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Green Shoots or Yellow Weeds?

New York – Recent data suggest that the rate of contraction in the world economy may be slowing. But hopes that “green shoots” of recovery may be springing up have been dashed by plenty of yellow weeds. Recent data on employment, retail sales, industrial production, and housing in the United States remain very weak; Europe’s first quarter GDP growth data is dismal; Japan’s economy is still comatose; and even China – which is recovering – has very weak exports. Thus, the consensus view that the global economy will soon bottom out has proven – once again – to be overly optimistic.

After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the global financial system nearly melted down and the world economy went into free fall. Indeed, the rate of economic contraction in the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009 reached near-depression levels.

At that point, global policymakers got religion and started to use most of the weapons in their arsenal: vast fiscal-policy easing; conventional and unconventional monetary expansion; trillions of dollars in liquidity support, recapitalization, guarantees, and insurance to stem the liquidity and credit crunch; and, finally, massive support to emerging-market economies. In the last two months alone, one can count more than 150 different policy interventions around the world.

This policy equivalent of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s doctrine of “overwhelming force,” together with the sharp contraction of output below final demand for goods and services (which drew down inventories of unsold goods), sets the stage for most economies to bottom out early next year.