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.

Cyrpess  bank protest
Bank employees shout slogans and hold banners during a demonstration outside the parliament on April 4, 2013, in the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, over fears that pensions may be at risk under Cyprus's bailout,

Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

In the last four weeks, I have traveled to Sofia, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, London, Milan, Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo, Istanbul, and throughout the United States. As a result, the myriad challenges facing the global economy were never far away.

In Europe, the tail risk of a eurozone break-up and a loss of market access by Spain and Italy were reduced by the European Central Bank’s decision to backstop sovereign debt. But the monetary union’s fundamental problems—low potential growth, ongoing recession, loss of competitiveness, and large stocks of private and public debt—have not been resolved.

Moreover, the grand bargain between the eurozone core, the ECB, and the periphery—painful austerity and reforms in exchange for large-scale financial support—is now breaking down, as austerity fatigue in the eurozone periphery runs up against bailout fatigue in core countries like Germany and the Netherlands.

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Austerity fatigue  is clearly evident from the success of anti-establishment forces in Italy’s recent election; large street demonstrations in Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere; and now the botched bailout of Cypriot banks, which has fueled massive public anger. Throughout the periphery, populist parties of the left and right are gaining ground.

Meanwhile, Germany’s insistence on imposing losses on bank creditors in Cyprus is the latest symptom of bailout fatigue in the core. Other core eurozone members, eager to limit the risks to their taxpayers, have similarly signaled that creditor “bail-ins” are the way of the future.

Outside the eurozone, even the United Kingdom is struggling to restore growth, owing to the damage caused by front-loaded fiscal-consolidation efforts, while anti-austerity sentiment is also mounting in Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary.

In China, the leadership transition has occurred smoothly. But the country’s economic model remains, as former Premier Wen Jiabao famously put it, “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.”

China’s problems are many: regional imbalances between its coastal regions and the interior, and between urban and rural areas; too much savings and fixed investment, and too little private consumption; growing income and wealth inequality; and massive environmental degradation, with air, water, and soil pollution jeopardizing public health and food safety.

The country’s new leaders speak earnestly of deepening reforms and rebalancing the economy, but they remain cautious, gradualist, and conservative by inclination. Moreover, the power of vested interests that oppose reform—state-owned enterprises, provincial governments, and the military, for example—has yet to be broken. As a result, the reforms needed to rebalance the economy may not occur fast enough to prevent a hard landing when, by next year, an investment bust materializes.

In China—and in Russia (and partly in Brazil and India)—state capitalism has become more entrenched, which does not bode well for growth. Overall, these four countries (the BRICs) have been overhyped, and other emerging economies may do better in the next decade: Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia in Asia; Chile, Colombia, and Peru in South America; and Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Poland in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.