- Date published:
8:00 am, December 9th, 2017 - 31 comments
Categories: business, capitalism, climate change, debt / deficit, economy, Economy, employment, energy, exports, Financial markets, Free Trade - Tags:
Politics and economies
It’s interesting in 2017 how little effect political destabilisation in Spain, Australia, Germany, and the United States has had on any of their economies. It seems that in many parts of the developed world, we may well continue to see political fragmentation, polarisation, and a gradual fracturing of the global world rule-based system (outside of notable trade exceptions). And yet the share markets are going gangbusters, inflation is nowhere in sight, unemployment in the E.U. and many other blocs is trending down, global poverty continues downwards if not fast enough, and markets and economies largely continue to shrug off political disorder. On that basis, the risk of a substantial short-term setback seems relatively small.
The big exception is the United Kingdom, with its messy and expensive Brexit process. This is likely to continue to weaken business confidence to invest in Britain, and may well weaken London’s core financial services industry as it relocates elsewhere.
The strongest example against economic performance diverging from political management is, of course, China. Chinese President Xi Jinping is in a stronger position than ever, suggesting that effective management of imbalances and more consumption- and innovation-driven growth can be expected.
India also appears set to sustain its growth and reform momentum.
The growth of these economies will continue to pull up others in the region including New Zealand.
A serious challenge looming in the global background is a mountain of debt that makes markets nervous – and that thus increases the system’s vulnerability to destabilizing shocks. Yet the baseline scenario seems to be one of continuity, with no obvious convulsions on the horizon (at some point I will do a review of “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”, which is teaching me a lot).
China is certainly facing up to debt.
But the United States isn’t.
One potential shock that has received much attention relates to monetary tightening. In view of improving economic performance in the developed world, a gradual reversal of aggressively accommodative monetary policy does not appear likely to be a major drag or shock to asset values. Perhaps the long-awaited upward convergence of economic fundamentals to validate market valuations is within reach.
This is why the Reserve Bank regularly tests how much stress ‘our’ banks can take during economic downturns.
Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne property prices may lower, but there’s no current sign of a spike in mortgagee sales that might stress banks. Real estate and drought that decreases dairy production remain New Zealand’s two highest risks, as they were in 2009 immediately after the GFC.
Our fresh Labour-led government is both continuing active cooling of the housing market, and also planning a lot more public borrowing, so some are predicting a shorter term downturn with longer term economic growth.
Cash and Payments
When it comes to technology, especially digital technology, China and the United States seem set to disrupt for years to come. Smaller countries that concentrate research and development on areas such as payment platforms will be well positioned. Such platforms are not just lucrative on their own; they also produce a host of related opportunities for new business models operating in and around them, in, say, advertising, logistics, and finance. Given this, economies that lack such platforms, such as the E.U., are at a disadvantage. Even Latin America has a major innovative domestic e-commerce player and a digital payments system.
In mobile online payments systems, China is in the lead. With much of the country’s population having shifted directly from cash to mobile online payments – skipping cheques, cash, and credit cards – China’s payments systems are robust. We are within a sustained consumer-led revolution in payments.
In November’s Singles’ Day, an annual festival of youth-oriented consumption that has become the single largest shopping event in the world, China’s leading online payment platform, Alipay, processed up to 256,000 payments per second, using a robust cloud computing architecture. China is about to overtake the U.S. in consumer spending.
Inclusion and Exclusion
In the coming years, developed and developing economies will also have to work hard to shift toward more inclusive growth patterns. Here, I anticipate that national governments may take a back seat to businesses, state and local and city governments, (remaining) labour unions, and educational and non-profit institutions in driving progress, especially in places hit by political fragmentation and a backlash against the political establishment. Outside of China, Singapore, or South Korea, I see greater likelihood of business leadership from groups like our Sustainable Business Council than central government.
New Zealand has been well positioned by pivoting its economy towards China, South Korea, India, Japan, and Vietnam, while retaining strong trade links into Europe.
Such fragmentation of the centre is likely to intensify. Automation is set to sustain, and even accelerate, change on the demand side of labour markets, in areas ranging from manufacturing and logistics to medicine and law, while supply-side responses will be much slower. As a result, even if workers gain stronger support during structural transitions (e.g. income support like Working for Families, and retraining options with free study), labour market mismatches are likely to grow, sharpening inequality and contributing to further political and social polarization.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. For starters, there remains a broad consensus across the developed and emerging economies on the desirability of maintaining a relatively open global economy, as in the upcoming signing of the RPTPP.
The notable exception is the U.S., though it is unclear at this point whether President Donald Trump’s administration actually intends to retreat from international cooperation. What does seem clear, at least for now, is that the U.S. cannot be counted on to serve as a principal sponsor and architect of the evolving rules-based global system for fairly managing interdependence.
The biggest test of economic openness is global labour mobility. The long and massive humanitarian chaos from U.S.-led wars has led to global displacement not seen since World War II. The continued test of global labour mobility is whether it only continues to favour a priviliged and skilled few. In New Zealand, the forecast is pretty good, but even a decade after the GFC the forecast for wage growth for most workers is still low.
The situation is similar with regard to mitigating climate change. The U.S. is now the only country that is not committed to the Paris climate agreement, which has held despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal. Even within the U.S., cities, states, and businesses, as well as a host of civil-society organizations, have signaled a credible commitment to fulfilling America’s climate obligations, with or without the federal government.
Still, it’s perfectly rational to be deeply pessimistic about the impact of the world’s damaged ecology taken as a whole, as so much of the global economy remains highly dependent on coal and oil. The Financial Times reports that peak demand for coal in India will come in about ten years.
Australia shows how hard it is to stop coal production, where Germany shows that it’s possible.
Global coal use is flattening, and renewables are quickly accelerating.
Even with upside potential in this scenario, the world is still years away from negative growth in carbon dioxide emissions.
While some classes like private housing still appear as a bubble pumped up by artificial and unsustainable monetary stimulus, other parts of our economy and much of the developed world are maturing into an expansion of economic activity, profits, and employment that probably have many years to come.
No inflation arising anywhere, increased global financial stability, headline unemployment heading for 3.5% here, and Europe, Japan, China, India and emerging markets in a sweet spot of rising profits and low interest rates. Good news for little old New Zealand.
Also, New Zealand’s government has been confirmed as having between $1.4b and $2.1b to spend. The Minister of Finance will set the direction for this next week. That’s some serious supply-side Santa for 2018.
All of this suggests that the global economy will confront serious challenges in the months and years ahead. Looming in the background is a mountain of debt that makes markets nervous and increases the system’s vulnerability to destabilizing shocks. With New Zealand basing much of its consistently narrow export economy on uninterrupted and free water for agriculture and horticulture, it is exacerbating its economic risks in the medium term.
Yet the baseline scenario for 2018 seems to be one of continuity. New Zealand is situated within an economic power and influence shift from west to east, without any sudden change in its patterns of job, income, political, and social polarization, and with no obvious convulsions on the 2018 horizon. Not too hot, not too cold.