates Council of Elders led by Tun Daim Zainuddin


May 13, 2018

Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir creates Council of Elders and appoints a team of our truly outstanding Malaysians led by Former Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has appointed a ‘council of elders’ comprising eminent persons who will serve as advisors to the government.

In a press conference today, he listed the former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, former Bank Negara Governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz, former Petronas President Mohd Hassan Merican, Yycoon Robert Kuok, and  Award winning Malaysian Economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram as members of the council.

“Many of us have little or no experience in running a government. We need some expertise on this.

“Of course, expertise must come from people with knowledge or previous knowledge of administration, or being in the government, or having held some responsible post. (That is why) we have decided to set up a council of elders, or rather a council of eminent persons,” Mahathir said in a press conference at the Bersatu headquarters today.

 

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Award Winning Malaysian Economist, Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram (right) seen with Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, Managing Director, Khazanah Malaysia Berhad

This council will conduct studies and prepare papers for the cabinet, he added, while ministries are being set up. It will also assist the new government in implementing its 100-day promises in its manifesto, and is expected to last for approximately the same duration.

“Eventually the papers for the cabinet will be prepared by the ministries, but in the interim, before we have proper ministries going, we need to do investigations into a lot of things.

“Some of these things may involve the ministries and the personnel themselves, so we need people who are not involved to be vetting and studying reports made, either by the ministries or by certain bodies which we will consult,” Mahathir explained.

Earlier in the press conference, he named Ministers for Finance, Defence and Home Affairs.

DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng was appointed Finance Minister, while the Presidents of Amanah and Bersatu, Mohamad Sabu and Muhyiddin Yassin, too the Defence and Home Affairs portfolios respectively.

 

Jerome Powell’s Big Challenge at The Federal Reserve


March 1, 2018

Jerome Powell’s Big Challenge at The Federal Reserve

by John Cassidy@www.newyorker.com

https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/jerome-powells-big-challenge?mbid=nl_Daily 022818&CNDID=49438257&spMailingID

“…Powell has taken over the Fed at a delicate moment. With no reliable partner in the White House or on Capitol Hill, he has to finish the job that Yellen started: rolling back the extraordinary measures the Fed took in the wake of the Great Recession without causing a relapse. Even if he succeeds, the journey is unlikely to be without some turbulence.”–John Cassidy

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Dr Janet Yellen welcomes her successor Jerome ‘Jay’ Powell to The Fed

When Jerome Powell, the new head of the Federal Reserve, emerged from the Rayburn House Office Building on Tuesday at lunchtime, he may well have said to himself, “Mission accomplished.” During more than three hours of testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, Powell, who replaced Janet Yellen at the start of this month, didn’t say anything that was particularly unexpected or that raised doubts about his competence.

Still, the Dow fell by three hundred points after Powell’s appearance. Wall Street, which had been expecting the Fed to raise interest rates three times this year, cottoned onto his assertion that the economic outlook had strengthened recently, taking this to mean that four rate hikes, rather than three, could be on the way. Anticipating this possibility, traders sold stocks.

Despite the reaction in the markets, Powell was careful to leave himself plenty of flexibility. He emphasized that he “wouldn’t want to prejudge” the future course of rates, and he pointed out that inflation “remains below our two-per-cent longer-run objective.” In the future, he said, the Fed would “continue to strike a balance between avoiding an overheating economy and bringing . . . price inflation to two per cent on a sustained basis.”

Yellen could easily have spoken these same words. In fact, she did utter very similar ones. Addressing the National Association for Business Economics in September, she said, “Without further modest increases in the federal funds rate over time, there is a risk that the labor market could eventually become overheated, potentially creating an inflationary problem down the road that might be difficult to overcome without triggering a recession.”

Yellen’s response to the inflation risk she perceived was to raise the federal funds rate slowly. Since an initial move, in December, 2015, the Fed’s gradual policy tightening has taken the funds rate from zero to 1.5 per cent. By historical standards, this is still a very low level, and Powell expressly said that he was working toward “continuity in monetary policy.”

Yellen could easily have spoken these same words. In fact, she did utter very similar ones. Addressing the National Association for Business Economics in September, she said, “Without further modest increases in the federal funds rate over time, there is a risk that the labor market could eventually become overheated, potentially creating an inflationary problem down the road that might be difficult to overcome without triggering a recession.”

