The Only Game In Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse – book excerpt

In his new book The Only Game In Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse, the noted economist Mohamed El Erian describes the rise of the world’s central banks in this century. In doing so he provides an overview of the global economy and where it is headed.

In three more excerpts from the book, El Erian rolls out the big picture, and says that before long the global economy will move in one of two directions. (We published an initial extract in late January)

El Erian was chief executive of Pimco for six years ending in early 2014 — its heyday as the world’s largest bond fund — and currently is chief economic adviser at Allianz and chairman of the US president Barack Obama’s Global Development Council.

El Erian is scheduled to speak on Thursday at National Bank of Abu Dhabi’s Global Financial Markets Forum in the UAE capital.


In the last few years, the global economy has evolved in ways once deemed highly unlikely, if not unthinkable. It is a phenomenon that continues today and will intensify in the period ahead.

The global financial crisis that shook virtually every country, government, and household in the world in 2008–09 gave way to a frustrating “new normal” of low growth, rising inequality, political dysfunction, and, in some cases, social tensions — all despite massive policy interventions on the part of central banks and transformational technological innovations.

Now this new normal is getting increasingly exhausted. For those caring to look, signs of stress are multiplying — so much so that the path the global economy is on is likely to end soon, and potentially quite suddenly.

As we approach this historic inflection point, unthinkables will become more common and insecurities will rise, especially as it becomes clearer that, rather than transition smoothly and automatically, the current path could give way to one of two very different new roads. The first promises higher inclusive growth and genuine financial stability. But, in stark contrast, the second would see us mired in even lower growth, periodic recessions, and the return of financial instability.

Fortunately, there is nothing predestined about what will come after the exhaustion of the new normal. The road out of the upcoming “T junction” can still be influenced in a consequential manner by the choices that we make, as households, companies, and governments. But to make better choices, we need to understand the forces at play and their likely evolution. There is no better way of doing so than through an examination of the world’s major central banks … past, present, and future.

These once-staid, unexciting institutions have emerged as the major and often sole policymakers. Having fallen asleep at the switch while irresponsible financial risk taking went wild, they pivoted to an aggressive intervention mode during the global financial crisis. In doing so, they saved the world from a multi-year depression that would have devastated lives and fuelled social unrest.

Sensing that other policymakers were paralysed by dysfunctional politics, central banks then found experimental ways to keep the global economy on a growth path, albeit a somewhat artificial one, and they did so even though the underlying engines of economic prosperity were yet to be revamped.

Now these monetary institutions are expected to continue producing miracles. But their ability to repeatedly pull new rabbits out of their policy hats has been stretched to an increasingly unsustainable degree.

This central casting role is new and unusual for central banks. For decades, they operated away from the spotlights. The majority of those who cared to follow these tradition-prone and proud institutions — and there weren’t that many outside the rather small circle of monetary economists and policy wonks — saw them as consisting of highly conventional technocrats who quietly worked behind the scenes using complex technical instruments.

The establishment of the first central bank goes all the way back to Scandinavia in the seventeenth century, a century that also saw the creation in 1694 of the Bank of England, which is widely viewed as the parent of modern central banking. Despite the demise of the British Empire, the “Old Lady of Threadneedle Street,” as the bank is fondly referred to — after all, it has influenced the design of most other central banks in the world — is still one of the most influential members of this rather exclusive and enigmatic club.

Yet its power and reach pale in comparison to two other institutions that feature prominently in this book: America’s Federal Reserve, the world’s most powerful central bank; and the European Central Bank (ECB), the issuer of Europe’s common currency (euro), which is currently used by nineteen member countries, and is the most advanced component of the region’s historic integration project.

Both these two institutions are much, much younger than the Bank of England.

The Fed was not set up until 1913, in response to financial turmoil. Today, as the central bank of the fifty American states and the territories, and operating under delegated authority from Congress, the Fed has a mission to “provide the nation with a safe, flexible, and stable monetary and financial system.”

The ECB became operational in 1999. Working with national central banks that are also part of the Eurosystem, its goal is to maintain price stability, safeguard the common currency, and supervise credit institutions (predominantly banks).

To pursue their objectives, all central banks are empowered to manage the country’s currency and money supply with a view to delivering specified macroeconomic objectives — universally, that of low and stable inflation, as well as, in some cases, high employment and economic growth. In more recent years, a growing number of central banks have also been charged with supervising parts of the financial system and ensuring overall financial stability.

