Who would have thought just 18 months ago that a member of the eurozone, the most elite club of economies in Europe, could have a worse credit rating than Pakistan? And yet this is the case for Greece today, perched on the verge of a debt restructuring; two other eurozone countries (Ireland and Portugal), meanwhile, are already in Europe’s intensive care unit, receiving large bailouts.
And who would have thought that a rating agency would dare question the sacred AAA credit rating of the United States, the sole supplier of global public goods such as the international reserve currency (the dollar) and a financial system that serves as the nexus of international capital flow? Still, that’s exactly what Standard & Poor’s has done: In August the agency downgraded the United States’ AAA status to AA+, citing policymaking uncertainty in Washington and the country’s lack of a long-term plan to deal with its fiscal problems.
And who would have thought that the same country, which is renowned for its flexible labor markets and dynamic entrepreneurship, would experience a persistently high unemployment rate? Well, this is the case for the United States, where unemployment is stuck at around 9 percent, unemployment among 20-to-24-year-olds is a staggering 14.5 percent, and the related joblessness problems are becoming increasingly structural in nature.
There are, of course, several bespoke reasons for these developments. But together, they speak to major realignments that are fundamentally changing the character of the global economy and how it functions. Three things in particular have had a significant influence, and they will continue to shape the world we live in for years to come.
First, too many advanced economies face problems rooted far below the surface, in their balance sheets and in the structure of their economies. This is not just about the unemployment crisis and the rapidly deteriorating public finances that, in cases such as Greece’s, have reached alarming levels. It is also about malfunctioning housing markets, a continued breakdown in bank credit intermediation, and weak political leadership in the midst of messy party politics.
Second, rather than deal with these structural problems, policymakers have preferred to kick the can down the road. As a result, the problems have festered and become more entrenched, and the risk of adverse contagion has risen.
This is most obvious in Europe, where a liquidity approach — involving piling new debt on top of already crushing obligations — has repeatedly been applied to Greece’s debt solvency crisis. This has also transferred massive liabilities from the private sector to Greek and European taxpayers and contaminated previously healthy institutions such as the European Central Bank. It is also the case in the United States, where unprecedented stimulus spending has failed to sufficiently reignite growth and job creation.
Third, several emerging economies have hit their developmental breakout phase, largely undeterred until now by the misfortunes of the developed world. You see this in Brazil, China, Indonesia, and several other countries. In the process, they have gone from strength to strength, so much so that their economies have started overheating at a time when more established countries are languishing. This is new territory for the global marketplace, one in which the less mature countries are more robust and resilient than their advanced peers and are able to grow sustainably at high levels while also strengthening their balance sheets.
Absent a major policy mistake — a lurch toward protectionism, disorderly defaults, or disruptions to the international payment and settlement system, for instance — we should expect these global realignments to continue.
It will take several years for the advanced economies to fully rehabilitate their balance sheets and restore the conditions for high growth and employment creation. In the meantime, income and wealth distribution will become even more skewed, morphing from an economic issue into a sociopolitical one.
The combination of stretched balance sheets and disappointingly slow growth also means that the advanced countries will opt for a mix of approaches to deal with recurrent debt concerns as they continue to de-lever from the age of credit and debt-entitlement. Some, such as Britain, will rely primarily on years of budgetary austerity. Others, like Greece, will succumb to debt restructuring.
Then there is the United States, the economy that anchors the core of the global economic and financial systems. It will initially opt for financial repression — essentially a hidden taxation of creditors and depositors — and attempt higher inflation to address its balance sheet issues. With time, however, it will likely be forced into greater austerity amid noisy political posturing and bickering.
The messier this transition, the greater the risk of undermining the international standing of America’s global public goods. This in turn will challenge a global monetary system built on the assumption that its core — the United States — remains economically strong.
This is an important qualifier for what otherwise would be a far more encouraging outlook for much, though not all, of the emerging world. Look for these countries to continue to close the income and wealth gaps vis-à-vis the advanced countries. In the process, they will pull millions more out of poverty, providing them with greater economic opportunities and better access to education, health care, and nutrition.
As they continue to grow, emerging countries will push for greater accommodation on the part of a global economy that is still overdominated by the advanced economies. Global governance issues will come to the fore. International institutions will be pressured to reform more seriously. And multilateral negotiations will need to be more respectful of the growing strength of the emerging countries.
All this translates into an unusually fluid global economy — and a world in which many established parameters will instead become variables. The sooner we prepare for it, the greater the chance that we are beneficiaries of the transformations taking place, not their victims.