Saturday, 29 December 2012

Dim global growth prospects in 2013

The year 2012 is coming to a close, leaving behind many problems. Most are man-made originating in politics.

Yet, sadly, there are no major political leaders who have the credibility, charisma and strength of character to garner the needed political resolve to set their own nations or the world on the righteous path of sustainable growth.

The re-election of US President Barack Obama helped a little. As I write, even if he is able to persuade opposition Republicans in Congress to a deal to avoid the looming “fiscal cliff” (self-inflicted arrangement involving US$600bil of indiscriminate tax hikes and “sequester” cuts in military and welfare spending, bringing on a 3% reduction in 2013 fiscal deficit), the resulting cuts and taxes will invariably become a drag on growth estimated by most to be at least 1% of gross doemstic product or GDP in 2013.

The downside risk to global growth is likely to be exacerbated by the spread of the ongoing austerity to most advanced nations. Thus far, the recessionary fiscal drag has been centred on the eurozone periphery and United Kingdom. Latest indicators point to it spreading to the eurozone's core (including Germany and France) and Japan.

This only confirms the International Monetary Fund (IMF)'s contention that excessive front-loading of fiscal austerity will “dim global growth prospects in 2013.”

The recent near simultaneous leadership changes in China, Japan and South Korea offer East Asia a fresh opportunity for reconciliation after a period of tension.

The region's three biggest economies now appear to be confidently over the hump following the Tokyo and South Korean elections last week and Beijing's leadership “jockeying” resolved by last month. But, realistically, they continue to face headwinds from a stumbling world economy.

North Korea's rocket launch last week adds to regional uncertainty. So does continuing unrest in Syria and the Middle East.

Critical to the well-being of nations is how they will use this opportunity to get their ties back on track.

Enter 2013

The year 2013 is a big step following a tough year. To me, six events had dominated:

(i) Europe held the world's fate in its unsteady hands for most of the year. It took the European Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi's promise “to do whatever it takes to save the euro” to rid the sting out of the crisis, with a later pledge of “unlimited” bond buying;

(ii) The impact of the war in Syria and Morsi's uneasy presidency in Egypt;

(iii) Leadership transition in four of the world's five largest economies, with “elections” in United States, France, Japan and China ushering promises of new approaches to politics and policy making;

(iv) Serious political disputes in the East Asia seas;

(v) recent massive anti-Putin unrest in Russia; and

(vi) Serious transformation moves in Myanmar.

Today they still continue to dominate. For the moment, it is too soon to tell what their politics will bring in 2013. But one thing is for sure: Global business gloom has deepened since the third quarter of 2012 and is likely to persist.

I think there are some important lessons.

First, investment risks have turned more political. US businesses today have more than US$1 trillion in cash reserves and committed facilities awaiting investment. For them, the nightmare is Washington staying gridlocked, four days before falling off the “cliff.” Hopefully, like before, the “game of chicken ends at the last minute.”

Second, even a small economy like Greece (barely 2% of eurozone economy) can have a material impact on global business sentiment as the “Grexit” drama showed.

Third, the European episode pointed clearly that governments can't cut and grow. One of the important takeaways from 2012 is that it is critical to always focus on the big picture and not be grappled by event risks as these come and go.

As a US civil rights activist once said: “For all its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future.” So as we step into 2013, nations just have to embrace risks and learn to manage and live with them. Scurrying away will not help.

OECD slashes forecast

Paris-based rich nations' think-tank OECD (Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) said in mid-December that its composite leading indicators (CLIs) point to widely differing growth outlooks among its 34 member states.

Signs are of a modest pick-up in United States and the United Kingdom, slowdown in Canada and Russia, and deepening recession in the eurozone (including significant slackening in Germany and France) and in Japan, and possibly Brazil.

OECD's CLIs are designed to provide early signals of turning points between economic expansion and slowdown, based on extensive data that have a reliable history of signalling changes in activity.

Overall, barring worst fears won't come to pass, combined OECD GDP will only rise 1%1.5% in 2013, not much change from 2012, with a modest pick-up to 2%2.5% in 2014.

Not unlike IMF's forecast, OECD growth will only expand if eurozone deals seriously with its political and debt crisis, and the United States finds a timely credible path to avoid the “cliff.”

Absent such actions, world growth would slide into another downturn, with deepening recession in the eurozone periphery, and contraction or stagnation at the core and related advanced nations. What's needed is “very careful policy steering”.

Eurozone manufacturing kept contracting in November for a 16th month. Data show signs of recession extending into 2013 as policymakers struggle to come to grips with the crisis. For businesses and investors, the October Markit survey concluded that in 2013 companies can expect challenging sales and profits, causing many to focus on cost cutting.

Eurozone: ECB slashed its forecast for the eurozone in 2013, signalling another difficult year ahead. Echoing the IMF, it now expects growth of between shrinking at 0.9% to a growth of 0.3% next year (minus 0.5% in 2012).

The level of uncertainty was reflected in its first attempt to forecast 2014 at 1.2%. “Gradual recovery should start later in 2013” (GDP shrank 0.1% in the third quarter of 2012).

As the eurozone slipped into recession for the second time in four years, Germany's growth slowed down to 0.2% in the third quarter of 2012 (0.3% in the second quarter); expectation is for it to expand 0.4% in 2013 (from 1.6% in 2012). However, Germany faces a “favourable environment on the back of expansionary monetary policy”. Expect some revival later on in the second half of 2013, following better-than-expected jump in investor sentiment in December.

Industrial output in Germany fell 2.4% in October (minus 1.6% in September); France reported a 0.6% drop while Spain and Portugal had increases of 1.2% and 4.8% respectively.