At the most basic level of their operations, central banks control the price and amount of money in circulation, whether directly (by altering the interest rates they charge banks and the amount of credit that banks are allowed to create) or indirectly (by influencing the risk appetite of the system and its overall financial conditions). In doing so, they have been granted over time greater operational autonomy from their political bosses.

Acting directly or through a parliamentary process, governments set the macro goals for central banks. Many are then left alone to pursue the objectives using the instruments of their choice. This process has been generally viewed favourably as it insulates central banks from short-term political adventures by governments whose eyes are on their reelection prospects. And the related power and influence of central banks have grown by leaps and bounds.

Take the Fed as an illustration. Like other central banks, it has experienced a dramatic increase in its to-do list, tools, and influences — from something as simple as becoming the sole issuer of the currency to much more complex management and regulation of the banking system.

Despite this notable expansion in responsibility, might, and impact, nothing prepared central banks for the dramatically unprecedented conversion that they have gone through in the last few years — both during the global financial crisis and in its aftermath.

Forced out of their mysterious anonymity and highly technical orientation, central banks have been dramatically thrust into the limelight as they have become single-handedly responsible for the fate of the global economy. Responding to one emergency after the other, they have set aside their conventional approaches and — instead — evolved into serial policy experimenters.

Often, and very counterintuitively for such tradition-obsessed institutions, they have been forced to make things up on the spot. Repeatedly, they have been compelled to resort to untested policy instruments. And, with their expectations for better outcomes often disappointed, many have felt (and still feel) the need to venture ever deeper into unknown and unfamiliar policy terrains and roles.

For those accustomed to the conventional operation of economies and financial systems, all this constitutes nothing less than an unthinkable transfiguration for central banks. Yet the structural breaks have not stopped there.

What central banks have been experiencing is part of a significantly broader change whose effects will be felt by all of us, our children, and, most likely, their children, too. It is a change that speaks to much bigger — and consequential — evolutions in the global economy, in the functioning of markets, and in the financial landscape. And the implications go well beyond economics and finance, extending also to national politics, regional and global negotiations, and geopolitics.

Understanding the unplanned and, for them and many others, uncomfortable conversion of central banks from largely invisible institutions to the only policy game in town, provides us with a unique perspective on the much larger changes impacting our world. It speaks to the how, why, and so what by:

• explaining how the global system has fallen further and further behind in meeting the legitimate aspirations of hundreds of millions of people on multiple continents, including those related to economic betterment, remunerative employment, and financial security;

• detailing why the world is having such difficulties growing, why countries are becoming increasingly unequal, and why so many people live with this recurrent sense of financial instability and even distress; and

• shedding light on why so many political systems struggle mightily just to understand fast-moving realities on the ground and catch up with them, let alone direct them to better destinations.

By living in this world, most of us have already observed either directly or indirectly a set of unusual, if not previously improbable, changes. It is a phenomenon that is being felt at multiple levels. And, so far, all this is just the beginning.

In the years to come, this extremely fluid world we live in is likely to pull us further out of our comfort zones; and it will challenge us to respond accordingly. And we shouldn’t just wait for governments to make things better.

Unless we understand the nature of the disruptive forces, including tipping points and T junctions, we will likely fall short in our reaction functions. And the more that happens, the greater the likelihood we could lose control of an orderly economic, financial, and political destiny — both for our generation and for future ones.




If there is one person who has fully grasped the financial challenges facing emerging markets, it is Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India. So writes Mohammed El Erian in The Only Game In Town …


Once they are invested, it doesn’t take long to observe that crossover flows lack the conviction and staying power of the dedicated funds. As such, they often act as tourists rather than locals.

At the first sign of instability, they essentially tend to rush to the airport, looking to get out quickly; this can even occur when the initial source of instability has little to do with the emerging markets themselves (as was the case, for example, during the May–June 2013 “taper tantrum,” when financial markets in advanced countries were disrupted by a statement from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke indicating that the central bank could start reducing the support it was providing via QE programs).

Crossover tourist investors are usually inclined to stay in emerging market investments for only a limited amount of time. They have a decisive home bias, and they tend to overreact to unanticipated news.

The resulting fluctuations in capital inflows and outflows have tended to overwhelm financial markets in the emerging world. Remember, the flows are not driven primarily by individual country fundamentals. Rather, they are more the product of credit factories in the advanced world and central bank policies there. And they are large relative to the absorptive capacity of the local financial system.

To my knowledge, no emerging economy has as yet found a robust policy approach for dealing with this challenge — but it is not for lack of trying. As such, their growth performance has been subject to sizeable headwinds.

