Opinion

Another slow year for the global economy

The factors that dragged down the global economy in 2015 will persist – and in some cases even intensify – in the new year.

By: Date: January 5, 2016 Global Economics & Governance Tags & Topics

project syndicateThis op-ed was originally published in Project Syndicate.

Last April, the International Monetary Fund projected that the world economy would grow by 3.5% in 2015. In the ensuing months, that forecast was steadily whittled down, reaching 3.1% in October. But the IMF continues to insist – as it has, with almost banal predictability, for the last seven years – that next year will be better. But it is almost certainly wrong yet again.

For starters, world trade is growing at an anemic annual rate of 2%, compared to 8% from 2003 to 2007. Whereas trade growth during those heady years far exceeded that of world GDP, which averaged 4.5%, lately, trade and GDP growth rates have been about the same. Even if GDP growth outstrips growth in trade this year, it will likely amount to no more than 2.7%.

The question is why. According to Christina and David Romer of the University of California, Berkeley, the aftershocks of modern financial crises – that is, since World War II – fade after 2-3 years. The Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff say that it takes five years for a country to dig itself out of a financial crisis. And, indeed, the financial dislocations of 2007-2008 have largely receded. So what accounts for the sluggish economic recovery?

One popular explanation lies in the fuzzy notion of “secular stagnation”: long-term depressed demand for goods and services is undermining incentives to invest and hire. But demand would remain weak only if people lacked confidence in the future. The only logical explanation for this enduring lack of confidence, as Northwestern University’s Robert Gordon has painstakingly documented and argued, is slow productivity growth.

Before the crisis – and especially from 2003 to 2007 – slow productivity growth was being obscured by an illusory sense of prosperity in much of the world. In some countries – notably, the United States, Spain, and Ireland – rising real-estate prices, speculative construction, and financial risk-taking were mutually reinforcing. At the same time, countries were amplifying one another’s growth through trade.

Central to the global boom was China, the rising giant that flooded the world with cheap exports, putting a lid on global inflation. Equally important, China imported a huge volume of commodities, thereby bolstering many African and Latin American economies, and purchased German cars and machines, enabling Europe’s largest economy to keep its regional supply chains humming.

This dynamic reversed around March 2008, when the US rescued its fifth-largest investment bank, Bear Sterns, from collapse. With the eurozone banks also deeply implicated in the subprime mortgage mess and desperately short of US dollars, America and much of Europe began a remorseless slide into recession. Whereas in the boom years, world trade had spread the bounty, it was now spreading the malaise. As each country’s GDP growth slowed, so did its imports, causing its trading partners’ growth to slow as well.

The US economy began to emerge from its recession in the second half of 2009, thanks largely to aggressive monetary policy and steps to stabilize the financial system. Eurozone policymakers, by contrast, rejected monetary stimulus and implemented fiscal austerity measures, while ignoring the deepening distress of their banks. The eurozone thus pushed the world into a second global recession.

Just when that recession seemed to have run its course, emerging economies began to unravel. For years, observers had been touting the governance and growth-enhancing reforms that these countries’ leaders had supposedly introduced. In October 2012, the IMF celebrated emerging economies’ “resilience.” As if on cue, that facade began to crumble, revealing an inconvenient truth: factors like high commodity prices and massive capital inflows had been concealing serious economic weaknesses, while legitimizing a culture of garish inequality and rampant corruption.

These problems are now being compounded by the growth slowdown in China, the fulcrum of global trade. And the worst is yet to come. China’s huge industrial overcapacity and property glut needs to be wound down; the hubris driving its global acquisitions must be reined in; and its corruption networks have to be dismantled.

In short, the factors that dragged down the global economy in 2015 will persist – and in some cases even intensify – in the new year. Emerging economies will remain weak. The eurozone, having enjoyed a temporary reprieve from austerity, will be constrained by listless global trade. Rising interest rates on corporate bonds portend slower growth in the US. China’s collapsing asset values could trigger financial turbulence. And policymakers are adrift, with little political leverage to stem these trends.

The IMF should stop forecasting renewed growth and issue a warning that the global economy will remain weak and vulnerable unless world leaders act energetically to spur innovation and growth. Such an effort is long overdue.

 


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.

View comments
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Inclusive growth in the European Union

Why is inclusive growth important and how do the EU’s social problems differ from social problems in other parts of the world?

