The Recession Generation*

Posted by JSYL on Sunday, February 07, 2010 in , , , , , ,
By Jane Lee

Everyone is looking for a saviour to pull the global economy through what is expected to be a painfully drawn out recovery, and fast. 

Many hope that the light at the end of the tunnel will be a more stable global financial system than ever before.

“I think a certain amount of realism has now come into what the recovery will actually mean.  But we cannot use the performance of 2004-2007 as a benchmark for what economies are going to get back to.  That is not sustainable,” says S&P Asia Pacific Chief Economist Subir Gokarn.

“Policy responses and the whole design of an exit strategy and maintenance have to use a benchmark of what is actually sustainable,” says Gokarn. 
(Photo: newgeography.com/)

If excessive risk and expenditure and the subsequent plummet in consumer confidence levels fuelled the worst economic crisis in living memory, then private spending is surely the best place to look.

“Global private spending is going to be critical and we’re still at the very early stages of seeing the transition from dependence on government spending to private spending.         

Any wrong move on policy - e.g. interest rate hikes and so on - managing that, keeping that in check is a critical challenge for policy makers,” he says.

The Financial Saviour

But who is the ideal consumer? As the key players that drove the boom shift and those all- pervading financial centres of London and New York crumble, so too does the power parity held by their consumers for the global economy.

“I think we can be very confident that the US consumer, the big 16 trillion dollar monster, is not going to save the world in the next few years,” says Westpac’s global head of economics, Bill Evans.  “What we don’t know is what role the 4 trillion dollar child who is growing rapidly - the Chinese consumer - is going to play,” he says.

Yet the thirst for new altars at which to worship and cities in which to invest big, and first, is palpable.

“There needs to be a leverage point for capital raisings, for administration, corporate head offices simply administer that hemisphere.  And the question then becomes: what city will that be?” says KPMG director and business forecaster Bernard Salt.

China and India, the most populated countries in the world, with the fastest growing economies, are, at face value, ideal candidates. Salt predicts the new financial centre of the world will spread itself across a number of cities across Asia including Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong.

“The centre of gravity of world business for 50 years has probably been the mid-Atlantic.  By the middle of the 21st century the centre of gravity will probably move closer to Australia,” he says.

Yet Evans argues that that Asian economies’ history of protectionist policies predicate that they will not be prepared to save anyone.

“I think they will feel that they’ll worry about going back into the risks associated with the last Asian crisis when too much capital went into them too quickly and they ended up with a big problem and I think that they will fight against that, and that is a big disappointment to me,” he says.

East Meets West

But there are still hopes that Eastern consumers may be able to offset the present weakness in Western consumers and rebalance the global economy and global financial system.

ANZ’s head of Australian Economics and Interest Rate Research, Warren Hogan, views the world’s young people as ready soldiers in the global war against future financial downturn.  He argues we may be able to shift the potential for productivity growth of younger populations from the East to the West.

“India is actually in an incredibly positive phase; we’re already seeing the results of this.  Can we manage to approach these demographic issues from a global perspective?” says Hogan.

“Can the young people of India get into these other economies, help take some of the pressure off the financial position, increase natural rates of growth, give themselves opportunities and so on?” he says.

There are currently five main pools of young people in the world – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and to a lesser extent, Indonesia.  But Gokarn says none of these countries are near developed enough to be able to pull off such a massive feat.

“If you’re talking about the prospects of labour movement and if that could be the last major pillar of fully integrated world trading systems obviously that’s far away. I don’t think that’s at all realistic in the current situation and circumstances,” he says.

“But I do see the prospect of a lot of the manufacturing activity that is now centred in China moving to this pool, provided that these countries are able to do the things necessary to attract their investment with its infrastructure and education etc.  There, I think, is the large gap,” says Gokarn.

Words Into Actions

The task of simultaneously raising global employment will be a difficult one in the current economic climate.

“Until we have that productivity again, the ability of this pool to support at least a baseline level of global consumption [and to produce a workable strategy] is going to be a challenge,” says Gokarn.

Shifting large labour markets will require economic policies that stimulate consumer confidence to these pools.  Hogan says the first step is to introduce domestic incentives that invoke a sentiment of stability in the masses.

“The problem is we’ve got to stop these people saving.  The governments have got to give them a retirement incomes policy, a social safety net and, for the broader development of these economies, transparency development institutional arrangements - all of these things have got to continue to develop and finally fast track, particularly in China,” he says.

Losing battle

But S&P New York Chief Economist David Wyss says that even if an economic saviour could be found, we are fighting a losing battle.

“It’s not going to work.  At best this will delay the problem because even in India the birth rate is going down to pretty much zero population growth levels.  And the dependency ratios are rising much too rapidly,” Wyss says. 

The problem of ageing populations is shared by a number of countries around the world, with the ratio between workers and retirees in the United States - currently at 5:1 – expected to fall to 3:1 in twenty years’ time. The situation is worse for Japan, Italy and France where it will be down to 2:1. 

“Any way you look at it that’s a huge burden on the working population.  There is only one cure for this: figure out how to stop getting older.  And I haven’t figured that out yet,” says Wyss.

If we genuinely want to ‘save’ the global economy from future crises  of a similar magnitude to the one that is only now starting to subside, there might not be any quick fixes.

“The long term issue is restoring balance back to the huge international and domestic imbalances that are in the market that really created this problem,” says Wyss. 

“That’s not going to be easy either politically or economically.  It means learning to live within your means in the case of the United States, and learning to live up to your means in the case of China.  And neither government is quite willing to consider that yet.”

*Title inspired by Bernard Salt's speech by the same name.  This was an article I wrote for Insto late last year that didn't quite make the cut.



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