The U.S. Economy Is in Less Terrible Shape Than Any Other Economy

Commentaries on economics and technology.
April 7 2013 7:30 AM

A Rose Among Thorns

The U.S. economy has its problems, but it’s still better than everywhere else.

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Farther East, Japan is trying a new economic experiment to stop deflation, boost economic growth, and restore business and consumer confidence. “Abenomics” has several components: aggressive monetary stimulus by the Bank of Japan; a fiscal stimulus this year to jump start demand, followed by fiscal austerity in 2014 to rein in deficits and debt; a push to increase nominal wages to boost domestic demand; structural reforms to deregulate the economy; and new free-trade agreements—starting with the Trans-Pacific Partnership—to boost trade and productivity.

But the challenges are daunting. It is not clear if deflation can be beaten with monetary policy; excessive fiscal stimulus and deferred austerity may make the debt unsustainable; and the structural-reform components of Abenomics are vague. Moreover, tensions with China over territorial claims in the East China Sea may adversely affect trade and foreign direct investment.

Then there is the Middle East, which remains an arc of instability from the Maghreb to Pakistan. Turkey—with a young population, high potential growth, and a dynamic private sector—seeks to become a major regional power. But Turkey faces many challenges of its own. Its bid to join the European Union is currently stalled, while the eurozone recession dampens its growth. Its current-account deficit remains large, and monetary policy has been confusing, as the objective of boosting competitiveness and growth clashes with the need to control inflation and avoid excessive credit expansion.

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Moreover, while rapprochement with Israel has become more likely, Turkey faces severe tensions with Syria and Iran, and its Islamist ruling party must still prove that it can coexist with the country’s secular political tradition.

In this fragile global environment, has America become a beacon of hope? The U.S. is experiencing several positive economic trends: housing is recovering; shale gas and oil will reduce energy costs and boost competitiveness; job creation is improving; rising labor costs in Asia and the advent of robotics and automation are underpinning a manufacturing resurgence; and aggressive quantitative easing is helping both the real economy and financial markets.

But risks remain. Unemployment and household debt remain stubbornly high. The fiscal drag from rising taxes and spending cuts will hit growth, and the political system is dysfunctional, with partisan polarization impeding compromise on the fiscal deficit, immigration, energy policy, and other key issues that influence potential growth.

In sum, among advanced economies, the U.S. is in the best relative shape, followed by Japan, where Abenomics is boosting confidence. The eurozone and the U.K. remain mired in recessions made worse by tight monetary and fiscal policies. Among emerging economies, China could face a hard landing by late 2014 if critical structural reforms are postponed, and the other BRICs need to turn away from state capitalism. While other emerging markets in Asia and Latin America are showing more dynamism than the BRICs, their strength will not be enough to turn the global tide.