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People shop at a Walmart Supercentre in Toronto on March 13, 2020.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Many economies are approaching a tipping point where high inflation becomes normal while economic growth slows sharply, the Bank for International Settlements warned in its annual report published Sunday.

Countries around the world are facing a dangerous cocktail of high inflation, slowing economic growth and heightened financial vulnerabilities tied to high debt levels and rising interest rates, said the BIS, which acts as a bank for the world’s central banks.

This may quickly turn into a period of stagflation resembling the high-inflation and low-growth era of 1970s and early 1980s, the organization said. It argued that economic policy makers around the world need to move rapidly to halt inflation, even if that means causing significant economic hardship.

“We may be reaching a tipping point, beyond which an inflationary psychology spreads and becomes entrenched. This would mean a major paradigm shift,” the BIS said.

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Central banks around the world have stepped up the pace of interest rate increases in recent months to try to tame inflation. Two weeks ago, the U.S. Federal Reserve announced the largest interest rate hike since 1994. The Bank of Canada has increased its benchmark rate at three consecutive rate decisions, and hinted that it is considering a supersized 0.75 percentage point rate increase in July. That would be three times the size of a normal rate hike.

Interest rate increases lower demand in the economy, which can help bring down the pace of consumer price growth. But higher interest rates can also push the economy into a recession, as steeper borrowing costs curtail consumer spending and business investment, and push up unemployment.

“The overriding near-term challenge is to prevent the global economy from shifting from a low- to a high-inflation regime. In doing so, policy makers will need to limit the costs to the economy as far as possible and to safeguard financial stability. Some pain, however, will be inevitable,” the BIS said.

Getting inflation under control won’t be easy, the organization warned. The recent commodity price shock tied to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added to multiple inflationary pressures that have been building over the past year. This resembles the oil price shocks in the 1970s that pushed the United States, Canada and other countries into a period of high inflation, high unemployment and low economic growth known as stagflation.

The situation today, however, could be even more dangerous than in earlier periods of stagflation because of the amount of debt – particularly housing market debt – that has built up over more than a decade of ultra-low interest rates, the BIS warned. It called the current combination of soaring inflation and elevated financial vulnerabilities “historically unprecedented.”

“Unlike in the past, stagflation today would occur alongside heightened financial vulnerabilities, including stretched asset prices and high debt levels, which could magnify any growth slowdown,” it said.

As they push interest rates higher, central banks are trying to engineer a soft landing – a situation where inflation comes down without a sharp slowdown in economic activity or significant rise in unemployment. Top central bankers, including Fed chair Jerome Powell and Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem, have said in recent weeks they believe a soft landing is possible, although they acknowledge that it is getting more difficult.

The BIS poured cold water on the probability of a soft landing in its report. BIS economists looked at monetary policy tightening cycles in 35 countries between 1985 and 2018, and concluded that about half of them resulted in a soft landing – that is, did not end in a recession.

However, further analysis showed that recessions were more likely if rate hikes followed a period of ultralow borrowing costs and a build-up of financial vulnerabilities. That is the situation Canada and many other advanced economies are in today.

“A hard landing may not be foreordained,” Columbia University professor Adam Tooze wrote in a newsletter commenting on the BIS report. “But what the BIS is telling us, is that central bankers have never attempted to stop an inflation as rapid as the one we have seen in the first half of 2022, with the level of debt build-up we have seen since the early 2000s.”

The BIS is not alone in its grim prognosis. Earlier this month, the World Bank cut its 2022 global growth forecast to 2.9 per cent from a 4.1-per-cent forecast in January, and said that “the danger of stagflation is considerable today.”

Much of the BIS report focused on the changing dynamics of inflation, which is surging across large parts of the globe for the first time in decades. The annual rate of inflation hit a 39-year-high of 7.7 per cent in May in Canada, the highest since 1983. It averaged 9.2 per cent in April across countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The BIS noted that once economies shift into periods of high inflation, consumer price increases become self-reinforcing. Businesses and consumers start paying more attention to rising prices and start behaving differently, respectively setting higher prices and demanding higher wages to protect their margins and purchasing power.

“Whether inflation becomes entrenched or not ultimately depends on whether wage-price spirals will develop. The risk should not be underestimated, owing to the inherent dynamics of transitions from low- to high-inflation regimes,” the BIS said.

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