Perhaps no one has been more vocal and lucid about these issues than Raghuram “Raghu” Rajan, the highly respected and insightful governor of India’s central bank. With an impressive résumé that includes a professorship at the University of Chicago, heading the IMF’s Research Department, and putting out an early warning about the financial crisis (and at the 2006 Jackson Hole conference, no less), he has introduced a breath of fresh air into the highest levels of the global policy dialogue.

Two episodes are particularly notable as they also illustrate how Governor Rajan’s peers in the central banking world have responded to remarks that put them on the defensive.

At a Brookings Institution conference in April 2014 — one of the many that are organised around the Spring Meetings of the IMF and World Bank in Washington, D.C. — Governor Rajan warned about the adverse spillover effects on emerging countries of experimental advanced-country policies. In doing so, he was not being especially outlandish, and he certainly was not the first to make these points.

Yet his remarks were enough to trigger quite a reaction from Chairman Bernanke, who was sitting in the audience, having left his position at the Fed earlier in the year and joined Brookings as a Distinguished Fellow in Residence.

Governor Rajan responded and, with the panel being broadcast via the internet, the world had access to a rather unusual occurrence in the polite world of central banking: something close to a public argument between two highly regarded heads of central banks from different countries.

Chairman Bernanke reiterated the arguments advanced earlier by other advanced-country officials, which emphasise that the policies being pursued reflect the use of “domestic measures” to attain “domestic objectives,” that success in meeting these objectives would translate into higher growth that is good for everyone, and to the extent that there are negative spillovers on emerging economies, that it is up to the authorities there to deal with them through timely policy adjustments (something that we will come back to shortly).

The second episode was at an October 2014 Banque de France symposium. Again on a panel, Governor Rajan made some remarkably thoughtful comments about the structural questions facing central banks and, more generally, the economies of the advanced world. But rather than his comments serving as the basis of a much-needed discussion, he was politely sidestepped and labelled by the moderator of his panel as belonging to the “BIS brigade” — a reference to the work of the Bank for International Settlements, whose emphasis in recent years has been on the worrisome side effects of unconventional monetary policy, including distorting the link between markets and fundamentals while failing to provide a cure for inadequate growth.

Whether it is because the impact of large and volatile tourist flows is simply too big, or whether emerging economies are unable or unwilling to sufficiently adjust domestic policies, the effect has been to slow growth in the emerging world overall, so much so that this important part of the global economy is no longer a robust growth locomotive for the rest of the world — a role that it performed well after the 2008 financial crisis and that was instrumental for helping to lower the downside facing the advanced world. Indeed, with most of the systemically important countries slowing (including China, India, and Turkey) or already in recession (such as Brazil and Russia), the emerging world has transitioned to become a drag on global growth.

In sum, the elusive advanced-economy quest for growth has morphed into a generalised growth deficit for the world as a whole. In the process, the search for new growth engines has become harder, the stakes have gotten bigger, and the consequences have extended beyond economic and financial. They now also have important social, political, institutional, and geopolitical dimensions.

The overall reduction in emerging markets growth is not the only issue to note. It has been accompanied by yet another complication — that of a growing gap in prospects, both among countries and across the populations of individual nations.

A few better-managed economies, such as India, are working hard to unleash pent-up growth drivers and surging ahead. Other traditionally well-managed economies, like China, are trying to soft-land at lower growth rates while deepening their developmental maturation process. Notwithstanding both internal and external headwinds, growth will become more inclusive in both these cases as it continues to pull people out of poverty, though not enough to avoid striking income and wealth inequalities.

Others, such as Brazil, find themselves facing the old-fashioned and troubling problem of stagflation, or that awful combination of low income growth and high inflation. The application of the wrong policy mix to the challenges at hand is not only failing to promote growth, but is also leading to higher price increases that place even greater pressure on the population, and especially the poor. Their ability to reverse this situation is constrained by how this stagflationary situation fuels social discontent, and the resulting rise in the “misery index” (that is, the sum of the unemployment and inflation rates) complicates an already difficult political environment.

The next group, including countries such as Russia and Venezuela, are dealing with economic recession, even greater currency instability, and spreading financial disruptions — all of which damage business activity in a very basic sense. As a simple but insightful example, witness Apple’s decision in December 2014 to suspend its sales in Russia as, according to the company, “extreme fluctuations in the value of the rouble” prompted a review of pricing policy and practices.

The generalised slowdown in growth is happening at a time when several economies have already used up some of the considerable resilience they had gained in the run-up to the 2008 global financial crisis — resilience that had served them and the global economy as well.

