Jul 13, 2010

The Global Economy Is Heading For A Serious Slowdown This Year

It looks as if the global economy is heading for a serious slowdown this year.

Emergency austerity programmes in some countries will put a drag on growth. Inventory adjustments will run their course. The effects of tax policies that steal demand from the future – such as the US “cash for clunkers” scheme, tax credits for home buyers or cash for green appliances – will fizzle out. Labour market conditions will remain weak. The slow and painful deleveraging of balance sheets and income-challenged households, financial institutions and governments will continue.

The result is governments and consumers that spent too much and now need to deleverage – in the US, Britain, Spain, Greece and elsewhere – will spend, consume and import less. But those governments and consumers that saved too much – in China, emerging Asia, Germany and Japan – are not spending more. In a world of excess supply, the recovery of global aggregate demand will be weak, pushing global growth much lower.

The most realistic scenario for global growth is painful, even if we avoid a double dip. In the US, 1.5 per cent growth in the second half of this year and into 2011 will feel like a recession, given a probable further rise in unemployment, larger budget deficits, a further fall in home prices, larger losses by banks on mortgages and loans, and the risk that a protectionist surge will further damage relations with China.

In the eurozone, growth will be closer to zero by the end of this year, as fiscal austerity and stock market corrections, along with rises in sovereign, corporate and interbank liquidity spreads, take their toll. Increases in volatility and sovereign debt risk will also undermine business and consumer confidence in ways that move beyond Europe.

Those hoping that China can keep the global economy afloat are likely to be disappointed. The world’s leading growth engine in recent years is slowing, from 11 per cent-plus towards a 7 per cent rate by year’s end. That will damage China’s exporters, while spelling bad news for export-growth in the rest of Asia, which increasingly relies on Chinese imports too.

Politically, this second global slowdown could not have come at a more difficult time. In the US, Democrats and Republicans will soon retreat to their corners to prepare for November’s mid-term elections. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama must again persuade America’s taxpayers that a new surge in government spending is needed to protect a fragile recovery – and at a moment when voters are telling pollsters that America’s debt is as great a threat as terrorism.

So the president must also tell voters that the longer-term solution to America’s economic insecurity involves both austerity and sacrifice. But abroad he faces an even larger problem. Mr Obama has limited leverage with the few remaining moderate Republicans, but the recent Group of 20 summit in Toronto showed him even less able to persuade European governments to shrug off fiscal worries. These countries seem unlikely to shift from their view that events of the past year in Greece, Spain and elsewhere – and fears of further crises to come – demand that the continent must learn to live within its means.

Nor should we expect much from the next G20 meeting in Seoul in November. A common fear of global meltdown provided some degree of unity at previous meetings. Yet, there is no longer international consensus on where tomorrow’s true dangers lie. Differing assumptions within the group over the proper role of government in a domestic economy make agreement on the details involving anything of substance very difficult.

Mr Obama’s critics often deride him as a man whose talents are limited to his fine speeches. Yet even if that were true, words matter. Plans to boost government spending in the near term, and to embrace austerity in the longer term, will only become more difficult if the president fails to explain the need for them. For their part, America’s Republicans need to accept that the path to a global recovery begins at home, with extended unemployment insurance and help for state and local governments.

Countries that save too much must also do their part for global demand. In particular, the Chinese leadership should recognise that failure to allow a more substantive revaluation of its currency will have serious consequences at home. It makes little sense to try to boost China’s local exporters while undermining the longer-term health of their best customers. Beijing must also move much more quickly to boost China’s domestic consumption.

The eurozone needs fiscal austerity, but it also needs a level of growth best provided by an easing of monetary policy from the European Central Bank. Early debt-restructuring of insolvent members should also be on the agenda. Germany should postpone its fiscal consolidation for a couple of years to boost disposable income and consumption. Outside Europe, Japan must accelerate economic reforms.

These steps will take time. Even if all are undertaken properly, global growth will recover only slowly. But if they are not undertaken at all, the risk of a global double dip, and a new financial crisis, will grow sharply. Policymakers cannot keep kicking the can down the road for much longer.

in FT.com, by Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer