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TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Sept08/03)
24 September 2008
Third World Network

United Nations: Economic outlook gloomy, risks to South
Published in SUNS #6543 dated 5 September 2008

Geneva, 4 Sep (Kanaga Raja*) -- Uncertainty and instability in international financial, currency and commodity markets, coupled with doubts about the direction of monetary policy in some major developed countries, are contributing to a gloomy outlook for the world economy and could present considerable risks for the developing world, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said Thursday.

This warning came in UNCTAD's flagship publication "Trade and Development Report 2008", which paid particular attention to the situation of developing countries, which remain highly vulnerable to commodity price fluctuations.

The report also highlighted the role of speculation in recent huge swings in commodity prices, saying that such speculation -- which pursues short-term profits at the cost of long-term stability -- and the potential turmoil that could come from abrupt exchange-rate adjustments and shifts in national current-account balances point to the need for rational, calming mechanisms to govern international financial flows and monetary balances.

The report said that the ongoing global financial crisis and the possibility of tighter monetary policies in a number of countries presage major difficulties for the world economy for the remainder of 2008 and in 2009. The bursting of some speculative bubbles and the volatility of commodity prices pose formidable challenges for policymakers, in particular, for monetary policy.

A global depression has to be avoided while headline inflation -- inflation that takes into account rises in food and energy prices -- is still very high. The situation could become even more difficult if the currencies of countries with huge current account deficits come under pressure to devalue, said UNCTAD.

According to the report, in mid-2008, the global economy is teetering on the brink of recession. The downturn after four years of relatively fast growth is due to a number of factors: the global fallout from the financial crisis in the United States, the bursting of the housing bubbles in the US and in other large economies, soaring commodity prices, increasingly restrictive monetary policies in a number of countries, and stock market volatility.

Without strong and internationally coordinated action on macroeconomic policy, a full-fledged global economic recession seems unavoidable, said the report.

Growth in developing and emerging-market economies has been fairly resilient in the first half of 2008, but there is mounting evidence that they cannot escape the global slowdown. Even under benign circumstances in the second half of the year, the pace of world output growth is expected to decline to around 3% in 2008 -- almost one percentage point less than in the past two years. In the developed countries, GDP growth is likely to be around 1.5%.

The short-term outlook is better for the developing world, where growth could exceed 6%, as a result of the relatively stable dynamics of domestic demand in a number of large developing economies. But the fallout from the recession in the developed world and overly restrictive monetary policies in countries with high headline inflation could well lead to a further deceleration of growth in developing countries.

At a media briefing Tuesday, UNCTAD Secretary-General Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi cautioned that world output growth might even drop lower if the situation worsens in the second half of this year. He said that the outlook for 2009 will have to be seen in light of the shadows that are produced by the financial turmoil, the commodity price hikes and the movement in exchange rates. There have been some fluctuations in the exchange rates in a way that has not always been very helpful -- helpful mostly to the speculators.

As for the financial turmoil, he said that the report does confirm that the fallout from the collapse of the US mortgage market and the reversal of the housing boom in various important countries has turned out to be more profound and persistent than expected in 2007 and beginning of 2008. As more and more evidence is gathered and as the lag effects are showing up, we are seeing more and more countries around the world being affected by this rather profound and persistent negative effects from the reversal of housing booms in various countries.

So, the forecast for 2009 will be under this effect, said Supachai. He pointed to the cautionary remark made in the report that there is a strong likelihood of a sharp and prolonged downturn in the world economy.

The report said that although a number of relatively large developing countries increasingly rely on domestic demand, many other countries continue to depend on the evolution of external demand and international commodity prices. Their growth rates also depend on how they are using the higher revenues from primary commodity exports.

Despite a slowdown, output growth in China in 2008 can be expected to expand close to a double-digit rate. West Asia and both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) are the only regions where average rates of output growth are likely to rise compared to the past two years. At about 7%, sub-Saharan Africa is even expected to achieve its highest annual growth rate in more than three decades. However, this acceleration of growth is largely due to higher income from exports of primary commodities, particularly oil, and therefore will be unequally distributed across countries, depending on their trade structure.

Overall, said the report, the financial turmoil, the commodity price hikes and the huge exchange-rate swings are having an enormous impact on the global economy and are casting a shadow on the outlook for 2009.

The fallout from the collapse of the United States mortgage market and the reversal of the housing boom in a number of countries has turned out to be more profound and persistent than was expected in 2007. The shock waves of these events have spread well beyond the countries directly involved, and have triggered widespread uncertainty in the financial markets. A year after the outbreak of the crisis, it remains unclear how long it will last, said the report.

For a large number of developing countries, the outlook depends primarily on future trends in the prices of their primary commodity exports. Although several structural factors support the expectation that prices will remain higher than they have been over the past 20 years, cyclical factors, the end of speculation on higher prices and delayed supply responses could result in a weakening of some commodity prices.

The recent experience with contagion and interdependence in the global economy should be reason enough to review the role of public policy and government intervention in influencing market outcomes at both the national and international level. One of the reasons for the current fragile state of the world economy is the shortcomings in the system of global economic governance, in particular a lack of coherence between the international trading system, which is governed by a set of internationally agreed rules and regulations, and the international monetary and financial system, which is not.

