Saturday, November 12, 2011

Storm clouds over Europe, but sun is shining elsewhere

If you're confused about what's happening in the European economies, why it's happening and what it means for the world economy, don't feel you're alone.

The media's great strength is the speed with which they can bring us myriad details about the latest happening in Greece, Italy or anywhere else. Unfortunately, their great weakness is their inability to digest all that information and summarise what it means. The closest they go is in relaying the opinions of 101 supposed experts from Greece, Britain, America or anywhere else. Listen to more than one or two and you're soon none the wiser.

But this week our own secretary to the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, gave us his tight summary of what and why and what next.

He began by warning that ''the global economy is heading down a winding road, with twists and turns ahead that we can't predict''. Following the global financial crisis, it was expected that the global economy would recover at a modest pace as the financial excesses were worked out of national, business and household balance sheets.

Instead, we've seen events occur that threaten to derail this recovery. ''The unfolding saga of the European sovereign debt crisis sees events change on a daily (if not hourly) basis,'' Parkinson says.

''It's not just events in Europe either, with the unprecedented downgrade by Standard and Poor's of their US sovereign credit rating in August providing yet another twist.''

He says there are four ''proximate'' (immediate) causes of the present situation in Europe. The first is the unsustainable sovereign (government) debts of some economies in the euro area, which reflect a period of weak economic growth and big budget deficits. This suggests a need for microeconomic reforms to enhance the country's international price competitiveness (because membership of the euro prevents the country from gaining competitiveness by devaluing its currency) and for more competitive taxation and social welfare policies.

The second cause of Europe's problem is policy responses from governments that are inadequate considering the size of government debt. This raises the fear of ''contagion'' (spreading disease) throughout the European banking system.

Third, the markets' continuing fear that political institutions are incapable of implementing concrete and credible responses to the problem.

And finally, a growing recognition by markets that the economic recoveries in both the US and Europe will be weaker than previously expected, making it even harder to work down their already excessive levels of government debt.

Financial markets around the world have been gripped by uncertainty and aversion to risk because of the prospect of weak global growth and the European sovereign debt crisis. Volatility has become the new norm.

The euro-area leaders' summit late last month finally made some much-needed announcements, but though markets initially reacted positively to these measures - despite the absence of detail - this was very short-lived.

Political developments in Greece and Italy in the past fortnight have further undermined confidence in the commitment of governments to deal with the underlying problems. Europe will remain a source of market volatility until governments' commitments are seen as clear and credible.

Market participants have become very reluctant to hold the bonds of certain governments, which is reflected in the market yields (effective interest rates) participants require to hold the bonds of particular governments.

The yield required on Spanish and Italian bonds, for instance, is about 5 percentage points higher than that for German government bonds. For Irish bonds this ''spread'' got as high as 12 percentage points, but has since fallen to about 7 points. For Portuguese bonds it's 10 percentage points and for Greek bonds it's about 30 percentage points.

Across the Atlantic, growth in the US weakened significantly in the first half of this year. Though it's strengthened a bit since then, the recovery remains vulnerable to external shocks such as a re-intensification of the European debt crisis.

''In the longer term we can have confidence that the US economic system will drive the innovation and investment needed to spur competitiveness and growth,'' Parkinson says. ''The question is whether the US political system can mobilise itself to address its medium-term fiscal challenges.''

But while both Europe and the US face budgetary challenges, there are some crucial differences, he says. Critically, the US has its own currency and monetary policy and a fiscal (budgetary) union between its 50 states.

And with the yield on 10-year US Treasury bonds at about a 60-year low, there's zero pressure from the market to force political action - and a political compromise - on a substantial medium-term reduction in the US budget deficit.

But until such a plan is agreed and legislated, the US will remain at risk of a sudden shift in market sentiment, as Italy has discovered in recent months.

Parkinson remarks that, with economic commentary focused on the short term and the North Atlantic, it's easy to overlook the bigger picture. We are in the midst of a once-in-a-century global economic transformation as the world's centre of economic gravity shifts from the advanced economies to the emerging market economies.

We focus on the rapid growth of China and, to a lesser extent, India. But we shouldn't overlook the strong growth of Indonesia and Vietnam. With a population of almost 240 million, Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country. If we measure it using purchasing-power parity (as we should), Indonesia's economy overtook Australia in size in 2005.

Parkinson also points out that the rise of the developing countries isn't limited to Asia. ''We see a similar story developing in other emerging economies,'' he says.

''For example, a young population and improvements in human capital will likely contribute to an expected doubling in South Africa's gross domestic product in the next 20 years and Nigeria is expected to increase three-fold to displace South Africa as the continent's largest economy by the late 2020s.

''Latin America also continues to surge forward, with Brazil and Chile leading the way - with both expected to double in size by 2030.''

Returning to Asia, despite rapid growth in living standards, China and India remain at the early stages of their economic development. Assuming broad trends continue, China and India's cities will be populated by an increasing wealthy and mobile middle class in the decades ahead. ''On some projections, there will be 1.7 billion middle-class consumers in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020 - more than the rest of the world combined.''

Remember, however, all these projections rest on the economists' de rigueur assumption that there's no way shortages of natural resources or environmental pressures could prevent the global economy from continuing to grow forever.