This 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.