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Expect the World Economy to Suffer Through 2009
Some optimistic experts are now saying that though this will be a turbulent year for global markets, the worst of the financial crisis is now behind us. Would it were so. We believe that 2009 will be tougher than many anticipate.
We enter the new year grappling with the most serious global economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression. The U.S. economy is, at best, halfway through a recession that began in December 2007 and will prove the longest and most severe of the postwar period. Credit losses of close to $3 trillion are leaving the U.S. banking and financial system insolvent. And the credit crunch will persist as households, financial firms and corporations with high debt ratios and solvency problems undergo a sharp deleveraging process.
Worse, all of the world's advanced economies are in recession. Many emerging markets, including China, face the threat of a hard landing. Some fear that these conditions will produce a dangerous spike in inflation, but the greater risk is for a kind of global "stag-deflation": a toxic combination of economic stagnation, recession and falling prices. We're likely to see vulnerable European markets (Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria), key Latin American markets (Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Mexico), Asian countries (Pakistan, Indonesia and South Korea), and countries like Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic states facing severe financial pressure.
Policy remedies will have limited effect as insolvency problems constrain the effectiveness of monetary stimulus, and the risk of rising interest rates (following the issuance of a wave of public debt) erodes the growth effects of fiscal stimulus packages. Only when insolvent banks are shut down, others are cleaned up, and the debt level of insolvent households is reduced will conditions ease. Between now and then, we can expect further downside risks to equity markets and other risky assets, given the likelihood that markets will continue to be jolted by worse-than-expected financial news.
The U.S. twin fiscal and current-account deficits will rise over the next two years as the country runs trillion dollar-plus fiscal deficits. We're all aware that foreign actors have financed most of this debt over the past several years. During the 1980s, the U.S. also faced the burdens of twin deficits, but relied on financing from key strategic partners like Japan and Germany. This time, the situation is more worrisome because today's financing comes not from U.S. allies, but from strategic rivals like Russia, China and a number of relatively unstable petrostates. This leaves the U.S. perilously dependent on the kindness of strangers.
There's some good news in this interdependence. The mutually assured economic destruction that this relationship implies ensures that China can't simply pull the plug on all this financing without suffering a considerable amount of self-inflicted pain. Reducing its financing of Washington would, among other things, put significant upward pressure on the value of China's currency, sharply undermining its export sector and, therefore, the country's economic growth.
But over time, the ability and willingness of China and others to finance U.S. deficits will diminish as they begin to run fiscal deficits of their own. They'll need to use their financial resources at home just as a tsunami of U.S. Treasury bond issuances peaks.
Politics will make matters worse, primarily because governments in both the rich and the developing worlds are intervening in their economies more broadly and deeply than at any time since the end of World War II. Policy makers around the world are hard at work crafting stimulus packages filled with subsidies and protections they hope will breathe new life into their domestic economies, and preparing to rewrite the rules and regulations that govern global markets.
Why is this dangerous? At the G-20 summit a few weeks ago, world leaders pledged to address the crisis by coordinating their economic policy responses. That's not going to happen, because politicians design stimulus packages with political motives -- to satisfy the needs of their constituents -- not to address imbalances in the global economy. This is as true in Washington as in Beijing. That's why politics will drive the global economy more directly (and less efficiently) in 2009 than at any point in decades. Its politics that is creating the biggest risk for markets this year.
This is part of a worrisome long- term trend. In China and Russia, where histories of command economics predispose governments toward what we've come to call state capitalism, the phenomenon is especially obvious. National oil companies, other state-owned enterprises, and sovereign wealth funds have brought politicians and political bureaucrats into economic decision-making on a scale we haven't seen in a very long time.
Now the U.S. has gotten in on the game. New York, once the financial capital of the world, is no longer even the financial capital of the U.S. That honor falls on Washington, where lawmakers are now injecting populist politics into economics decisions. Companies and sectors that should be left to drown are being floated lifeboats. This drama is also playing out across Europe and Asia. As engines of economic growth, Shanghai is losing ground to Beijing, Mumbai to Delhi, and Dubai to Abu Dhabi.
Global markets will also face the more traditional forms of political risk in 2009. Militancy in an increasingly unstable and financially fragile Pakistan will continue to spill across borders into Afghanistan and India. National elections in Israel and Iran risk bringing the international conflict over Iran's nuclear program to a boil, injecting new volatility into oil markets. The impact of the financial crisis on Russia's economy could produce significant levels of unrest across the country. And Iraq may face renewed civil violence, as recently dormant militia groups compete to fill the vacuum left by departing U.S. troops.
The world's first global recession is just getting started.
Mr. Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, is co-author of the forthcoming book "The Fat Tail: The Power of Political Knowledge for Strategic Investing" (Oxford University Press). Mr. Roubini is a professor of economics at New York University's Stern School of Business and chairman of RGE Monitor.