Five Reasons to Be Gloomy About the World Economy

Commentaries on economics and technology.
Jan. 27 2013 7:30 AM

Preparing for a Perfect Storm

Stagnation in the developed world, uncertainty in China, and political instability in the Middle East could make for a rough 2013.

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Barack Obama and John Boehner made nice for the inauguration, but more fights loom on the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

The global economy this year will exhibit some similarities with the conditions that prevailed in 2012. No surprise there: We face another year in which global growth will average about 3 percent, but with a multispeed recovery—a subpar, below-trend annual rate of 1 percent in the advanced economies, and close-to-trend rates of 5 percent in emerging markets. But there will be some important differences as well.

Painful deleveraging—less spending and more saving to reduce debt and leverage—remains ongoing in most advanced economies, which implies slow economic growth. But fiscal austerity will envelop most advanced economies this year, rather than just the Eurozone periphery and the United Kingdom. Indeed, austerity is spreading to the core of the Eurozone, the United States, and other advanced economies (with the exception of Japan). Given synchronized fiscal retrenchment in most advanced economies, another year of mediocre growth could give way to outright contraction in some countries.

With growth anemic in most advanced economies, the rally in risky assets that began in the second half of 2012 has not been driven by improved fundamentals, but rather by fresh rounds of unconventional monetary policy. Most major advanced economies’ central banks—the European Central Bank, the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, and the Swiss National Bank—have engaged in some form of quantitative easing, and they are now likely to be joined by the Bank of Japan, which is being pushed toward more unconventional policies by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new government.

Moreover, several risks lie ahead. First, America’s mini-deal on taxes has not steered it fully away from the fiscal cliff. Sooner or later, another ugly fight will take place on the debt ceiling, the delayed sequester of spending, and a congressional “continuing spending resolution” (an agreement to allow the government to continue functioning in the absence of an appropriations law). Markets may become spooked by another fiscal cliffhanger. And even the current mini-deal implies a significant amount of drag—about 1.4 percent of GDP—on an economy that has grown at barely 2 percent over the last few quarters.

Second, while the ECB’s actions have reduced tail risks in the Eurozone—a Greek exit and/or loss of market access for Italy and Spain—the monetary union’s fundamental problems have not been resolved. Together with political uncertainty, they will re-emerge with full force in the second half of the year.

After all, stagnation and outright recession—exacerbated by front-loaded fiscal austerity, a strong euro, and an ongoing credit crunch—remain Europe’s norm. As a result, large stocks of private and public debt remain. Moreover, given aging populations and low productivity growth, potential output is likely to be eroded in the absence of more aggressive structural reforms to boost competitiveness, leaving the private sector no reason to finance chronic current-account deficits.

Third, China has had to rely on another round of monetary, fiscal, and credit stimulus to prop up an unbalanced and unsustainable growth model based on excessive exports and fixed investment, high saving, and low consumption. By the second half of the year, the investment bust in real estate, infrastructure, and industrial capacity will accelerate. And, because the country’s new leadership—which is conservative, gradualist, and consensus-driven—is unlikely to speed up implementation of reforms needed to increase household income and reduce precautionary saving, consumption as a share of GDP will not rise fast enough to compensate. So the risk of a hard landing will rise by the end of this year.

Fourth, many emerging markets—including the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), but also many others—are now experiencing decelerating growth. Their “state capitalism”—a large role for state-owned companies; an even larger role for state-owned banks; resource nationalism; import-substitution industrialization; and financial protectionism and controls on foreign direct investment—is the heart of the problem. Whether they will embrace reforms aimed at boosting the private sector’s role in economic growth remains to be seen.

Finally, serious geopolitical risks loom large. The entire greater Middle East—from the Maghreb to Afghanistan and Pakistan—is socially, economically, and politically unstable. Indeed, the Arab Spring is turning into an Arab Winter. While an outright military conflict between Israel and the U.S. on one side and Iran on the other side remains unlikely, it is clear that negotiations and sanctions will not induce Iran’s leaders to abandon efforts to develop nuclear weapons. With Israel refusing to accept a nuclear-armed Iran, and its patience wearing thin, the drums of actual war will beat harder. The fear premium in oil markets may significantly rise and increase oil prices by 20 percent, leading to negative growth effects in the U.S., Europe, Japan, China, India and all other advanced economies and emerging markets that are net oil importers.

While the chance of a perfect storm is low, any one of them alone would be enough to stall the global economy and tip it into recession. And while they may not all emerge in the most extreme way, each is or will be appearing in some form. As 2013 begins, the downside risks to the global economy are gathering force.

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