The financial turbulence, the speculative forces affecting food and oil prices, and the apparent failure of foreign exchange markets to bring about changes in exchange rates that reflect shifts in the international competitiveness of countries suggest that there is an urgent need for redesigning the system of global economic governance, said the report.

The meltdown of the sub-prime mortgage market, originating in the most sophisticated financial market in the world, has once again exposed the fragility of today's global financial sector. Instead of reducing risk, the complex financial instruments developed in recent years have served to spread the impact of risky investments across continents, institutions and markets.

"A financial system that every three or four years is subject to a severe crisis that not only hurts actors in financial markets but also has repercussions on the real sector must be deeply flawed."

The report noted that the recent crisis has shown once again that market discipline alone is ineffective in preventing recurrent episodes of "irrational exuberance" and that the market mechanism cannot cope with massive drops in financial asset prices.

The current crisis not only has implications for the prudential regulation of financial institutions at the national level, but also for macroeconomic policies, especially monetary and exchange-rate policies, at both the national and global levels. The last 25 years have been characterized by limited macroeconomic volatility and low inflation in the developed world. This has led several central banks in many developed and developing countries to focus on national inflation targets and domestic short-term interest rates, while allowing other key variables such as the exchange rate, to be determined entirely by market forces.

However, said the report, this policy approach does not take sufficient account of the fact that countries and economies are closely interlinked, and that the exchange rate plays a key role in these linkages. The recent financial turbulence and the unsustainable position of a number of countries with large current-account deficits in all parts of the world have shown that the current framework for monetary and exchange-rate policies generates temporarily profitable opportunities for speculative activities which eventually have a destabilizing effect.

This experience underscores the need for more and better international economic coordination to avoid unsustainable trade and current-account imbalances in the future.

Overall, the major central banks have shown considerable coherence and coordination in their response to the sub-prime crises by providing liquidity to affected banks and financial institutions. But their monetary policies diverge more than ever. The US Federal Reserve has been very aggressive in cutting policy rates, whereas other central banks have been much more timid, and some, including the European Central Bank and the central banks of a number of emerging-market economies, have even raised their interest rates in an attempt to reduce the risk of an acceleration of inflation.

Central banks of countries directly affected by the unwinding of carry trade positions have even sharply increased their interest rates in order to defend their exchange rates. These divergent polices may invite new speculation in foreign-exchange markets instead of calming the system. Hence, there is a strong case for more and better coordination of macroeconomic policies and international surveillance of exchange-rate changes.

The report said that in the past decade, the world has seen an explosion of oil prices for the third time since the end of the Second World War. At more than $140 per barrel in mid-2008, the oil price spiked at a new peak, not only in nominal terms but also in real terms. In the developed countries, the fuel import bill increased from 1.6% of their GDP in 2002 to 3.6% in 2007. With an average oil price of $125 per barrel in 2008, it could reach the equivalent of about 6% in 2008. In developing countries, the fuel import bill rose from 2.7% of GDP in 2002 to about 5% in 2007, and it may reach more than 8% in 2008.

The oil price hike has been accompanied by a massive increase in the prices of several other primary commodities, and this combined price surge has pushed up the CPI (consumer price index) in many developed and developing countries. This has raised concerns about inflation amongst many of those responsible for monetary policy and has encouraged calls for rigorous action by central banks to take preemptive action against a further acceleration of inflation.

In the 1970s, said the report, higher oil prices induced an increase in nominal wage rates, and higher wage rates then resulted in a further increase in consumer prices, as higher wage costs were passed on by employers to consumers. The wage-price spiral ultimately ended in stagflation and rising unemployment, because central banks in the leading consumer countries stopped this spiral through highly restrictive interest rate policies.

The risk that the experience of a combination of galloping inflation, economic recession and increasing unemployment will be repeated today appears to be small, said the report, noting that trade unions in developed countries are rarely demanding exorbitant wage increases, as they have learned their lessons from the past oil crises or have lost negotiating power.

The risk of galloping inflation also seems to be relatively low in the majority of developing countries in light of the behaviour of the key determinants of inflation in recent years. Between 2000 and 2007, nominal wages (or the compensation per employee) increased faster than the CPI in developed countries, and also in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. However, over this period, labour productivity also increased in most countries. As a result, unit labour costs rose, on average, at about the same rate as consumer prices. This indicates a low risk of a wage-inflation spiral.

Thus, in many countries, concerns about inflation and the associated calls for tighter monetary policies may not be well founded, while many observers seem to be underestimating the risk of a global economic downturn, the report stressed.

Following strict inflation targets and tightening monetary policies could indeed turn out to be the wrong strategy, given the fragile state of the global economy. Therefore, consideration should be given to innovative ways of reconciling the objectives of growth and price stability in the face of cost push factors. An assessment of the risks shows that, on average, the risk of economic recession associated with an orthodox policy response is great, whereas the risk of galloping inflation, associated with heterodox policy responses, is considerably overestimated.

