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Blog: Does the West Want To Go the Japanese Route?

Regular as clockwork, big increases in oil prices are followed by US recessions. So why are central bankers so keen on raising interest rates?

The answer, of course, is inflation. Certainly, headline inflation is rising, an inevitable response to higher oil and other commodity prices.

The key issue for central bankers, however, is whether this rise in inflation is sustainable.

Cash Register
Paul Sakuma
Cash Register

It seems unlikely. Money supply growth in the developed world is pathetically weak. Wage growth is mediocre at best. Rising prices are simply squeezing real incomes. Spending will slow, bringing inflation back down again. Recessionary risks will increase.

The West is poorly positioned to handle this latest oil price scare. The buffers which typically limit downside economic risks are no longer working.

Countries can't easily offset higher oil prices through lower taxes or increased subsidies because their fiscal positions are too weak, a legacy of the financial crisis.

With households intent on repaying debt and with banks no longer so gung-ho, credit markets won't be able to provide much of a cushion for any temporary loss of income associated with higher energy prices.

Raising interest rates in these circumstances will do little to bring inflation down in the near-term – the enviable powers of the Western central banking fraternity don't extend to political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa – but will do a lot to promote recession in the medium-term.

The ECB appears not to have learnt its lesson from the 2008 experience. More generally, central bankers have failed to take on board the mistakes made by the Bank of Japan in 1990.

Back then, it raised rates in response to higher oil prices triggered by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. By doing so, it only added to the deflationary forces that eventually engulfed Japan's economy.

Does the West really want to go down the Japanese route?

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The author is Stephen King, global economist at HSBC.

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