Global economy: Not alarming but worrying

Oil prices are falling and factory orders are diminishing, reflecting slackening demand for goods

By Peter S. Goodman/New York Times News Service in London
  • Published 3.12.18, 4:32 AM
  • Updated 10.12.18, 11:43 AM
  • 4 mins read
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Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and other US and Chinese leaders at a dinner at the end of the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Buenos Aires on Saturday. AP

Only a few months ago, the world’s fortunes appeared increasingly robust. For the first time since the wealth-destroying agony of the global financial crisis, every major economy was growing in unison.

So much for all that.

The global economy is now palpably weakening, even as most countries are still grappling with the damage from that last downturn. Many nations are mired in stagnation or sliding that way. Oil prices are falling and factory orders are diminishing, reflecting slackening demand for goods. Companies are warning of disappointing profits, sending stock markets into a frenetic bout of selling that reinforces the slowdown.

Germany and Japan have both contracted in recent months. China is slowing more than experts anticipated. Even the US, the world’s largest economy, and oft-trumpeted standout performer, is expected to decelerate next year as the stimulative effects of President Donald Trump’s $1.5-trillion tax cut wear off, leaving huge public debts.

The reasons for this turn run from rising interest rates delivered by the Federal Reserve and other central banks to the unfolding trade war unleashed by the Trump administration. The likelihood that Britain’s torturous exit from the European Union will damage trade across the English Channel has discouraged investment.

None of this amounts to a screaming emergency, or even a pronounced drop in commercial activity. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a think-tank run by the world’s most advanced nations, recently concluded that the global economy would expand by 3.5 per cent next year, down from 3.7 per cent this year.

Yet in declaring that “the global expansion has peaked,” the brains at the OECD effectively concluded that the current situation is as good as it gets before the next pause or downturn. If this is indeed the high-water mark of global prosperity, that is likely to come as a shock to the tens of millions of people who have yet to recover from the devastation of the Great Recession.

Though the slowdown appears mild, it also holds the potential to intensify the widespread sense of grievance roiling many societies, contributing to the embrace of populists with autocratic impulses. In an age of lamentation over economic injustice, and with political movements on the march decrying immigrants as threats, weaker growth is likely to spur more conflict. Slower growth is not going to make anyone feel more secure about the prospect of robots replacing human hands, or jobs shifting to lower-wage lands.

“It’s just going to exacerbate the tensions that have led to the socio-economic and political problems we have seen in the United States and parts of Europe,” said Thomas A. Bernes, an economist at the Center for International Governance Innovation, a Canadian research institution. “Inequality is going to become even more pronounced.”

In Greece, Spain and Italy, the youth unemployment rate is stuck above 30 per cent. In Britain, the typical worker has not seen a pay raise in more than a decade, after accounting for inflation. South Africa’s economy is smaller today than it was in 2010, and now the country is ensnared in recession.

In the US, the unemployment rate has plunged to 3.7 per cent, its lowest level since 1969. Yet so many people have given up looking for work that less than two-thirds of the working age population was employed as of October, according to the labour department. That was a lower share than before the 2008 financial crisis.

“We see a lost generation,” said Swati Dhingra, an economist at the London School of Economics. “There was already wage stagnation and productivity stagnation. The trade war has exacerbated all of that.”

The biggest risk to global growth appears to be that the trade war is, at least in part, working as designed.

Although the US and China agreed on Saturday to further trade talks, Trump has excoriated China as a mortal threat to American livelihoods, accusing Beijing of subsidising exports and stealing intellectual property. He has affixed tariffs on some $250 billion in Chinese exports in an effort to pressure Beijing to change its ways.

This has produced little change in China’s economic practices. It has actually increased the American trade deficit with China, contrary to Trump’s stated aim.

But it has thrown sand in the gears of China’s industrial juggernaut. As of September, China’s rail freight usage, bank lending and electrical consumption had increased about 9 per cent compared with the previous year, down from a pace of more than 11 per cent in January.

China’s growth was already slowing as its leaders seek to transition from an economy powered by prodigious exports, in enterprises that have spewed pollution, towards a cleaner future propelled by domestic consumption. But the American tariffs have prompted multinational companies to shift orders from Chinese factories to plants in other lands, from Vietnam to Mexico.

Given that China is the world’s second largest economy, the consequences of its slowing ripple out widely, helping explain a pronounced drop in factory orders in Germany. American farmers have suffered lost sales as China has responded to tariffs by slapping duties on imports from the US, not least on soybeans. Stock markets and oil prices have plunged in part on fears that China will buy fewer goods.

Much of the dip in American share prices reflects the increasingly embattled state of major technology companies like Facebook, which has drawn public ire for failing to prevent its platform from serving as a primary conduit for hate speech and misinformation. But technology shares have also plunged because many companies, Apple among them, now depend on China for enormous volumes of sales — sales now at risk in the face of the trade war.

A glance at Trump’s Twitter feed reveals that share prices are one of the data points he cares about deeply. As the markets recoil, the Trump administration has flashed signals that it may be prepared to entertain a cease-fire with China to limit economic damage.

But the conflict goes far beyond trade, with hawks inside the Trump administration seeking to inflict harm on China to impede its continued ascent as a global superpower. If that is the mission, Trump may be willing to absorb economic costs as the price of containment.

That take appears consistent with Trump’s growing fixation on the Federal Reserve, which the president just branded “a much bigger problem than China”.

In lifting interest rates, the American central bank has been acting under the accepted wisdom that too much easy money sloshing around for too long tends to produce trouble, from higher prices to financial mischief. Yet the effect of raising rates is to limit American economic growth, hence Trump’s unhappiness.

The Fed’s action has also visited distress on emerging markets. Higher American interest rates have prompted investors to abandon developing economies in favour of safer, more-rewarding opportunities in the US. The changing of the tide has contributed to crises in Turkey and Argentina, while denting the value of currencies and slowing growth prospects from India to South Africa.

The global economy is clearly far removed from the terrifying days of the financial crisis. Yet it never really got its groove back enough to generate impressive numbers of jobs, or put meaningful pay increases in the pockets of ordinary people.

And now, despite all that, leaner times are unfolding.