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Bad, or Worse

A global recession is almost certainly on the way.
Economist Staff, The Economist
October 9, 2008

DEPRIVE a person of oxygen and he will turn blue, collapse, and eventually die. Deprive economies of credit and a similar process kicks in. As the financial crisis has broadened and intensified, the global economy has begun to suffocate. That is why the world's central banks have been administering emergency measures, including a round of co-ordinated interest-rate cuts on Wednesday October 8th. With luck they will prevent catastrophe. They are unlikely to avert a global recession.

According to the IMF's most recent World Economic Outlook, published on Wednesday, the world economy is "entering a major downturn" in the face of "the most dangerous shock" to rich-country financial markets since the 1930s. The fund expects global growth, measured on the basis of purchasing-power parity (PPP), to come down to 3% in 2009, the slowest pace since 2002 and on the verge of what it considers to be a global recession. (The fund's definition of global recession takes many factors into account, including the rate of population growth.) Given the scale of the financial freeze, the fund's forecast looks optimistic. Other forecasters are convinced that a global recession is inevitable. Economists at UBS, for instance, expect global growth of only 2.2% in 2009.

The rich world's economies were either shrinking, or close to it, long before September. Recent weeks have made a rich-world recession all but inevitable. America's economy lost steam throughout the summer. Temporarily buoyed by fiscal stimulus and strong exports, output grew at a solid 2.8% annualised rate between April and June. But as the stimulus wore off, the job market worsened, credit tightened and consumer spending slid.

That slide became a rout in September. The economy lost 159,000 jobs, the most in a month since 2003. Car sales fell to a 16-year low as would-be buyers were unable to get credit. The economy may already have shrunk in the third quarter. The rest of the year is likely to be worse. Some economists expect consumer spending to fall at its fastest pace since the 1980 recession. Add in other gloomy evidence, such as a survey of purchasing managers that suggests manufacturing is extremely weak, and it is clear that output is now falling. America's recession may not yet be official, but it is well under way.

In Europe the outlook is equally grim. The British economy, which stalled in the second quarter, is now unmistakably falling into recession. The IMF's forecasts suggest that Britain will see the worst performance of any big economy in the year to the fourth quarter of 2008. The economies of the euro area, too, are struggling badly. Figures released on Wednesday showed that output in the euro area fell at an annualised rate of 0.8% in the second quarter. GDP shrank in the currency zone's three largest countries — Germany, France and Italy. The fourth largest, Spain, barely grew.

As elsewhere, the most recent figures have grown grimmer still. Business confidence has turned down and a closely watched survey of purchasing managers points to a further contraction in activity over the summer months. Even the European economies that are less directly affected by housing busts, such as Germany, have been hard hit. The big hope for the euro area was that German shoppers, relatively free of debt and with scope to save a little less, would make up for weakness in debt-laden economies such as Spain. But household spending in Germany has been falling since the end of last year.

Japan, too, is looking weak. Its economy shrank at an annualised rate of 3% in the second quarter as exports fell, investment slowed and high food and fuel prices dented consumer confidence. Japanese banks are less embroiled in the financial crisis than those in Europe and America, but with other economies falling into recession and the yen soaring, the prospects for Japan’s exports and economy are dark.

This gloomy backdrop explains why the co-ordinated rate cuts were so essential. Even without the financial seizure, the case for cheaper money was becoming abundantly clear. With commodity prices falling sharply (the price of a barrel of crude was down to $88 on October 8th) and economies suffering, inflation risks are evaporating in the rich world. If oil prices remain at around today’s levels, headline inflation will be below 1% in America by next summer. Deflation is an increasing risk. That suggests more rate cuts will be needed, particularly in Europe.

Economist Recession chart

All told, the IMF expects the rich-world economies to grow by only 0.5% in 2009. Its forecast of 3% global growth depends on reasonably robust expansion in emerging economies. The fund expects developing countries, as a group, to grow by 6.1% in 2009, more slowly than their blistering 8% pace of recent years, but far from recession. That would imply an unprecedented growth gap between the rich and emerging world (see chart).

Some emerging economies, notably China, have shown remarkable resilience to the financial storm. Many other markets, however, are being hit hard as investors flee risk. Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate that capital flows to emerging economies could fall to $550 billion in 2009 from around $750 billion in 2007 and 2008. Such a sharp drop would hit economies that rely heavily on foreign finance: more than 80 developing countries are likely to run current-account deficits of more than 5% of GDP this year.


The links in the real economy could also be stronger than many imagine. Exports will be hit as recession grips the rich world. Falling commodity prices bode ill for the countries that produce them, notably in Latin America. The Brazilian real has fallen by more than a quarter against the dollar in the past month. Thanks to more disciplined macroeconomic policies and large cushions of reserves, many emerging economies have strong defences against a rich-world downturn. But they will not escape unscathed. A mild global recession is the best that can be hoped for.




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