More than four years after a wave of delinquencies on subprime mortgages in the United States triggered the gravest financial crisis of modern times, the global economy is still reeling from the fallout, with no end in sight. At the beginning of 2011, hopes of a gradual strengthening of the macroeconomic outlook were nurtured by exceptional policy measures, central bank interest rates in major developed economies being either virtually at zero or slightly above, and the balance sheets of the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of England expanding massively to flood the banking system with liquidity.
Yet, one after the other, the economies of all major developed countries stalled in early 2011 following disruptions in the global supply chain from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Fed announcing the end of its second round of ‘quantitative easing’ in the US and the jump in energy prices following the Arab uprisings. Even emerging markets, which had been tightening their monetary policies to counter inflationary pressure, suffered the consequences on their growth rates.
Contrary to their rosy expectations, financial market professionals have come to realize that the emergency fiscal and monetary measures had only temporary effects. The rhetoric of the “soft patch” gave way to the reality of an epochal fiscal crisis on both sides of the Atlantic, and Japan. Stock markets wobbled and after weeks of heightened volatility started a declining trend, which is still firmly in place entering 2012. Concerted efforts by policy makers to bring the situation under control, within the framework of the G20, have so far shown only ephemeral results. Deeper cooperation to reach a long-lasting solution has been elusive.
A growing transatlantic divergence has materialized in recent months and seems to have widened at the turn of the new year. The US economy was gaining traction in the fourth quarter and is entering 2012 on an upbeat note. Gross domestic product growth is expected to be above 2 percent, with monthly private sector job growth having averaged 155,000 over the past five quarters (though some of this has been seasonal and temporary employment). By contrast the Euro area is on the brink of a recession, due to government austerity measures and a credit crunch triggered by anxious banks saddled with suspect sovereign debt and loan provisioning. In the emerging world, Latin America is doing marginally better (for instance Brazil and Colombia), but Eastern Europe is looking very sick, with Hungary in default and mired in a deep political crisis. Asia is somewhere in the middle, but appears to be following more the track of Europe than the Americas; China may be the exception, though economic data there shows progressive weakening, while Japan does seem to have rolled over anew – the much touted ‘reconstruction effort’ recovery is feebler than expected.
In the Gulf, balanced public finances and sovereign backing of the banking system have so far mitigated much of the impact of the second phase of the Great Recession — indeed, thanks to higher energy prices the net effect has been positive. Governments have maintained a steady course, reiterating the objective of developing a diversified economy and broadening employment for the large young cohorts entering the labor market.
Looking ahead, the illusion of a quick fix has given way to the awareness that overcoming the Great Recession will probably take several years: the major mature economies need to undergo a painful process to purge their financial system of toxic assets and reduce the unsustainable level of leverage in their banking system. At the same time fiscal excesses have to be reined in.
Crucially, prospects for 2012 have little to do with economics and a lot to do with politics. In particular the two largest economies, the US and China, will undergo a defining moment almost at the same time. In the US the November presidential and Congressional elections will be the dominant factor driving major fiscal policy decisions.
In China, presumably in October, the 18th Congress of the Communist Party, held every five years, will pick a new Central Committee that in turn will “elect” a new Politburo of about 25 members. For the first time in 20 years, President Hu Jintao and the Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will not be part of it. And when, in 2013, they retire from active politics, the process will have produced the most radical change of leadership in a decade. Combined with the appointment of a new chief executive in Hong Kong and the presidential elections in Russia, the repercussions for Asia could hardly be more momentous.
Earlier in the year France will hold the presidential elections, which might considerably change the equation in the balance of power within the European Union. A new Socialist president will be less inclined to step in sync with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s European stewardship. And the EU will indeed be the major focus because of the delicate battle still underway to redefine the governance of the Eurozone and the EU in general. The Latin profligacy will confront German (and Nordic) austerity in a showdown involving the rewriting of the fundamental treaties and the mandate of the ECB. The process will be neither quick nor painless as the dozens of “summits” held so far on the topic demonstrate.
While the political and electoral dust settles, the prevailing baseline scenario is another year of mild global slowdown, with hopes of a potential positive surprise from the US. Nevertheless, financial markets will remain in high alert mode due to two tail events that, although highly remote, would have such a devastating impact as to push the world economy into a worse recession than 1929. One is the breakup of the euro – which nobody wants but could be set in motion by a snowball effect originating from the default of a major bank – while the other, less talked about, is a collapse of the real estate market in China and/or the explosion of the local government debt, which on the current trajectory is unsustainable. In truth the gravity-defying real estate prices in China have constituted a major concern for years if not decades. But this observation might not be of much comfort: it was also the case for the housing bubble in the developed world before 2007.