Although rising commodity prices have lifted general price levels, most developed economies and many developing and transition economies do not yet face the threat of uncontrollable inflation. Since 2002, there has been an upward trend in the nominal prices of all commodity groups. The surge in prices has been mainly the result of rapidly increasing demand from several fast growing developing economies, in particular China and India, owing to their highly intensive use of energy and raw materials for industrialization, urbanization and infrastructure development.

The rise in commodity prices since 2002 and the slow supply response has resulted in low inventory levels for many commodities, a situation that generally gives rise to increased speculation. Although there is no conclusive evidence of the extent to which speculation is contributing to rising commodity prices so far, there can be little doubt that it has significantly amplified price movements originally caused by changes in market fundamentals.

While it is likely that the prices of most commodities, including oil, will remain relatively high for quite some time, the short-term evolution of most commodity prices will largely depend on the performance of the world economy in the course of 2008 and 2009, said the report.

A recession in the United States alone, which accounts for about 16% of world commodity imports, could have a significant impact on the global demand for commodities, and a downward price trend resulting from changes in real demand could be amplified by speculative sales. This would hit developing countries in particular, as commodities account for a large proportion of their exports and of their national income. The impact would also depend on the extent to which the fast growing developing countries that are major producers of manufactures and services are able to "decouple" their macroeconomic development from the United States.

In view of all these uncertainties, said the report, the case for stabilization measures to mitigate the negative effects of volatility in commodity markets is as valid as ever.

The report also noted that world food prices roughly doubled between January 2006 and May 2008, and they have increased by over 80% since April 2007. The price of maize has risen by 66% since July 2007, while that of rice has tripled since September 2007 and surged by about 160% in the short period between January 2008 and May 2008.

An analysis of world consumption and production data for the last two decades for wheat, maize and rice shows that previous price increases in comparable deficit situations were much smaller than the present one. Thus, recent price hikes cannot be explained solely by underlying consumption and production trends. They are also related to higher fuel prices and transport costs and, to some extent, to dollar depreciation.

Furthermore, today, many food stocks have fallen to historic lows, suggesting that positive demand shocks and negative supply shocks can only be accommodated through sharp price movements. Under these conditions, the effect of speculation is also magnified. It is more than a mere coincidence that the recent price surge started at the same time as the financial turmoil resulting from sub-prime mortgage lending in the US. Speculators, looking for high returns in the short run, may well have sensed strains arising in world food markets and readjusted their portfolios to contain a greater share of commodity futures contracts.

Thus, as the general evolution of global food prices since mid-2007 has been driven by a series of shocks that occurred in the context of increasing sensitivity of global food markets to events in other markets, these shocks had a much stronger impact on global food prices than in normal circumstances. Notwithstanding the recent improvement in the growth potential of exporters of primary commodities, many developing countries will remain highly vulnerable to changes in supply and demand in international commodity markets, as long as progress towards diversification and industrialization is slow.

The share of primary commodities (including fuels) in total developing-country exports plunged to 33% in 2003-2006, from around 73% in 1980-1983. The shift in the structure of exports towards a greater share of manufactures occurred in all developing regions. However, diversification into manufactures has been highly concentrated in a small number of countries, mainly in the newly industrializing economies (NIEs) of East and South-Asia. Excluding this region, primary commodities still accounted for about 51% of developing country exports in 2003-2006, and fuel exports alone for 34%. The number of countries that rely heavily on the export of primary commodities has not changed significantly since 1995.

Commodity-dependent economies are exposed to considerable external shocks stemming from price booms and busts in international commodity markets. The particular reasons for commodity price volatility differ by country and commodity. But in general, sharp price fluctuations are the result of low elasticities of demand and supply in the short term. Speculation also plays an increasingly important role.

Diversification and industrialization are the best means in the long run for countries to reduce their dependence on a few primary commodities, and thus their vulnerability to the adverse effects of commodity price volatility and unfavourable price trends, said the report.

The report noted that market liberalisation and privatisation in the commodity sector have not resulted in greater stability of international commodity prices. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the outcomes of unregulated financial and commodity markets, which fail to transmit reliable price signals for commodity producers. In recent years, the global economic policy environment seems to have become more favourable to fresh thinking about the need for multilateral actions against the negative impacts of large commodity price fluctuations on development and macroeconomic stability in the world economy.

The report added that international price stabilization mechanisms agreed multilaterally between producers and consumers are unlikely to become a political option in the near future; therefore, other measures, which deal with either the causes or the effects of commodity price volatility, are urgently needed.

While the causes of instability in commodity markets cannot be entirely eliminated, regulatory measures that prevent excessive speculation on commodity markets could be an important step to reduce the extent of price fluctuations. Greater exchange-rate stability would also help.

Regarding international measures to address the effects of instability, the report said that a realistic option would be the improvement and scaling up of compensatory financing mechanisms in light of past experiences. Adequate counter-cyclical official liquidity to deal with external shocks should be one of the key aims of a development supportive international financial architecture.

(* This is the first of a two-part article on the Trade and Development Report 2008. The second part on the phenomenon of "capital flows paradox" will appear in the next issue of SUNS.) +

 


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