Yellen’s response to the inflation risk she perceived was to raise the federal funds rate slowly. Since an initial move, in December, 2015, the Fed’s gradual policy tightening has taken the funds rate from zero to 1.5 per cent. By historical standards, this is still a very low level, and Powell expressly said that he was working toward “continuity in monetary policy.”

As I noted a few weeks ago, this policy move was the opposite of what most economics textbooks would recommend, partly because it raised the risk of the economy running into capacity constraints. Even before Powell’s testimony, investors had started fretting that Congress’s recent actions would prompt the Fed to raise rates more rapidly, and these worries contributed to the recent wild swings in the stock market.

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Powell, a Republican investment banker who served in the Bush Administration, didn’t openly criticize the policy priorities of President Trump and the G.O.P. But he did point out that “some of the headwinds the U.S. economy faced in previous years have turned into tailwinds,” and he specifically mentioned the recent change in fiscal policy. Asked about the rising national debt, he said, “I think we are not on a sustainable fiscal path.”

Powell also noted that he and his colleagues were still in a “process of discovering” how low the jobless rate could go before inflation started rising. For now, there is no reason to suppose that he will abort this process, which has allowed employment and incomes to grow steadily in the past few years. Inflation remains quiescent, and, despite the G.O.P. fiscal stimulus, it may well remain that way.

Even today, there could be some hidden slack left in the economy, which, in any case, may be less inflation-prone than it once was, thanks to structural shifts such as digitization and globalization. As the Fed watcher Tim Duy, an economist at the University of Oregon, pointed out on Twitter during Powell’s testimony, “our inflation concerns over the past two decades have been much ado about nothing.”

The fact remains, however, that Powell has taken over the Fed at a delicate moment. With no reliable partner in the White House or on Capitol Hill, he has to finish the job that Yellen started: rolling back the extraordinary measures the Fed took in the wake of the Great Recession without causing a relapse. Even if he succeeds, the journey is unlikely to be without some turbulence.

John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He also writes a column about politics, economics, and more for newyorker.com.

The Myth of Sound Fundamentals


February 26, 2018

The Myth of Sound Fundamentals

by Stephen S.Roach*

http://www.project-syndicate.com

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The recent correction in the US stock market is now being characterized as a fleeting aberration – a volatility shock – in what is still deemed to be a very accommodating investment climate. In fact, for a US economy that has a razor-thin cushion of saving, dependence on rising asset prices has never been more obvious.

NEW HAVEN – The spin is all too predictable. With the US stock market clawing its way back from the sharp correction of early February, the mindless mantra of the great bull market has returned. The recent correction is now being characterized as a fleeting aberration – a volatility shock – in what is still deemed to be a very accommodating investment climate. After all, the argument goes, economic fundamentals – not just in the United States, but worldwide – haven’t been this good in a long, long time.But are the fundamentals really that sound? For a US economy that has a razor-thin cushion of saving, nothing could be further from the truth. America’s net national saving rate – the sum of saving by businesses, households, and the government sector – stood at just 2.1% of national income in the third quarter of 2017. That is only one-third the 6.3% average that prevailed in the final three decades of the twentieth century.

It is important to think about saving in “net” terms, which excludes the depreciation of obsolete or worn-out capacity in order to assess how much the economy is putting aside to fund the expansion of productive capacity. Net saving represents today’s investment in the future, and the bottom line for America is that it is saving next to nothing.

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Alas, the story doesn’t end there. To finance consumption and growth, the US borrows surplus saving from abroad to compensate for the domestic shortfall. All that borrowing implies a large balance-of-payments deficit with the rest of the world, which spawns an equally large trade deficit. While President Donald Trump’s administration is hardly responsible for this sad state of affairs, its policies are about to make a tough situation far worse.

Under the guise of tax reform, late last year Trump signed legislation that will increase the federal budget deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade. And now the US Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has upped the ante by another $300 billion in the latest deal to avert a government shutdown. Never mind that deficit spending makes no sense when the economy is nearing full employment: this sharp widening of the federal deficit is enough, by itself, to push the already-low net national saving rate toward zero. And it’s not just the government’s red ink that is so troublesome. The personal saving rate fell to 2.4% of disposable (after-tax) income in December 2017, the lowest in 12 years and only about a quarter of the 9.3% average that prevailed over the final three decades of the twentieth century.

