Walker's World: The bumpy year ahead

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus

LONDON, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- The global economy is confounding the conventional wisdom of the past decade and the coming year will see a remarkable shift.

The developed world, written off by so many as tired, divided and with dysfunctional political systems, will grow. The emergent economies, however, from which so much had been expected, are likely to falter.


The United States, having added 2 million new jobs each of the past two years, will add at least another 2 million and perhaps more as its economy grows at 3 percent or more. Japan will continue to grow on the back of a jaw-dropping exercise in liquidity creation by the government and central bank. And even Europe, led by Britain, will grow a little.

By contrast, the once-fabled BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, will underperform expectations. For China, it is important to realize that the greater the degree of underperformance, the better. The economy has been on steroids for too long, with domestic consumption held down to finance massive investment (and over-investment) in infrastructure and in industrial capacity.


The key element of the Beijing government's strategy for the rest of this decade is to rebalance the economy to increase domestic consumption while restraining rent-seeking and over-investment by state-owned enterprises. By definition, this will mean slower growth, even as the demographic and environmental problems start to bite. China is aging fast and the number of young people coming into the workforce is declining.

The credit market is dangerously overheated, despite government attempts to rein it in. China's own official figures suggest that credit is at least 215 percent of gross domestic product and credit this year has expanded around 20 percent. Bad loans are being rolled over and not recognized on bank balance sheets and the shadow banking system, which has shown great ingenuity in sidestepping government controls, continues to flourish and the property bubble expands with it.

There are other threats to the global economy, starting with the effects of the U.S. Federal Reserve's decision to cut back on its bond-buying program and that to start ending the era of cheap money.

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The first hints that the Fed was about to start tapering off the easy money hit the markets hard in 2013. This helps explain the way that global growth, having been 3 percent in 2012, fell to 2.8 this year. Next year should see global growth reaching 4 percent, so long as the markets don't overreact yet again.


As Deutsche Bank analysts warn in a year-end note, there could be serious risks on the downside: "The rise in bond yields triggered by the change of tack in U.S. monetary policy could turn out to be much more pronounced than we forecast. This could lead to problems especially for emerging markets where credit volumes have grown significantly in recent years. But in Europe, too, besides the vagaries of the comprehensive review of the European banking system by the ECB and EBA the political developments in many member states hold considerable potential for disruption."

That is an understatement. The real threat for 2014 is political risk. On the one hand, the most otiose of such risks, the inability of the U.S. system to function, appears to have receded. After years in which Congress refused to vote budgets, let alone agree a long-term strategy to balance taxes with spending and to allow for future pension and health costs, a modest degree of good sense and compromise has broken out. The world's biggest economy and credit market is showing promising signs of getting its house in order.

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Would that the rest of the world's political systems were in similar shape. The eurozone continues to do the bidding of the German government, whose main concern is to lull its voters into the comforting illusion that the deficits of their European partners have nothing to do with Germany's trade surpluses. This won't end well.


Europeans, like Indians will be voting this year (in fact close to half the world's population will vote this year for something).

The India vote will matter a lot, since India's economic woes can be tackled by government action against subsidies, corruption and staggering levels of bureaucratic inefficiency.

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The vote for the European Parliament won't matter so much, unless (as many in Brussels fear) disgruntled electors cast their ballots in unprecedented numbers for populist Euroskeptics. The main result of this will be panic among the main political parties, which will try to steal some of the populist ideas like controlling flows of migrants from poor European countries.

But in important emergent markets like Turkey, Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia and Nigeria, the political outlook for 2014 is so gloomy that we could be facing a year of living dangerously, with little prospect of the United States or Europe having any inclination to do much about it.

The long-term result of the last decade with its wretchedly inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the United States seems to be washing its hands of its traditional responsibility for global stability. If so, all the economic growth in the world won't save us from some very troubled times ahead.


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