SUMMER is at hand in the world’s big financial centres, but the mood is hardly bright. Stock prices have been sliding for weeks in response to gloomy economic news. Factory output has slowed across the globe. Consumers have become more cautious. In America virtually every statistic, from house prices to job growth, has weakened. There was some respite earlier this week, but only because a few figures—on American retail sales and Chinese factory production—were not as dire as feared.
Globally, growth is at its weakest since the recovery began almost two years ago. Is today’s softness just a sticky patch, or is the global recovery beginning to melt away?
The great softening
The reasons for the lull suggest it should be temporary. First, the tsunami in Japan sent its GDP tumbling and disrupted supply chains, and thus industrial output, around the world, particularly in April. But just as that slump shows up in the economic statistics, more forward-looking evidence points to a rebound. The summer production schedules of American car firms, for instance, indicate that the pace of annualised GDP growth there will accelerate by at least a percentage point.
Second, demand was dented by a sudden surge in oil prices earlier this year. More income is being shifted from cash-strapped consumers in oil-importing countries to producers who tend to sit on their treasures. Costlier fuel has knocked consumer confidence, particularly in gas-guzzling America. And there is still an uncomfortable possibility that further instability in the Arab world will send prices soaring again. Nonetheless, at least for now, the pressure is waning. America’s average petrol price, though still 21% higher than at the beginning of the year, has started to fall. That should boost shoppers’ morale (and their spending).
Third, many emerging economies have tightened monetary policy in response to high inflation. China’s consumer-price inflation accelerated to 5.5% in the year to May. India’s wholesale prices leapt by 9.1%. Slower growth is, in part, a welcome sign that their central banks have taken action, and that those measures are beginning to work. There is no evidence that they have gone too far, even in China, where the worries about bringing the economy down with a bump are loudest. The bigger risk is that nervousness about a weakening world economy leads to a premature pause in the tightening. With monetary conditions still extraordinarily loose, such a loss of resolve would make higher inflation and an eventual crash far more likely.
A growth lull may be just what most emerging markets need, but it is the last thing that any advanced economy wants at the moment. The recovery in the rich world is weak and vulnerable, as recoveries tend to be after balance-sheet recessions. This lull is particularly dangerous because it coincides both with a move away from fiscal and monetary stimulus and with an outbreak of risky political brinkmanship on both sides of the Atlantic.
The shift from stimulus is well under way. Faced with a similar sluggishness last year, America’s Federal Reserve promised to jolt the economy with a second round of quantitative easing: printing money to buy government bonds. But the latest spell of quantitative easing comes to an end this month and the Fed has made clear it has no desire to add to it. The European Central Bank (ECB), meanwhile, is set to raise its policy rate again in July. The budget squeeze around Europe is intensifying, and even in America fiscal stimulus may give way to austerity (see article).
Some of these policy decisions are right. With America’s underlying inflation rate no longer uncomfortably low and declining, it makes sense for the Fed to refrain, for now, from another round of loosening; and, on the fiscal side, the country can probably get by without further stimulus. Some are not. In the euro area, where there is scant evidence of wage inflation and extreme weakness in the periphery economies, the ECB should not raise rates. In America, the big danger is that the row between the political parties over the country’s medium-term deficit leads to short-term spending cuts that are just what the country does not need right now.
The current battle over raising the federal government’s debt ceiling is driven not by careful consideration of the economics but by ideology and brinkmanship. Democrats refuse to consider serious spending reform. Republicans reject higher taxes. Many tea-party types would rather see America’s government default than compromise on spending. The result is a perilous stand-off—and a growing danger that America will have to make drastic short-term spending cuts, or even find itself forced into a technical default.
A parallel dynamic is playing out in the euro zone, where the debate about how to deal with Greece’s debt crisis has descended into a high-stakes stand-off between Germany, which wants the maturities on Greek bonds to be extended, and the ECB, which resists any debt restructuring (see article). The hope is still that Europe’s leaders will come up with a face-saving compromise at their summit on June 23rd-24th. But the longer the confrontation continues, the greater the risk of an accident: a chaotic Greek default and exit from the euro.
This dangerous political brinkmanship could also have a damaging effect by creating uncertainty. Companies are currently sitting on piles of cash because they are wondering how strong economic growth will be. Politics gives them more reason to sit on their hands rather than investing and hiring immediately, providing a boost the world economy sorely needs.
There is a real risk that the politicians’ pig-headedness could lead to disaster. The odds of a catastrophe—harsh fiscal tightening in America, or a crash in the euro zone—may not be high, but neither are they negligible. Though economic logic suggests that the world economy is just going through a sticky patch, squabbling politicians could all too easily turn it into a meltdown.
Source: The Economist