February 3, 2009 7:08 pm

Why Davos Man is waiting for Obama to save him

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Pinn illustration

Pinn illustration


A hyperpower’s place is in the wrong. This is particularly true when, as last week at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the hyperpower in question is barely represented, at least at the official level. But, truth to tell, the critics of the US – led by prime ministers Wen Jiabao of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia – had an easy story of incompetence and malfeasance to tell.

Yet, however easy it may be to blame the US for the current global economic woes, it is also to the US that the world looks for a solution.

The general mood in Davos was one of gloom verging on despair. The gloom is justified, as the update of the World Economic Outlook from the International Monetary Fund makes plain. Global economic growth is now projected to fall to a mere ½ per cent this year, its lowest rate since the second world war. Output in high-income countries is expected to fall by 2 per cent, the first annual contraction since 1945. Industrial production and merchandise exports are in free fall, as consumers decide they do not need that new car or other goody right now (see charts).

Given the rate at which they have been downgraded, reality could be far worse even than these forecasts. The global downward spiral of uncertainty, caution and cutbacks in lending and spending may continue. Alternatively, policy action may turn the ship around. But that action must be decisive. This is particularly true for the Obama administration, on which so much depends. It has a golden opportunity to reverse the spiral now. After that it becomes part of the problem. So far the evidence is discouraging. It should be far bolder.

Not all news is dreadful. Spreads between expected official interest rates and those on inter-bank lending have fallen sharply; those between US Treasury bonds and risky assets are also easing, though they remain at very high levels. The decline in oil prices represents a huge shift in income from savers to spenders. Since today’s collapse in demand and output is the lagged result of past disruption, better news may lie ahead.

Alas, such optimism must be kept in check. As the update of the IMF’s Global Financial Stability Report notes: “Worsening credit conditions ... have raised our estimate of the potential deterioration in US-originated credit assets ... from $1.4 trillion in the October 2008 GFSR to $2.2 trillion.” Losses are also spreading to many other asset classes and economies as the slump worsens.

Private credit growth is falling across most economies. Trade finance has been particularly affected, with dire results. The flow of private funds to emerging economies is collapsing: according to the Washington-based Institute for International Finance, net private flows are projected to be just $165bn in 2009, down from $466bn in 2008. Central and eastern Europe is particularly vulnerable.

Protectionist pressures are rising rapidly, not only in finance, but in trade. On the former, Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, turned up in Davos as hypocrite-in-chief, bemoaning the rise of the financial protectionism his own government has been practising. On the latter, nothing can surpass the folly of the Buy America provision in the draft US stimulus package. This is an invitation to retaliation. For a country that must export its way out of its slump, this is mad. For one that made an open global economy the keystone of its foreign policy for two generations, it is vandalism. Is this the change we must believe in?

Contrary to views expressed in some circles, notably in the US, depressions are neither good for us, nor unavoidable. What is needed is determined and globally co-ordinated action. The lead must come from the US: it remains the hyperpower; the economic system is one it promoted; and the crisis had much to do with mistakes its policymakers and private institutions made, even if aided and abetted by mistakes elsewhere.

So what are the principles to be followed? I suggest the following:

First, focus all attention on reversing the collapse in demand now, rather than on the global architecture.

Second, employ overwhelming force. The time for “shock and awe” in economic policymaking is now.

Third, make future normalisation of fiscal and monetary policies credible.

Fourth, act in concert. Even the US cannot solve its problems alone.

Fifth, avoid protectionism.

Sixth, strengthen the ability of global institutions to help the weaker.

So how are we doing against these standards? “Better than in the 1930s” is the best one can say. The world desperately needs Mr Obama to take a firmer grip at home and lead abroad. The plans he is now announcing give him a chance of doing the former. The April summit of the Group of 20 countries, in London, is his chance for achieving the latter.

Unfortunately, what is coming out of the US is desperately discouraging. Instead of an overwhelming fiscal stimulus, what is emerging is too small, too wasteful and too ill-focused. Instead of decisive action to recapitalise banks, which must mean temporary public control of insolvent banks, the US may be returning to the immoral and ineffective policy of bailing out those who now hold the “toxic assets”. Instead of acting as a global leader, there is resort to protectionism and a “blame game”.

This way lies a catastrophe. I expect little enlightenment from the rest of the globe: the European Central Bank is allowing the eurozone to collapse into deep recession; Japan is in meltdown; China has at least announced a big stimulus package, but it lacks a credible plan for needed structural reforms; and most other emerging countries can only try to stay afloat in these storm-tossed seas. Their accumulated foreign currency reserves of the 2000s will help. But the resources available to the IMF, even with their hoped-for doubling, are too small to give most emerging economies the confidence they need to risk keeping their spending up.

Decisions taken in the next few months will shape the world for a generation. If we get through this crisis without collapse, we will have the time and the chance to construct a better and more stable global order. If we do not, that opportunity may not recur for decades.

We are living on the cusp of history. The priority is to reverse the downward spiral of despair through overwhelming and concerted action. That will only occur if the US now gives the leadership we need. Mr Obama may even find, as many presidents have found before him, that leading the world is easier and more rewarding than cajoling a recalcitrant Congress. This may not be the challenge he expected. But it is the challenge he confronts. History will judge his presidency on whether he dares to succeed.


Global economy


martin.wolf@ft.com

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