Global Economy Cools, Still Short of a Full Recovery for Millions

The global economy is now palpably weakening, even as most countries are still grappling with the damage from that last downturn.


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 United States, 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 — a think tank run by the world’s most advanced nations — recently concluded that the global economy would expand by 3.5 percent next year, down from 3.7 percent 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 socioeconomic 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 percent. 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 United States, the unemployment rate has plunged to 3.7 percent, 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 Labor 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.

Trump has excoriated China as a mortal threat to American livelihoods, accusing Beijing of subsidizing 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 U.S. 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 percent compared with the previous year, down from a pace of more than 11 percent 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, toward a cleaner future propelled by domestic consumption. But the U.S. tariffs have prompted multinational companies to shift orders from Chinese factories to plants in other lands, from Vietnam to Mexico. Uncertainty over the future has postponed some business.

“There’s now potential for bad news on the trade front to trigger shifts in equity markets and a pullback on investment,” said Steven J. Davis, an international business expert at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

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 United States, 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 U.S. 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 an interview with The Washington Post.

In lifting interest rates, the U.S. 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 U.S. economic growth, hence Trump’s unhappiness.

The Fed’s action has also visited distress on emerging markets. Higher U.S. interest rates have prompted investors to abandon developing economies in favor of safer, more-rewarding opportunities in the United States. 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 European Central Bank has also been withdrawing the cheap money it unleashed to attack the crisis, phasing out purchases of bonds. This has made credit more expensive across the continent, depriving businesses of capital needed to finance expansions. And that has muted once-hopeful talk that Europe had finally transcended the torpor of the last decade.

A populist government in Italy is engaged in a standoff with European authorities over its spending plans, which breach the union’s limits on deficit spending. That has prompted investors to demand higher returns for Italian debt, further squeezing credit. Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum also appear to be cooling growth in Europe. Ditto, Britain’s exit.

Only last year, Spain had emerged from a veritable depression to become a leading example of Europe regaining vigor. But Spain is expected to expand by only 2.2 percent next year, down from nearly 2.6 percent in 2018, according to the OECD. The rest of the 19 countries that share the euro currency are expected to dip from an already weak 1.9 percent rate of expansion to 1.8 percent.

“It’s a bit like watching a heavily overweight bird try to take off,” said Peter Dixon, a global financial economist at Commerzbank AG in London. “It staggers to the end of the runway and starts to take off but never really soars.”

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.

c.2018 New York Times News Service

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