Having gone through their own internally generated debt and financial crises — and multiple times, including during Latin America’s lost decade of the 1980s, the 1994–95 Mexican tequila crisis, the 1997 Asian crisis, the 1998 Russian default, the 2001 Argentine default, and the 2002 Brazilian crisis — many emerging economies embarked on comprehensive “self-insurance” programs. They involved various combinations of five key items that remain relevant today:

• Building up large financial buffers in the form of ample international reserves;

• Adopting more flexible exchange rates;

• Reducing the currency mismatch between debt issuance and assets/revenues (or what is known by economists as the “original sin”);

• Paying off some debt obligations and refinancing others on more favourable terms, including via longer maturities and lower interest rates; and

• Embarking on institutional changes that render domestic economic management more responsible and responsive.

In other words, having suffered a series of small heart attacks, most emerging economies had embarked on a regime of more exercise, a healthier diet, and more regular check-ups. As such, when the big heart attack came — that associated with the 2008 global financial crisis, which originated in the United States — they were in a much better place to survive it. And they did more than just survive it. They recovered quite quickly (and certainly faster than most people expected, and a lot better than their counterparts in the industrial world).

Since then, however, emerging markets have eaten into their resilience. To use another analogy, this time from the auto world, they have found themselves on an unexpectedly long and bumpy journey, having to weather the potholes created both by the West and by their own actions, but doing so after using their spare tyre and with many miles between service stations.

Financial cushions in the emerging world today are less robust due to lower international reserves and higher corporate debt, a significant portion of which is subject to currency mismatches, according to research by BIS staff. Meanwhile, policymakers in too many economies seem distracted, either underestimating the challenges ahead or engaging in rather pointless blame games.

In addition to lower resilience, too many emerging economies have also become less agile, failing to transition to the next stages of responsible economic management, ones that involve more micro reforms — so-called second-generation structural reforms, which are technically more difficult to implement and tend to face stronger vested interests, yet are critical for sustaining growth and advancing the development process.

As a result, absent a strong recovery in the advanced world the lower growth performance of the emerging countries is unlikely to be corrected anytime soon. Meanwhile, the more challenged the growth in the emerging world, the trickier the recovery among advanced economies. All of which renders the global economy less dynamic and much more vulnerable to policy mistakes and market accidents.



In this extract from one of the final chapters of The Only Game In Town, Mohamed El Erian makes the case for thinking ahead, and expecting the bad as well as the good.


A tool that I have found particularly useful is one that many — whether organised in households, companies, governments, or multilateral institutions — tend to chronically underuse: scenario analyses.

Scenario analyses are about the world of “what if.” They extend our thinking beyond our natural inclination to focus on the one, most likely outcome. By definition, they involve devoting a lot of resources, time, and effort to working on possibilities that may never materialise. And the costs are quite high when this repeatedly involves detailing crises conditions that never occur.

I understand this point of view but I feel that it ignores the balance between Type I and Type II errors. Yes, it is costly to think about multiple crises that never materialise (Type I). But it is even more costly not to think about a crisis that does occur (Type II).

In taking this approach, I have been heavily influenced not just by my fifteen-year tenure at the IMF, where involvement in tricky crisis management situations was quite common, but also by what I lived through during the disorderly collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

Conventional wisdom is that Pimco must have predicted Lehman’s collapse. After all, the vast majority of the firm’s clients not only avoided large losses but also outperformed by making money on the funds that had been entrusted to us for investment management services.

Whenever confronted with this view, I (and others) have been quick to point out that we did not predict the failure of Lehman. We just responded better and faster than others because we had undertaken a series of robust scenario analyses, coupled with detailed action plans.

I remember that weekend very well in mid-September 2008. While government officials and bankers were meeting at the New York Federal Reserve Bank Building, a group of us at Pimco were gathered in the Investment Committee room at the company’s headquarters in Newport Beach, California. Colleagues from our overseas offices were on the three TV screens, having joined via videoconference lines. Lots of paper on the tables, and empty boxes of doughnuts and pizza along the sides. Most important, the whiteboards detailed three possible scenarios for the run-up to Monday’s market open.

We had assigned the biggest probability to a repeat of the March 2008 Bear Stearns experience — namely that a fragile and failing Lehman would be taken over by a bank with a strong balance sheet.

A default would be avoided, and the system would dodge a bullet that would have entailed systemic disruptions.

