With the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, the People’s Bank of China injected $22 billion into the country’s economy to boost liquidity as stock markets there crashed this week, and economist Benn Steil says the outbreak will lead to an interest rate cut here in the U.S.
Steil, the director of international economics and a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, says the outbreak will force the Fed to act at some point, though it could take a while yet.
“The (Federal Open Market Committee) traditionally has been like a giant tanker,” Steil said on CNBC’s “Trading Nation” program. “It takes quite a few months in order for it to turn around.”
The Fed has maintained a wait-and-see approach regarding its benchmark interest rate after cutting it three times in 2019, down to the current 1.5% to 1.75% range. The U.S. central bank is closely watching the coronavirus outbreak while also saying inflation is chronically low, which also could lead to a cut.
“I would anticipate, if there are clear signs of a slowdown, that we will indeed see a rate cut sometime in the spring,” Steil said.
Growth in China’s economy also will take a hit, which in turn will affect other economies, including the U.S. Beijing reported 6.1% growth at the end of 2019, but that could quickly fall to 5.5% due to the outbreak.
“It really depends on how quickly the virus is contained,” Steil said. “If it’s contained very quickly, I think that’s a reasonable, although perhaps optimistic, forecast. If it’s not, if the cases continue to grow rapidly over the next several weeks, we’re easily looking at a situation in which Chinese growth could halve over the course of the first half of this year to something closer to 3%.”
If China’s economy comes crashing down, that will affect the phase one trade deal signed with the U.S. China could quickly back out of its pledge to increase purchase of U.S. goods by at least $200 billion over the next two years, a figure that was already going to be hard for Beijing to follow through on.
“That was always a very ambitious target. Chinese officials themselves were pouring some cold water on it by suggesting that those numbers were subject to quote-unquote ‘market conditions,'” Steil said. “Larry Kudlow, one of President (Donald) Trump’s primary economic advisers, today suggested that there might be some delay in the quote-unquote ‘export boom’ from the United States due to coronavirus. So, the administration here does appear to be preparing the markets to dampen expectations.”
Even with already historically low interest rates, Steil contends the U.S. is in better position to fight off a slowdown than China.
“I think here in the United States, we’ve got better potential for using this device because debt levels in China have really built up to grossly unsustainable levels,” he said. “At this point, China is really pumping new liquidity into the market in order to dig ditches that are going to be filled in again — this has not been productive investment. Whereas in the United States, I think the Federal Reserve does indeed have room to stimulate parts of the economy that are in slowdown mode, that are particularly important. I’m thinking in particular of manufacturing and the housing sector.”