Thursday, January 1, 2015

For world economy, a year of divergence

First published in The Korea Herald.

As we step into 2015, it would appear that on the back of a U.S. economic recovery, the dark days of the financial crisis are behind us. As the largest economy, accounting for more than one-fifth of global gross domestic product, the health of the U.S. economy has been critical for steady growth in the rest of the world through trade, foreign investment, financial markets and capital flows. Until now.

But, as recent developments have shown, going ahead, there are many more variables that will impact the global economy. Leave aside the fact that the International Monetary Fund has projected the global economy to grow by 3.8 percent in 2015, a little better than the estimated pace of 3.3 percent for the previous year.

Europe continues to deleverage with serious risks of falling back into a recession, Japan’s prospects remain clouded despite “Abenomics,” China’s growth is slowly throttling back, and Latin America and Southeast Asia remain a mixed bag, while India’s growth prospects are up in the air. The health of the world’s important economies is clearly diverging, and to understand this better we need to look at the prospects in all the major economic blocs.

Still miles to go

The world’s largest economy is still climbing out of the deep hole created by the recession with an annualized growth rate of around 2 percent over the past five years. However, over the last few quarters, the pace of growth has picked up and the broad consensus is that the U.S. economy is back on track.

The U.S. economy grew at a much faster pace than initially thought in the third quarter of 2014, with the Commerce Department raising its GDP growth estimate to a 3.9 percent annual pace from the 3.5 percent rate reported previously.

There is no doubt that the economy has hit a pivotal point, with many positive developments ― consumer confidence, the manufacturing sector in an expansion mode, strong corporate balance sheets, firmer global trade, less fiscal drag, a stronger job market and falling oil prices.

U.S. consumers also appear to be in better financial shape, with household debt falling. The fiscal restraint that has held back growth in recent years has more or less ended and the federal budget deficit is now at a consistent level as shown by the slowly declining federal debt-to-GDP ratio.

To top it off, businesses are once again hiring and investing, as a result of which the job market is quickly picking up and wage growth is reviving. With more money in their pockets, it will lead to more spending and fuel even more business expansion. The volatile housing sector is currently in much better shape with the number of foreclosures continuing to fall. Adding to consumers’ purchasing power is the sharp decline in oil prices.

The key to its economic story this year will be how fast the Federal Reserve raises interest rates, and the ensuing market reaction. Tapering of the Fed’s quantitative easing program has already begun, although an actual tightening is likely to take some time. It does appear though that the interest rate will remain near zero percent ― where it has been for six years ― through mid-2015.

With the economy in good shape, everyone is hoping that the global economy will move forward. Of course, geopolitical events overseas, and the domestic political wrangling between the Democrats and Republicans could put a wrench in the works.

Clouds across the Atlantic

Across the Atlantic, except for the United Kingdom, which is experiencing steady growth that will likely continue, the situation in the European Union does not appear too rosy. The eurozone is back in an economic rut with Germany, France and Italy still battling Depression-era levels of unemployment and the threat of deflation.

It appears that the European banking system has never really recovered from the financial crisis. As such, Europe’s slow economic recovery, which began in the second quarter of 2013, remains fragile.

Only recently, the IMF marked down prospects in the three largest economies ― Germany, France and Italy ― which it says are headed into their third consecutive year of recession. The fund warned that the probability of the eurozone reentering a recession has increased.

The German economy grew by 0.1 percent in the third quarter of 2014. Another quarter of contraction would have meant that Germany was officially in a recession. France reported 0.3 percent GDP growth, rebounding from a 0.1 percent decline in the second quarter and thereby avoiding falling back into a technical recession. Italy was not so lucky, with a contraction of 0.1 percent confirming that the economy has entered a technical recession.

The European Commission has observed that the eurozone would need another year to reach even a modest level of growth. The main risk, it has said, is that stalling or partial implementation of structural, fiscal and institutional reforms by member states may result in low actual and potential growth and protracted high unemployment. Moreover, the debt overhang, the investment shortfall in recent years and slowing total factor productivity could hurt growth in the medium term if they are inadequately addressed by structural reforms, resulting in an extended period of low growth. Deflation is another serious threat.

As regards the U.K., although the economy is in a recovery phase, household indebtedness is high and the fiscal position weak. Experts have noted that additional growth may be held back by continued difficulties in generating a trade-led recovery in addition to the austerity measures that will be needed. While the recovering economy is boosting tax receipts for the government, high levels of spending are keeping the deficit high.

U.K. economic growth slowed in the third quarter of 2014, with the economy expanding by 0.7 percent, weaker than the 0.9 percent expansion recorded for the second quarter, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Added to this is the uncertainty posed by the 2015 general election, which many expect to result in a hung parliament. That would be a challenge, more so as its relations with the EU are becoming increasingly strained.