This was our baseline. The relatively high probability we attached to it was reinforced by news out of New York and London that Barclays was indeed considering to play the role that JP Morgan had played with Bear Stearns six months earlier. But we did not focus just on this possibility. We also asked ourselves the following two questions: Assuming that we made a prediction mistake, what could that mistake look like? And, if there is more than one possible mistake that could not be avoided, which one would we least be able to afford to make? This led us to the formulation of two other broad scenarios.

We assigned the second-highest probability to Lehman failing but doing so in an orderly fashion. After all, the authorities were probably as aware as we were of the interconnectivity of Lehman, together with the fragility of circuit breakers given the spaghetti bowl of interdependencies. Financial contagion was a real risk, as were negative shocks to growth and jobs. Because of that, we looked at another possible outcome — that of a disorderly failure of Lehman — even though it commanded our lowest probability of materialising.

Well, of the three scenarios we specified, it was the lowest-probability, highest-potential-cost one that became reality. Yet despite our miscalculations of probabilities (and we were one of many who got it wrong, in both the private and the public sectors), we were able to quickly reset, get organised, and protect our clients’ portfolios.

Having discussed the possibility before the worst of the storm, we had calmly specified an action plan for this scenario (as we had done for the two others), drawing on inputs from several talented colleagues. It was very detailed — from specifying who would go to Lehman to deliver the notices of failure so that we could quickly reconstitute certain positions elsewhere, to very careful cash and collateral management.

In putting this action plan in operation very early on that Monday morning, we were able to harvest many first-mover advantages to the significant benefits of our clients. We had a better mindset and were in a much better cognitive position to move forward rather than play desperate catch-up defence. In American football terms, it was the equivalent of starting the second quarter just a field goal behind rather than four touchdowns back.

While we had gotten the probabilities wrong, the preemptive analyses and the associated action plans had enabled us to quickly get back onside. This allowed us to do more than protect the funds that our clients had entrusted to us. It allowed us to exploit opportunities afforded to us by the more panicked responses of the late movers.

I remember being struck at the time not only by how few others had taken the time and made the effort to think about different possible scenarios earlier; seemingly too few of them shared PIMCO’s culture of “constructive paranoia.” I was even more surprised when, a few days after Lehman failed, I received a call from a rather distressed friend at another investment management entity. Having been paralysed by the disorderly collapse of Lehman and lacking an analytical-operational framework, they were just starting trying to play catch-up. As such, their portfolio-positioning woes were being amplified by even more immediate concerns about liquidity.

Of course, not all scenario analyses are that successful. Just a few years later, we engaged on an even more detailed process because of what was happening in the Eurozone. It was analytically a lot more complex and challenging, as several of the stress scenarios dealt with the possible return to multiple national currencies, the impact of different legal contracts and jurisdiction, and, therefore, an even more complex set of interconnectedness and interdependence.

The initiative was led by impressive European colleagues who devoted a tremendous amount of time and effort — all for eventualities that never took place. Afterward some would deem it to have been a colossal waste of time. In the strictest sense of the term it was, since no substantive components of the action plan were triggered. Yet it was a needed one.

The Eurozone had gotten very close to fragmentation, especially in the final week of July 2012. But chaos was averted due to the bold response of the ECB. As such, our scenario analyses were for naught. Yet they provided us with an important analytical framework and, of course, a playbook in the event of the resurfacing of concerns (which occurred in 2015 with the return of fears about a Grexit and a Graccident).

The intuitively obvious aspect of scenario analyses — that it is better to think about possible extreme events during the prior calm periods rather than be totally surprised and have to play subsequent catch-up — is not relevant just for bad events. Even some very good surprises can be mishandled and, quite counterintuitively, end up leading to bad outcomes. Just think of the irony of lottery jackpot winners ending up bankrupt a few years later even though they won an enormous amount of money.

The beneficial use of scenario analyses finds support in psychological research, including the work of Gary Klein, a psychologist known for his work on naturalistic decision making. His insights were incorporated by the army in their command-and-control guidelines; they have also been used as an input by Daniel Kahneman in his innovative work.

Citing earlier work that had found that “prospective hindsight — imagining that an event has already occurred — increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%,” Klein and his colleagues “used prospective hindsight to devise a method called a premortem, which helps project teams identify risks at the outset.”

The intuition is quite simple and powerful, and has been shown to contribute to heightened cognitive alertness, a breaking down of barriers to broader thinking, and a much greater ability to minimise failure probability.

As opposed to a postmortem, “a premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied.” Its construct assumes that the tail events have occurred and looks for the reasons. The specific steps include identifying the events, generating the reasons why, revisiting the initial action plan, and conducting periodic reviews.

Copyright © 2016 by Mohamed El Erian

Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House

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