Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Global Economy in 2015

Happy 2015 to all my Econoblog readers!  I spent NYE in London by Tower Bridge enjoying a distant view of the spectacular fireworks display (see image on left) that London put on this year ( - but for the first time with a charge for the best viewing spots). Being in London certainly gives you a reminder of how globalized the world has become, as I heard at least 10 languages being spoken in the space of one particular day there. And of course these days the global economy is interconnected as never before with people and funds flowing freely across borders. A few years ago, when we hit the "great recession", there was talk of the reverse of globalization, and although some firms might have pulled back from such a large commitment of resources to international projects and expansion, I believe that this was only a lull, and not a reversal. Today, I was greeted in a British restaurant by a Danish front of house manager, served by a waittress from the Czech Republic and my table was cleared by a Hungarian. This would be almost unimaginable even ten years ago.

The reason why I bring this up is that I believe that the state of the global economy and trends at the global level are very important.  Paul Krugman also emphasized this in his most recent blog (see here) which shows that recent trends have basically transferred income from the developed country working classes to the developing country middle classes (in countries such as China and India). But those are long term trends, trends that will continue slowly over future decades.

Our focus here is what really matters in 2015. In my previous blog posting (see here), I have made the case that oil prices will stay reasonably low for at least 18 months, so that for the most part of 2015 oil prices will not be on an increasing trajectory.  So let's deal with each continent in turn.

Source: Wall Street Journal, Jan 2, 2015
In North America, the Fed has said it will begin to tighten, but will only do so slowly, which means that growth will accelerate here, leaving the Fed further behind the curve, as lower oil prices give a deflationary impulse to the CPI until the end of June.  This will allow the housing market to properly recover, as even with the upward move in interest rates, the amount of the rise will be relatively small, leaving mortgage rates still close to historic lows. In my view, this, coupled with the relaxation of mortgage conditions, will lead to increased demand for mortgages as rental rates are now very high compared with costs of home ownership. That means that although a very modest rise in interest rates will occur, it will still allow strong growth, falling unemployment and a buoyant stockmarket, with the retail and technology sectors doing particularly well.

In Europe, Greece remains the big problem. The "renegotiation of austerity" promised by the leftist party there, Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, has already sparked major fears in Europe of a showdown over the so-called Stability and Growth pact and the economic pain and suffering it has inflicted upon Greece. Although an exit from the euro (or "Grexit") has apparently been taken off the table for the moment ( - perhaps to make the leftist coalition more electable?), there is no reason why it could not be put back on the table once Syriza is in a position of power. That would leave the EU with a very interesting problem: do they make concessions to the Greeks and risk having the Portuguese, Spanish and Italians insisting on similar loosening of fiscal austerity conditions?  Or do they just allow the Greeks to then openly talk about exit from the euro, with all the instability that that would cause. Clearly, until the Greek situation is resolved, the uncertainty in Europe will prevent the euro area from emerging from its economic torpor anytime soon.  This means that the euro will remain under considerable pressure.

On monetary stimulus in the euro area, I think that Mario Draghi will continue to try and talk the euro area out of a mild recession, but there is just no consensus on how to do a really large and effective QE in Europe (despite what the pundits say -see here on this), so that although the limited measures still in place in Europe will continue, and may be expanded, no dramatic new programs will be announced unless things take a serious turn for the worse.  Worse here means either deflation appearing or a Grexit occurring and other member states threaten to leave the euro area. This is not beyond the realm of possibility, given that Germany it appears, thinks that the euro area could cope with a Grexit (see here).

The situation in the UK in particular, will also be rather uncertain in 2015.  Elections will occur in May of 2015, and there is considerable uncertainty as to which party or parties will take power. This means that the pound could depreciate in the first part of the year, and then could depreciate further in the second part of the year if a Labour government is formed, or rebound if some form of Conservative government is elected. The Bank of England will only change interest rates in the second half of the year, depending on how fiscal policy changes after the elections. Nevertheless, the UK should have accelerating economic growth as house prices continue to rise in the London area, and the wealth effect takes hold inducing higher levels of spending.

The chart above to the left shows how the UK has fallen behind both the US and France due to the austerity measures imposed by the Conservative-Liberal coalition government. The trajectory shown in the figure though suggests a rate of growth of income in the UK similar to that in the US has now emerged. Note how weak income growth is in France though. Both Italy and Spain are experiencing worse rates of economic growth, which gives you a picture of how bad things are right now in the euro area.

Done by author: Data sourced from BoJ and FRED

In Japan, Abeonomics has not really yielded results yet, but there are promising signs that with the hefty new QE announced late last year that Japan's economy will finally emerge from the deflationary slump it has been in over the past couple of decades.  Unfortunately though the other half of the sales tax hike should moderate any uptick in growth coming from the monetary side, which means that even though a new stimulus package was unveiled in Japan on Dec 27th (see here), with a public debt to GDP ratio just under 250%, there is really very little room for any more action here. What is more promising is that there might be further monetary stimulus, which in my judgement is still needed to really get us on a path to achieving the Bank of Japan's 2% inflation target.  The chart on the right above shows that in fact although base money has been significantly stimulated by qualitative and quantitative easing (QQE) in Japan, M2 as a % of GDP appears to have now bottomed in the first quarter of 2014 (right hand axis, in %), and so although real GDP growth is still negative (left hand axis in YOY growth in % using seasonally adjusted data), there appears to be dogged determination by the central bank governor, Haruhiko Kuroda, to stimulate the economy by QQE until Japan finally starts moving in the right direction again. In my view perhaps in 2015 the QQE monetary stimulus may finally have some tangible effect, as expectations of the general public and the financial markets begin to change.

As for the rest of Asia, I see the Chinese economy still growing at a rapid clip, but until the euro area recovers (as it is the biggest customer for the Chinese), the Chinese economy will still have some headwinds. India is probably the most interesting place to invest in Asia right now, although of course whether Narendra Modi can actually achieve the reforms that he wishes to put in place, given the fractious nature of democracy in the country, is anybody's guess. But the potential is nevertheless there, with India now starting to emerge out of the shadows I believe that India will begin to catch up with China in terms of its economic growth trajectory.

In the rest of the world, I think Africa's economy will improve in 2015, as will that of South America, given that 2014 has delivered some hard lessons in how governments and political ambitions can often interfere with delivering and then maximizing economic growth.  

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