Gloomy situation

Meanwhile, the disappointment continues in Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has emerged stronger after the snap polls, even as the economy entered into technical recession amid growing concerns that the government is failing to pull the country out of decades of stagnant growth and deflation.

Japan’s economy shrank an annualized 1.6 percent in Q3 2014, confounding expectations of a modest rebound after a severe contraction in the previous quarter.

Less than two years into Abenomics ― a three-pronged strategy to pull Japan out of two decades of stagnation through monetary stimulus, fiscal flexibility and structural deregulation ― the program has yet to spark sustained growth. As he currently holds a comfortable majority in the parliament it is likely that he will give a greater push to his policies. It needs to be seen whether the Bank of Japan’s second round of quantitative and qualitative easing will result in substantial boost to the economy.

It is highly likely that Abe will turn his attention to designing a 3 trillion yen ($25 billion) fiscal stimulus package to help to revive growth, but the economy will continue to turn in a subpar performance this year.

Analysts note that the continuation of loose fiscal policy and aggressive monetary easing could cause a loss of confidence in Japan’s ability to maintain debt sustainability. So we’ll have to wait and watch.

Shaky foundation

The situation in BRICS is a mixed bag, and the foundation appears a little shaky.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was reelected by a small margin in the October elections for a second four-year term, even as the economy technically exited recession. However, virtually no growth in 2014, double-digit interest rates and inflation breaching the government’s own target bands all paint a grim picture.

Brazil’s economy officially exited recession with growth of 0.1 percent in the third quarter of 2014.

It is expected that fiscal discipline and growth-enhancing measures will take priority, even though Rousseff pledged further support for subsidies and social programs during her election campaign. A stable government, and a new finance minister operating with a greater degree of autonomy, could just ensure that the framework is in place for a more authoritative and credible response.

Economists have noted that the widening fiscal and current account deficits will require both policy adjustments and market-driven asset price corrections. On the other hand, weaker labor market dynamics, softer Chinese demand, slower credit growth and a failure to advance structural, growth-enhancing reforms are risks that would undermine growth. Stimulating growth while getting the country’s finances in order will take up much of the year. There is no doubt that the Brazilian economy will remain fragile as a new team introduces policy adjustments to build confidence.

Meanwhile, Russia’s energy-dependent economy has suffered a severe economic shock over the past few months, largely because oil prices have tanked. The conflict in Ukraine and the international sanctions have also weighed heavily on the economy, which is forecast to be flat next year. The weaker ruble and Russian countersanctions on Western food imports are likely to push up inflation and hold down household consumption. The ruble has already lost close to 50 percent in value as we enter the new year.

Economic growth in Russia slowed to 0.7 percent in the third quarter of 2014. Falling oil prices and sanctions should continue to be headwinds going forward.

The Russian government, in an official statement that was hurriedly withdrawn, has warned the economy will fall into recession next year as Western sanctions, in response to its role in eastern Ukraine, and falling oil prices begin to bite. Household disposable income is also forecast to decline.

The World Bank stated in its economic outlook that, “In the baseline scenario, investment is projected to contract for a third year in a row in 2015, because of continued uncertainty, restricted access to international financial markets by Russian companies and banks, and lower consumer demand.”

The situation is different for India. Confidence in the economy has soared in recent months under the leadership of its new prime minister Narendra Modi, who appears to be genuinely working to pull the country out of the economic mess brought about by his predecessor. However, there is concern about economic growth, as the pace of reform has been slower than expected. To facilitate rapid economic growth, structural reforms would be necessary, but the ruling party’s weak position in the upper house limits the scope for any major change. Experts note that growth is still uneven and weak overall and remains susceptible to many downside risks.

However, they do agree that, with economic activity buoyed by expectations from the newly elected government, India is benefiting from a “Modi dividend.” Structural reforms related to land, labor and tax would support the economy’s growth. Private investment is expected to pick up thanks to the government’s business orientation, and declining oil prices should boost private-sector competitiveness.

GDP growth in the third quarter of 2014 slowed to 5.3 percent from 5.7 percent in the previous quarter. However, this was better than expected.

As for Asia’s largest economy, China is having trouble maintaining the kind of growth it has become accustomed to in recent years. The most recent readings suggest that its economy could grow at roughly 7.5 percent this year, down from the 10 percent growth it averaged for two decades before the slowdown began three years ago.

As Goldman Sachs pointed out in a recent note, it’s been a bumpy ride for China’s economy in 2014, with multiple growth scares followed by bouts of policy stimulus, and this year will be no different.

“A housing market adjustment, decelerating credit growth and an advancement of difficult structural reforms in areas such as local government debt management and interest rate liberalization, will present continued headwinds,” Goldman Sachs reported.