As domestic saving plunges, the US has two options – a reduction in investment and the economic growth it supports, or increased borrowing of surplus saving from abroad. Over the past 35 years, America has consistently opted for the latter, running balance-of-payments deficits every year since 1982 (with a minor exception in 1991, reflecting foreign contributions for US military expenses in the Gulf War). With these deficits, of course, come equally chronic trade deficits with a broad cross-section of America’s foreign partners. Astonishingly, in 2017, the US ran trade deficits with 102 countries.

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The multilateral foreign-trade deficits of a saving-short US economy set the stage for perhaps the most egregious policy blunder being committed by the Trump administration: a shift toward protectionism. Further compression of an already-weak domestic saving position spells growing current-account and trade deficits – a fundamental axiom of macroeconomics that the US never seems to appreciate.

Attempting to solve a multilateral imbalance with bilateral tariffs directed mainly at China, such as those just imposed on solar panels and washing machines in January, doesn’t add up. And, given the growing likelihood of additional trade barriers – as suggested by the US Commerce Department’s recent recommendations of high tariffs on aluminum and steel – the combination of protectionism and ever-widening trade imbalances becomes all the more problematic for a US economy set to become even more dependent on foreign capital. Far from sound, the fundamentals of a saving-short US economy look shakier than ever.

Lacking a cushion of solid support from income generation, the lack of saving also leaves the US far more beholden to fickle asset markets than might otherwise be the case. That’s especially true of American consumers who have relied on appreciation of equity holdings and home values to support over-extended lifestyles. It is also the case for the US Federal Reserve, which has turned to unconventional monetary policies to support the real economy via so-called wealth effects. And, of course, foreign investors are acutely sensitive to relative returns on assets – the US versus other markets – as well as the translation of those returns into their home currencies.

Driven by the momentum of trends in employment, industrial production, consumer sentiment, and corporate earnings, the case for sound fundamentals plays like a broken record during periods of financial market volatility. But momentum and fundamentals are two very different things. Momentum can be fleeting, especially for a saving-short US economy that is consuming the seed corn of future prosperity. With dysfunctional policies pointing to a further compression of saving in the years ahead, the myth of sound US fundamentals has never rung more hollow.

Stephen S. Roach

*Stephen S. Roach, former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and the firm’s chief economist, is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and a senior lecturer at Yale’s School of Management. He is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.

 

The Lessons of Black Monday


February 13, 2018

The Lessons of Black Monday

by Barry Eichengreen

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/stock-market-lessons-of-black-monday-by-barry-eichengreen-2018-02

“Will Trump respond like FDR in 1933, reassuring the public that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself? Or will he look for someone to blame for the collapse in his favorite economic indicator and lash out at the Democrats, foreign governments, and the Fed? A president who plays the blame game would only further aggravate the problem.”-Barry Eichengreen
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When interpreting sharp drops  in stock prices and their impact, many will think back to 2008 and the market turbulence surrounding Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy filing. But a better historical precedent for current conditions is the huge one-day drop on October 19, 1987.

 

BERKELEY – US President Donald Trump has regularly pointed to the stock market as a source of validation of his administration’s economic program. But, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) has risen by roughly 30% since Trump’s inauguration, the extent to which the market’s rise was due to the president’s policies is uncertain. What is certain, as we have recently been reminded, is that what goes up can come down.

When interpreting sharp drops in stock prices and their impact, many will think back to 2008 and the market turbulence surrounding Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy filing. But a better historical precedent for current conditions is Black Monday: October 19, 1987.

Black Monday was a big deal: the 22.6% price collapse is still the largest one-day percentage drop in the DJIA on record. The equivalent today would be – wait for it – 6,000 points on the Dow.

In addition, the 1987 crash occurred against the backdrop of monetary-policy tightening by the US Federal Reserve. Between January and October 1987, the Fed pushed up the effective federal funds rate by nearly 100 basis points, making it more expensive to borrow and purchase shares. In the run-up to October 2008, by contrast, interest rates fell sharply, reflecting a deteriorating economy. That is hardly the case now, of course, which makes 1987 the better analogy.

