War in Ukraine, threats to democracy, inflation top of mind at Economic Outlook event

At final discussion, held in London, experts talk about threats to region

With the war in Ukraine now entering its second year, geopolitical tensions running high between the United States and China, economic and supply-chain disruptions around the world, a changing climate, and the start of a U.S. presidential election cycle, the economies of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa have started the year facing heightened levels of uncertainty.

At this year’s hybrid Economic Outlook event in London in early March, hosted by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the UChicago Institute of Politics, experts came together to discuss the implications for leaders of organizations.

The panelists were Jeff Currie, PhD’96, the global head of commodities research in global investment research at Goldman Sachs, Sasha Havlicek, co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and Randall S. Kroszner, the Norman R. Bobins Professor of Economics at Chicago Booth, who was recently appointed as an external member of the Financial Policy Committee at the Bank of England.

Ukraine war and threat to liberal democracy

The final Economic Outlook event of the year took place just after the first anniversary of the conflict in Ukraine, which in addition to delivering a severe global economic shock has  caused a significant humanitarian crisis.

Beyond the human tragedy that’s unfolding in Ukraine, Havlicek said, “the trajectory of this war will essentially determine for generations to come the balance of power between authoritarianism and liberal democracy. The stakes could not be higher.”

She also suggested that Western nations need to rally in defence of liberal democracy. “We have to start to build the institutional infrastructure to support human rights, respect, and liberal democracy worldwide, or we will simply lose them,” she said. “The alternative is essentially a form of anarchy.”

Havlicek said the fact that the European Union has shown a united front against Russia is an indication of what’s possible in the future. “I would hope that we can really look at this Ukrainian catastrophe as the turning point,” she added. “If we don’t use it as the turning point, we will likely be, if not in an anarchic state, in a global context that is dominated by China, ultimately. And I think that’s an extremely dangerous place.”

Havlicek also sees the 2024 US presidential election as a key political risk. “If we lose the US, we lose in many ways the rest of the world,” she said. 

Revenge of old economy and next commodity supercycle

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was a dizzying climb in the price of many commodities, including coal and food. Currie said that the root cause was a decade of underinvestment in “old economy” industries, such as energy, metals and agriculture. 

“Did Putin cause the energy crisis? Absolutely not,” Currie said. “He took advantage of the energy crisis. The seeds were sown on this going back well over a decade.”

Currie explained that a demand shock after the 2008–09 financial crisis led to cuts in capital expenditure—cuts that were accelerated by the push to decarbonize. “We have not been investing in old economy output for well over a decade now,” he said. “Why? Because returns were poor, and we redirected the capital into the new economy,” such as technology.

After years of such neglect, Currie said, the recent higher commodity prices are “the old economy’s revenge.” And while the situation has eased, helped by mild winter weather in Europe, Currie predicts the world is entering a commodity supercycle over the next decade, similar to the 60s–70s supercycle, as well as the 2000s commodities boom.

“When we look at the outlook in 2023, your starting point is no inventories of most of these commodities, no spare production capacity of most of these commodities,” he said.

Additionally, Currie pointed out that China, the world’s largest consumer of raw materials, had reversed its zero-COVID policy. “So what’s likely to happen—whether it is oil, gas, food, or any of these carbon-based commodities—is that demand is going to catch up to supply again,” he said. “And we’re going to be right back into the same problems we had before.”

Central banks’ battle to tame inflation

As global central banks try to tame inflation, driven by the boom in commodity prices, they are pushing interest rates to their highest levels in many years. Kroszner said that inflation was already rising for a year before Russia launched its assault on Ukraine, however.

He suggested the root of the issue is expansive economic stimulus, both fiscal and monetary, unleashed by policymakers in response to COVID-19. On the fiscal side, the stimulus is at least six times as large as the response to the 2008–09 crisis. On the monetary side, Kroszner noted that the US Federal Reserve initially stepped up its purchases of assets, including Treasurys, to address disruptions in the Treasury markets when the pandemic hit.

“They really didn’t need to continue to buy assets at the rate they were buying, but they kind of got themselves into a bit of a commitment to continue to do this as long as possible, to make sure the markets calmed,” he said. “And so it was harder for them to pull back. That’s one of the reasons you saw inflation take off in the US a bit before some other countries.” 

But faced with persistently high inflation, Kroszner said, the Fed and other central banks are now tightening monetary policy to maintain their credibility. “It’s been generations since the Fed and central banks have done what they normally do, which is take the punch bowl away when the party really gets going,” he said.

Kroszner predicts the Fed is likely to squeeze further until labor-market conditions soften, suggesting some job losses ahead. Unless there is a major shock, Kroszner said, “until the labor market quits, the Fed is unlikely to quit, given the wage pressures that a hot labor market generates.”

—This story originally appeared on the Chicago Booth website.