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Stephen Roach: New stagflation made in Asia

Stephen Roach argues on Financial Times that a new stagflation scenario is not likely to be wage-price-spiral type, but of Asian-exported.

First, world has never been so integrated in terms of trade:

The globalisation of trade flows is a new transmission mechanism of worldwide inflation that was not evident in the 1970s. According to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, overall exports should hit a record 32.5 per cent of world gross domestic product in 2008…

Second, inflation in Asia is flashing red alert:

For developing Asia as a whole, consumer price index inflation hit 7.5 per cent in April 2008, close to a 9½-year high and more than double the 3.6 per cent pace of a year ago. Sure, a good portion of the recent acceleration in pricing is a result of food and energy – critically important components of household budgets in poorer countries and yet items that many analysts mistakenly remove to get a cleaner read on underlying inflation. But even the residual, or “core”, inflation rate in developing Asia surged to 3.8 per cent in April, more than double the 1.8 per cent pace of a year ago.

Third, as I argued in my previous post on China’s inflation update, monetary policy in Asian countries are far too inflation-prone:
China’s inflation problem is much deeper than the food and energy price shocks that thus far have played a disproportionate role in driving its consumer price index higher. Also at work are serious wage pressures reflecting, in part, increases in minimum wages associated with new labour reform laws. Meanwhile the People’s Bank of China has held its policy lending rate below headline inflation, resulting in negative real short-term interest rates.
The result has been an ominous increase in Chinese inflationary expectations, strikingly reminiscent of similar occurrences that plagued the developed world in the 1970s and early 1980s. History does not treat kindly a serious deterioration in inflationary expectations. The longer such a trend persists, the more wrenching the monetary tightening required to arrest it – and the greater the risk of a subsequent hard landing. That is the last thing China wants or needs.

China is hardly alone in its reluctance to take firm action against a worrying build-up of inflationary pressures. That is true throughout most of developing Asia, where hyper-growth is viewed as the panacea for the aspirations of a growing middle class. Throughout the region, central banks are keeping short-term interest rates far too low to combat these inflationary pressures. For developing Asia as a whole, a GDP-weighted average of policy rates is currently about 6.75 per cent, fully three-quarters of a percentage point below the 7.5 per cent headline inflation rate.

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