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

The 1987 crash also occurred in a period of dollar weakness. Late in the preceding week, Treasury Secretary James Baker made some remarks that were interpreted as a threat to devalue the dollar. Like current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at Davos this year, Baker could complain that his comments were taken out of context. But it is revealing that the sell-off on Black Monday began overseas, in countries likely to be adversely affected by a weak dollar, before spreading to the US.

Finally, algorithmic trading played a role. The algorithms in question, developed at the University of California, Berkeley, were known as “portfolio insurance.” Using computer modeling to optimize stock-to-cash ratios, portfolio insurance told investors to reduce the weight on stocks in falling markets as a way of limiting downside risk. These models thus encouraged investors to sell into a weak market, amplifying price swings.

Although the role of portfolio insurance is disputed, it’s hard to see how the market could have fallen by such a large amount without its influence. Twenty-first-century algorithmic trading may be more complex, but it, too, has unintended consequences, and it, too, can amplify volatility.

Despite all the drama on Wall Street in 1987, the impact on economic activity was muted. Consumer spending dropped sharply in October, owing to negative wealth effects and heightened uncertainty, but it quickly stabilized and recovered, while investment spending remained essentially unchanged.

What accounted for the limited fallout? First, the Fed, under its brand-new chairman, Alan Greenspan, loosened monetary policy, reassuring investors that the crash would not create serious liquidity problems. Market volatility declined, as did the associated uncertainty, buttressing consumer confidence.

Second, the crash did not destabilize systemically important financial institutions. The big money-center banks had used the five years since the outbreak of the Latin American debt crisis to strengthen their balance sheets. Although the Savings & Loan crisis continued to simmer, S&Ls were too small, even as a group, for their troubles to impact the economy significantly.

What, then, would be the effects of an analogous crash today? Currently, the US banking system looks sufficiently robust to absorb the strain. But we know that banks that are healthy when the market is rising can quickly fall sick when it reverses. Congressional moves to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act, relieving many banks of the requirement to undergo regular stress testing, suggest that this robust health shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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Donald Trump’s cameo in the new movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Moreover, there is less room to cut interest rates today than in 1987, when the fed funds rate exceeded 6% and the prime rate charged by big banks was above 9%. To be sure, if the market fell sharply, the Fed would activate the “Greenspan-Bernanke Put,” providing large amounts of liquidity to distressed intermediaries. But whether Jay Powell’s Fed would respond as creatively as Bernanke’s in 2008 – providing “back-to-back” loans to non-member banks in distress, for example – is an open question.

Much will hinge, finally, on the president’s reaction. Will Trump respond like FDR in 1933, reassuring the public that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself? Or will he look for someone to blame for the collapse in his favorite economic indicator and lash out at the Democrats, foreign governments, and the Fed? A president who plays the blame game would only further aggravate the problem.

 

America’s extraordinary economic gamble –The Economist


February 13, 2018

The Economist

Souped up growth

America’s extraordinary economic gamble

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The mood of fiscal insouciance in Washington, DC, is troubling. Add the extra spending to rising pension and health-care costs, and America is set to run deficits above 5% of GDP for the foreseeable future. Excluding the deep recessions of the early 1980s and 2008, the United States is being more profligate than at any time since 1945.–The Economist

Fiscal policy is adding to demand even as the economy is running hot

Print edition | Leaders

Feb 8th 2018

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VOLATILITY is back. A long spell of calm, in which America’s stockmarket rose steadily without a big sell-off, ended abruptly this week. The catalyst was a report released on February 2nd showing that wage growth in America had accelerated. The S&P 500 fell by a bit that day, and by a lot on the next trading day. The Vix, an index that reflects how changeable investors expect equity markets to be, spiked from a sleepy 14 at the start of the month to an alarmed 37. In other parts of the world nerves frayed.

Markets later regained some of their composure (see article). But more adrenalin-fuelled sessions lie ahead. That is because a transition is under way in which buoyant global growth causes inflation to replace stagnation as investors’ biggest fear. And that long-awaited shift is being complicated by an extraordinary gamble in the world’s biggest economy. Thanks to the recently enacted tax cuts, America is adding a hefty fiscal boost to juice up an expansion that is already mature. Public borrowing is set to double to $1 trillion, or 5% of GDP, in the next fiscal year. What is more, the team that is steering this experiment, both in the White House and the Federal Reserve, is the most inexperienced in recent memory. Whether the outcome is boom or bust, it is going to be a wild ride.