The real estate sector, of course, remains a key uncertainty, and as weakness builds up it will pose a risk to the economy.

Having said that, on the bright side, the continuous reform and opening-up of China’s economy may help the country transition into a more sustainable and market-driven economy. The government has already started implementing many financial-sector reforms, which are only going to increase this year.

The Chinese economy grew at 7.3 percent during the third quarter of 2014 compared with a year ago, slightly exceeding expectations.

South Africa for its part is battling strikes, higher interest rates, rising inflation and weak demand, which will weigh down its economy. The risk of strikes will remain high, exacerbated by the political power of the trade unions and high unemployment. Sound fiscal and monetary policies, and infrastructure investment may facilitate overall activity, and economic growth could gradually pick up pace.

Last year, a prolonged strike in the platinum sector and other labor actions disrupted the mining and auto sectors. This has hurt business confidence and the impact is still being felt, although economists think growth has a good chance of rebounding.

The GDP in South Africa expanded 1.4 percent in the third quarter of 2014 over the previous quarter.

Recently President Jacob Zuma said that through Operation Phakisa, the country is poised to reach the ambitious economic growth target of 5 percent by 2019. Operation Phakisa focuses on unlocking growth and new jobs in the country’s ocean economy.

A mixed bag

Coming to the ASEAN heavyweights now.

The World Bank has projected that Thailand will generate the lowest economic growth in the region next year because of structural problems in the export sector and unresolved political issues. Domestic demand in Thailand remains weak despite the government’s efforts to boost growth by increasing budget spending. In addition, tourism is being negatively affected by the imposition of martial law, which is not expected to be lifted any time soon. Recently, the government declared that democratic elections, which were originally planned for late-2015, will be postponed to early 2016 as the new constitution will not be ready in time.

Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy grew 1.1 percent in the third quarter of 2014, from the previous three months, and 0.6 percent from a year earlier.

On the bright side, military rule could improve political stability and it is expected that big infrastructure projects will lead to a slight uptick in economic growth this year.

Malaysia is likely to remain on a sustainable growth path. On Dec. 1, fuel subsidies were officially dropped and prices are now linked to global rates. This is the latest in a series of moves designed to trim the fiscal deficit, and comes just months before a new goods and services tax will be introduced.

Malaysia’s economy posted growth of 5.6 percent in the third quarter of 2014 from the corresponding period a year ago, slowing down from the 6.2 percent in Q1 and 6.5 percent in Q2.

Experts have noted that while the government is showing strong commitment to improving its financial standing, there is concern that these measures will put a damper on private consumption in the following year. Weak demand for Malaysia’s commodity exports and falling oil export revenues due to the current global price slump also pose an important risk to growth in the near term.

In Indonesia, the new government led by President Joko Widodo increased the price of subsidized fuel by one-third recently, in a bold move that bodes well for efforts to reduce the fiscal and current-account deficits. It will also free up public funds for infrastructure development and expanded welfare services.

Indonesia’s gross domestic product grew 5.01 percent in the third quarter of 2014 from a year earlier, its slowest in five years.

Future growth will largely depend on whether the country’s new government is able to push through policy reforms. These include boosting infrastructure development, improving regulatory certainties in doing business and reducing the country’s poorly targeted energy subsidy spending.

A tepid and uneven global recovery tempered Singapore’s economic growth last year, which was also affected by the government’s push to reduce a politically unpopular reliance on foreign workers. That has led to a tight labor market and raised business costs. In addition, Singapore saw its fourth antigovernment rally in less than two years, in an indication that Singaporeans are becoming more politically engaged.

The country’s economy expanded by 2.4 percent in the third quarter of 2014, unchanged from the previous quarter.

According to economists, externally oriented sectors such as the manufacturing and transport and storage sectors are likely to slow while growth in the construction sector will continue to be weighed down. However domestically oriented sectors like business services are likely to remain resilient.

Bright Down Under

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has successfully repealed carbon and mining taxes and has concluded free-trade agreements with Japan, South Korea and China. Despite fiscal tightening, the economy is expected to strengthen as mineral export volumes rise and consumers regain confidence.

Australia’s economy, though, grew at a slower-than-expected pace in the third quarter of 2014, at 2.7 percent, underscoring growing concerns about its outlook and calls for the central bank to undertake easing measures.

According to economists, macroeconomic policies are appropriate for the current juncture while long-term prosperity depends on ensuring that structural settings boost all forms of economic activity and promote broad-based productivity growth.

At the same time, lower commodity prices could weigh on profits and wages, while also reducing both company taxes at the federal government level and royalties at the state level. This would in turn constrain consumer spending and business investment, and lead to an extended period of weaker-than-usual growth in public demand. On the whole, however, the prospects are bright.