Speakers: Brando Benifei, Monica Brezzi, Bea Cantillon, Zsolt Darvas, Jana Hainsworth, Stefaan Hermans, Barbara Kauffmann, Dalia Marin, Tim Murphy, André Sapir, Reinhilde Veugelers, Luca Visentini and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: September 29, 2016
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Oct
4
12:30

Potential impediments to long-term investment

How can we encourage long-term investment in Europe? Many factors hinder long-term investment but are there risks involved in reviewing existing regulation?

Speakers: Sophie Barbier, Grégory Claeys, Miguel Gil Tertre, Edoardo Reviglio and Sandra Rigot Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author

Policy Contribution

pc-16-16

An approach to identify the sources of low-carbon growth for Europe

In order to secure growth and jobs, Europe needs a new growth model built on developing emerging sectors with high value added. But in which sectors can Europe grow, and what economic policies would work?

By: Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate Date: September 27, 2016
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Oct
12
12:30

Europe Lab: Competitiveness and inclusive growth

The Europe Lab aims to support the design, launch and implementation of actionable agendas for public-private collaborations to increase competitiveness and inclusive growth in Europe.

Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Alicia García-Herrero
DSC_0160

What does China’s ‘belt and road initiative’ mean for EU trade?

Much has been written about the Belt and Road initiative since Xi Jinping made it Beijing’s flagship initiative in September 2013. There are many interpretations of the initiative’s ultimate objectives, but one objective is clear. The belt and road scheme will bring huge improvements in regional and international connectivity through infrastructure upgrades and trade facilitation across a massive geographic area.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Jianwei Xu Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 20, 2016
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

New global imbalances in the aftermath of the crisis

External imbalances widened again in 2015 after narrowing in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. What are the drivers of these developments and what lessons can policy makers draw?

Speakers: Luis Cubeddu, Zsolt Darvas and Maria Demertzis Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: September 20, 2016
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Nov
3
09:00

Financial Stability Conference 2016

How can we fix the deficiencies in the EU financial system? Bank-state-nexus, business models and the missing level playing field

Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Location: ESMT, Schlossplatz 1, 10178 Berlin
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

Working Paper

WP0516 cover

China’s Belt and Road initiative: can Europe expect trade gains?

The Belt and Road aims to ease bottlenecks for cross-border trade in Asia, Europe and Africa. This paper measures empirically whether the reduction in transportation costs will have a positive impact on trade flows for Belt and Road countries and for EU countries. The authors also explore the possibility that the Belt and Road may eventually go beyond its current objectives towards the creation of a free trade area.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Jianwei Xu Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 5, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Nicolas Véron

The IMF’s performance on financial sector aspects of the euro area crisis

The recently published in-depth evaluation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s role in the euro area crisis highlights important contrasts in the area of financial services. The IMF provided highly valuable analysis and recommendations to the EU on its banking sector and related policies. In individual countries (leaving aside Cyprus and the second Greek programme, not covered by this evaluation), the financial-sector aspects of the IMF’s interventions were highly successful in Ireland and Spain, ambiguous in Greece, and a missed opportunity in Portugal.

By: Nicolas Véron Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: August 29, 2016
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author

Policy Contribution

cover pc 13 16

The IMF’s role in the euro-area crisis: financial sector aspects

Nicolas Véron reviews in-depth the role played by the IMF in understanding the financial-sector dynamics of the euro-area crisis. The IMF was the first public authority to acknowledge the role of the bank-sovereign vicious circle and to articulate a clear vision of banking union as an essential policy response. At national level, the IMF’s approach to the financial sector was appropriate and successful in Ireland and Spain, more limited in the Greek Stand-By Arrangement, and less compelling in Portugal.

By: Nicolas Véron Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: August 29, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Jérémie Cohen-Setton

The fiscal stance puzzle

What’s at stake: In a low r-star environment, fiscal policy should be accommodative at the global level. Instead, even in countries with current account surplus and fiscal space the IMF appears to have trouble advocating fiscal expansion. This also raises a political economy puzzle regarding the persistence of the current policy mix of tight fiscal and easy money.

By: Jérémie Cohen-Setton Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: August 29, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Alicia García-Herrero

China's political agenda for the G20 summit

Chairing the G20 offers China a unique opportunity to set the tone in global economic debates, and the Hangzhou summit is the focus of attention. The author predicts that trade, structural reforms and a bigger global role for China will be Beijing’s three priorities. But how realistic are these goals?

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: August 22, 2016
Load more posts