Fire your engines

The recent equity-market gyrations by themselves give little cause for concern. The world economy remains in fine fettle, buoyed by a synchronised acceleration in America, Europe and Asia. The violence of the repricing was because of newfangled vehicles that had been caught out betting on low volatility. However, even as they scrambled to react to its re-emergence, the collateral damage to other markets, such as corporate bonds and foreign exchange, was limited. Despite the plunge, American stock prices have fallen back only to where they were at the beginning of the year.

Yet this episode does signal just what may lie ahead. After years in which investors could rely on central banks for support, the safety net of extraordinarily loose monetary policy is slowly being dismantled. America’s Federal Reserve has raised interest rates five times already since late 2015 and is set to do so again next month. Ten-year Treasury-bond yields have risen from below 2.1% in September to 2.8%. Stock markets are in a tug-of-war between stronger profits, which warrant higher share prices, and higher bond yields, which depress the present value of those earnings and make eye-watering valuations harder to justify.

This tension is an inevitable part of the return of monetary policy to more normal conditions. What is not inevitable is the scale of America’s impending fiscal bet. Economists reckon that Mr Trump’s tax reform, which lowers bills for firms and wealthy Americans—and to a lesser extent for ordinary workers—will jolt consumption and investment to boost growth by around 0.3% this year. And Congress is about to boost government spending, if a budget deal announced this week holds up. Democrats are to get more funds for child care and other goodies; hawks in both parties have won more money for the defence budget. Mr Trump, meanwhile, still wants his border wall and an infrastructure plan. The mood of fiscal insouciance in Washington, DC, is troubling. Add the extra spending to rising pension and health-care costs, and America is set to run deficits above 5% of GDP for the foreseeable future. Excluding the deep recessions of the early 1980s and 2008, the United States is being more profligate than at any time since 1945.

A cocktail of expensive stock markets, a maturing business cycle and fiscal largesse would test the mettle of the most experienced policymakers. Instead, American fiscal policy is being run by people who have bought into the mantra that deficits don’t matter. And the central bank has a brand new boss, Jerome Powell, who, unlike his recent predecessors, has no formal expertise in monetary policy.

Does Powell like fast cars?

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Jerome “Jay” Powell succeeds Janet Yellen as head of the Federal Reserve: To tighten or not to tighten, that is the question for Mr. Powell

What will determine how this gamble turns out? In the medium term, America will have to get to grips with its fiscal deficit. Otherwise interest rates will eventually soar, much as they did in the 1980s. But in the short term most hangs on Mr Powell, who must steer between two opposite dangers. One is that he is too doveish, backing away from the gradual (and fairly modest) tightening in the Fed’s current plans as a salve to jittery financial markets. In effect, he would be creating a “Powell put” which would in time lead to financial bubbles. The other danger is that the Fed tightens too much too fast because it fears the economy is overheating.

On balance, hasty tightening is the greater risk. New to his role, Mr Powell may be tempted to establish his inflation-fighting chops—and his independence from the White House—by pushing for higher rates faster. That would be a mistake, for three reasons.

First, it is far from clear that the economy is at full employment. Policymakers tend to consider those who have dropped out of the jobs market as lost to the economy for good. Yet many have been returning to work, and plenty more may yet follow (see article). Second, the risk of a sudden burst of inflation is limited. Wage growth has picked up only gradually in America. There is little evidence of it in Germany and Japan, which also have low unemployment. The wage-bargaining arrangements behind the explosive wage-price spiral of the early 1970s are long gone. Third, there are sizeable benefits from letting the labour market tighten further. Wages are growing fastest at the bottom of the earnings scale. That not only helps the blue-collar workers who have been hit disproportionately hard by technological change and globalisation. It also prompts firms to invest more in capital equipment, giving a boost to productivity growth.

To be clear, this newspaper would not advise a fiscal stimulus of the scale that America is undertaking. It is poorly designed and recklessly large. It will add to financial-market volatility. But now that this experiment is under way, it is even more important that the Fed does not lose its head.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Running hot”