Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

2012 has started with some of the gloomiest economic forecasts for years. Let us not diminish the seriousness of the situation. There is a reasonable chance of a severe deterioration in the world economy this year. However, as a futurist I starting to wonder what it might mean if our fears were to be unfounded. Whilst currently we can only see problems ahead, might we also be looking at grounds for optimism at the same time?

There are three key assumptions to our thinking. First, the Eurozone continues to find a way of muddling through the crisis that it faces. There is a danger that, in wanting a quick and effective solution, we might also lay down a structure that we later come to regret. But just suppose that there are no major problems with the debt retirement programme, there are no major increases in sovereign borrowing costs, no countries are forced to leave the Euro, and that the Euro continues to soften against the US Dollar, then we can hope that the signs of growth will return to the Eurozone by the end of 2013.

Our second major assumption is that the fear of a fiscal implosion in the US does not materialise. What this means is that the prospect of the Presidential Election in November acts as a restraint upon the lunatic fringe in US politics (e.g. America does not return to the Gold Standard, that the US remains plugged into the global economy, and so on), that America initiates only a mild fiscal contraction, and that the Fed. is prepared to undertake monetary expansion to more than compensate for the fiscal contraction. In this case, there are grounds to believe that the US economy will continue to motor along as one of the higher performers in the OECD.

Our third assumption is that China manages to achieve a soft landing. This would imply that growth in GDP just comes off the boil rather than there being a dramatic decline in GDP, that the change of leadership in China can be managed without resulting in a high degree of social unrest, and that the housing market – and the financial system that underpins it – softens rather than crashes. If this happens, then the process of re-balancing the Chinese economy away from exports and towards consumption can continue during 2012.

If these three conditions occur, then we can be cautiously optimistic about where we shall be at the end of the year. The key is the weakening of the Euro against the US Dollar. This will assist the Eurozone in exporting to America, and those economies whose currencies are tied to the US Dollar – mainly the Middle East, Latin America, and the Far East. The recessionary pressure experienced at the start of 2012 is likely to soften commodity prices even further. This could result in the happy coincidence of rising incomes (from export led growth) in conjunction with softening prices leading to rising disposable incomes at the end of the year. If this happens, it will ease the fiscal pressure within the Eurozone by restoring part of the tax base and reducing the welfare bill.

If Europe heads into recovery, then the rest of the world will benefit from this. It has the potential to kick start the global economy, not in a dramatic way, but sufficient enough to cause a change of direction in where the economy is heading. What would help even further is if, as the fiscal position improves, the benefits were to be spent more upon fiscal stimuli, such as infrastructure projects, than upon debt repayment. It is unlikely that 2012 will see the point at which debt repayment makes more sense than a fiscal expansion. This is, of course, a question of balance, and some fiscal expansion will occur naturally, whilst debt is continually being repaid.

If these three assumptions hold, and if there are no major shocks to the system that would blow things off course, then we may well see some light at the end of the tunnel by the end of the year. Although economics is the ‘dismal science’, the economic outlook is never wholly good or bad, and it is up to us to find the upside when everything seems down.

© The European Futures Observatory 2012

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