“France is facing conditions much worse than Germany it's fast becoming aligned with its southern neighbours of Spain and Italy.” Germany, given its openness, cannot “prosper alone; it has a particular interest in the welfare of its partners”.

Nevertheless, eurozone's peripheral shows little sign of recovery: GDP continues to shrink because of fiscal austerity, euro's excessive strength and severe credit crunch. Already, social and political backlash against more austerity is becoming overwhelming with strikes, riots, violence and rise of extremist politics.

They just need growth. Another year of muddling through only revives old risks in a more virulent form in 2013 and beyond.

The United States: Growth in United States remained anaemic at 1.5%2% for most of 2012. Political and policy uncertainties abound. Fiscal worries are centred on four key areas: taxes, spending, stimulus and borrowing.

The United States needs:

(i) A package exceeding US$1 trillion in revenues over 10 years and set in motion a tax reform process in 2013 to limit tax deductions and lower rates for businesses and individuals;

(ii) A package of spending cuts with less generous social benefits, health spending reductions and cuts in selected mandatory programmes, including military;

(iii) Some short-term stimulus measures, especially on infrastructure projects and on education and R&D; and

(iv) Raising the debt ceiling now.

Already, with continuing impasse even at this late hour, forecasters are downgrading growth expectations for 2013. “It's a dangerous situation,” says Nobel Laureate P. Krugman. “The opposition is lost and rudderless, bitter & angry as it lashes out in the death throes of the conservative dream.”

All this is happening at a time of significant game changes boosting the outlook:

(a) Housing is recovering;

(b) Manufacturing re-engineering is underway;

(c) The third quarter 2012 growth is up 3.1% (1.3% in the seconbd quarter), with consumer spending rising 1.6% and unemployment down to 7.7%, its lowest since 2008;

(d) Pent-up demand is awaiting to be unleashed upon clarity on the future fiscal pathway; and

(e) New future in energy transformation, especially from low cost shale oil and gas.

But first, the daunting task to regain business and consumer confidence needs to begin now. Because of continuing uncertainty, consensus forecast chances of 24% for greater than 3% growth in 2013, same as chances of a recession.

On the whole, they expect growth of 2.3% in 2013, better than three months ago. But, this won't materially help the 12 million jobless. Even by 2014, unemployment is unlikely to be lower than 7%.

East Asia and Pacific (EAP): World Bank's December update places growth in China and developing East Asia at 7.5% in 2012 (against 8.3% in 2011) in the face of weak external demand.

Growth in EAP is still the highest among the developing world and constituted 40% of global growth, but is set to recover to 7.9% in 2013.

EAP (excluding China) will grow 5.6% in 2012, 1% higher than in 2011 due mainly to a rebound of activity in Thailand, strong growth in the Philippines, and relatively modest slowdown in Indonesia and Vietnam. Malaysia held a steady course.

For the entire region, easy fiscal and monetary policies supported growth. Next year, the region will benefit from continued strong domestic demand and the mild expected global recovery, especially in the second half of 2013.

I agree with the World Bank that most EAP nations have retained strong underlying macroeconomic fundamentals and should be better able to withstand external shocks. But many risks remain, including open vulnerabilities in the eurozone that could readily lead to renewed financial market volatility, and global slowdown: The United States falling off the “cliff” resulting in a loss of growth push for EAP; potential hostility arising from political territorial tensions in the Asian seas; and fallout from unexpected developments in Syria and the Middle East.

However, the robust growth in services this year reflects strong domestic support derived from continuing rising incomes. As these trends gather strength, services can be expected to emerge as a new growth driver in EAP.

For the region, latest business sentiment surveys have turned positive for the fourth quarter of 2012, reversing two consecutive quarters of declines, while global uncertainties remained the biggest concern for the region's firms.

China is expected to grow by 7%-9% in 2012 (9.3% in 2011), the lowest since 1999, due mainly to lower domestic demand growth reflecting the 2011 stabilisation measures. World Bank expects China to expand 8.4% in 2013 fuelled by fiscal stimulus and faster effective implementation of large investment projects.

Indications are the recent slowdown has now bottomed out: The third quarter 2012 GDP rose 7.4%, below the historical trend and the lowest in 14 quarters, but its quarter-on-quarter growth reached a 9.1% annual rate in the third quarter of 2012. Growth is, however, expected to slacken to 8% in 2014 as productivity and labour force growth tail off.

Consumer prices will likely continue to fall, averaging 2.8% in 2012, but will rise moderately to 3.3% in 2013 as growth picks up and the lagged effects of easy monetary policies in the second half of 2011 take hold.

China's policy challenge is to balance the trade-off between supporting growth and reforming. But, priority remains at implementing targeted tax cuts, health and social welfare spending and large-scale social housing to support consumption.

What, then, are we to do?

Geopolitical uncertainties will engulf 2013. Consumers, corporate and investors are bound to remain cautious and risk adverse even scared.

But prospects in EAP look bright and the region continues to have ample fiscal space to counter the impact of external shocks.

Much of the global uncertainties are still being generated in Europe. It's messy there right now, but the recovery of Europe will come some day.

Today, the ratio of stock market value to GDP averaged worldwide at 80%. In peripheral Europe, this ratio ranged from 23% in Greece to 38% in Portugal akin to where Asian counterparts were in 1998. Italy's total stock market value is today about the same as Apple's.

R. Sharma of Morgan Stanley made these and other insightful comments in the Financial Times, with this refrain: Is Italy worth no more than Apple? Food for thought.

Look at it this way. We all have to keep the perspective in approaching 2013 in order to avoid our own self-made “cliff.”

WHAT ARE WE TO DO
BY TAN SRI LIN SEE-YAN

 Former banker, Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who speaks, writes and consults on economic and financial issues. Feedback is most welcome; email: starbiz@thestar.com.my.

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