Posted on Wednesday, January 5, 2011
NEW YORK – The global economy ends 2010 more divided than it was at the beginning of the year. On one side, emerging-market countries like India, China, and the Southeast Asian economies, are experiencing robust growth. On the other side, Europe and the United States face stagnation – indeed, a Japanese-style malaise – and stubbornly high unemployment. The problem in the advanced countries is not a jobless recovery, but an anemic recovery – or worse, the possibility of a double-dip recession.
This two-track world poses some unusual risks. While Asia’s economic output is too small to pull up growth in the rest of the world, it may be enough to push up commodity prices.
Meanwhile, US efforts to stimulate its economy through the Federal Reserve’s policy of “quantitative easing” may backfire. After all, in globalized financial markets, money looks for the best prospects around the world, and these prospects are in Asia, not the US. So the money won’t go where it’s needed, and much of it will wind up where it’s not wanted – causing further increases in asset and commodity prices, especially in emerging markets.
Given the high levels of excess capacity and unemployment in Europe and America, quantitative easing is unlikely to trigger a bout of inflation. It could, however, increase anxieties about future inflation, leading to higher long-term interest rates – precisely the opposite of the Fed’s goal.
This is not the only, or even the most important, downside risk facing the global economy. The gravest threat comes from the wave of austerity sweeping the world, as governments, particularly in Europe, confront the large deficits brought on by the Great Recession, and as anxieties about some countries’ ability to meet their debt payments contributes to financial-market instability.
The outcome of premature fiscal consolidation is all but foretold: growth will slow, tax revenues will diminish, and the reduction in deficits will be disappointing. And, in our globally integrated world, the slowdown in Europe will exacerbate the slowdown in the US, and vice versa.
With the US able to borrow at record-low interest rates, and with the promise of high returns on public investments after a decade of neglect, it is clear what it should do. A large-scale public-investment program would stimulate employment in the short term, and growth in the long term, leading in the end to a lower national debt. But financial markets demonstrated their shortsightedness in the years preceding the crisis, and are doing so once again, by applying pressure for spending cuts, even if that implies reducing badly needed public investments.
Moreover, political gridlock will ensure that little is done about the other festering problems confronting the American economy: mortgage foreclosures are likely to continue unabated (legal complications aside); small and medium-sized enterprises are likely to continue to be starved of funds; and the small and medium-sized banks that traditionally provide them with credit are likely to continue to struggle to survive.
In Europe, meanwhile, matters are unlikely to be any better. Europe has finally managed to come to the rescue of Greece and Ireland. In the run up to the crisis, both were governed by right-wing governments marked by crony capitalism or worse, demonstrating once again that free-market economics didn’t work in Europe any better than it did in the US.
In Greece, as in the US, a new government was left to clean up the mess. The Irish government that encouraged reckless bank lending and the creation of a property bubble was, perhaps not surprisingly, no more adept in managing the economy after the crisis that it was before.
Politics aside, property bubbles leave in their wake a legacy of debt and excess capacity in real estate that is not easily rectified – especially when politically connected banks resist restructuring mortgages.
To me, attempting to discern the economic prospects for 2011 is not a particularly interesting question: the answer is bleak, with little upside potential and a lot of downside risk. More importantly, how long will it take Europe and America to recover, and can Asia’s seemingly export-dependent economies continue to grow if their historical markets languish?
My best bet is that these countries will maintain rapid growth as they shift their economic focus to their vast and untapped domestic markets. This will require considerable restructuring of their economies, but China and India are both dynamic, and proved their resilience in their response to the Great Recession.
I am not so bullish on Europe and America. In both cases, the underlying problem is insufficient aggregate demand. The ultimate irony is that there are simultaneously excess capacity and vast unmet needs – and policies that could restore growth by using the former to address the latter.
Both the US and Europe, for instance, must retrofit their economies to address the challenges of global warming. There are feasible policies that would work within long-term budget constraints. The problem is politics: in the US, the Republican Party would rather see President Barack Obama fail than the economy succeed. In Europe, 27 countries with different interests and perspectives are pulling in different directions, without enough solidarity to compensate. The bailout packages are, in this light, impressive achievements.
In both Europe and America, the free-market ideology that allowed asset bubbles to grow unfettered – markets always know best, so government must not intervene – now ties policymakers’ hands in designing effective responses to the crisis. One might have thought that the crisis itself would undermine confidence in that ideology. Instead, it has resurfaced to drag governments and economies down the sinkhole of austerity.
If politics is the problem in Europe and America, only political changes are likely to restore them to growth. Or else they can wait until the overhang of excess capacity diminishes, capital goods become obsolete, and the economy’s internal restorative forces work their gradual magic. Either way, victory is not around the corner.PROJECT SYNDICATE
Joseph E. Stiglitz