Monday, January 21, 2019 04:23 PM / IMF
Softening Momentum, High Uncertainty
The global economy continues to expand, but third-quarter growth has disappointed in some economies. Idiosyncratic factors (new fuel emission standards in Germany, natural disasters in Japan) weighed on activity in large economies. But these developments occurred against a backdrop of weakening financial market sentiment, trade policy uncertainty, and concerns about China’s outlook. While the December 1 announcement that tariff hikes have been put on hold for 90 days in the US-China trade dispute is welcome, the possibility of tensions resurfacing in the spring casts a shadow over global economic prospects.
High-frequency data signal subdued momentum in the fourth quarter. Outside the United States, industrial production has decelerated, particularly of capital goods. Global trade growth has slowed to well below 2017 averages. The true underlying impetus could be even weaker than the data indicate, as the headline numbers may have been lifted by import front-loading ahead of tariff hikes, as well as by an uptick in tech exports with the launch of new products. Consistent with this interpretation, purchasing managers’ indices, notably in the category of new orders, point to less buoyant expectations of future activity.
Commodities and inflation. Crude oil prices have been volatile since August, reflecting supply influences, including US policy on Iranian oil exports and, more recently, fears of softening global demand. As of early January, crude oil prices stood at around $55 a barrel, and markets expected prices to remain broadly at that level over the next 4–5 years. Prices of metals and agricultural commodities have softened slightly since August, in part due to subdued demand from China. Consumer price inflation has generally remained contained in recent months in advanced economies but has inched up in the United States, where above-trend growth continues. Among emerging market economies, inflationary pressures are easing with the drop in oil prices. For some, this easing has been partially offset by the passthrough of currency depreciations to domestic prices.
Financial conditions in advanced economies have tightened since the fall. Equity valuations—which were stretched in some countries—have been pared back with diminished optimism about earnings prospects amid escalating trade tensions and expectations of slower global growth. Concerns over a US government shutdown further weighed on financial sector sentiment toward year-end. Major central banks also appear to be adopting a more cautious approach. While the US Federal Reserve raised the target range for the federal funds rate to 2.25–2.50 percent in December, it signaled a more gradual pace of rate hikes in 2019 and 2020. In line with earlier communication, the European Central Bank ended its net asset purchases in December. However, it also confirmed that monetary policy would remain amply accommodative, with no increase in policy rates until at least summer 2019, and full reinvestment of maturing securities continuing well past the first rate hike. Increasing risk aversion, together with deteriorating sentiment about growth prospects and shifts in policy expectations, have contributed to a drop in sovereign yields—notably for US Treasuries, German bunds, and UK gilts. Among euro area economies, Italian sovereign spreads have declined from their peak in mid-October on a resolution of the budget standoff with the European Commission, but remain elevated at 270 basis points as of January 7. Spreads for other euro area economies have remained largely unchanged over this period. Beyond sovereign securities, credit spreads widened for US corporate bonds, reflecting lessened optimism and energy sector concerns owing to lower oil prices.
Financial conditions in emerging markets have tightened modestly since the fall, with notable differentiation based on country-specific factors. Emerging market equity indices have sold off over this period, in a context of rising trade tensions and higher risk aversion. Concerns about inflationary effects from earlier oil price increases and, in some cases, closing output gaps or passthrough from currency depreciation have led central banks in many emerging market economies (Chile, Indonesia, Mexico, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Thailand) to raise policy rates since the fall. By contrast, central banks in China and India maintained policy rates on hold and acted to ease domestic funding conditions (by lowering reserve requirements for banks and providing liquidity to non-bank financial companies, respectively). As of early January, with some notable exceptions (e.g., Mexico, Pakistan), emerging market governments generally face lower domestic-currency long-term yields than in August-September. Foreign-currency sovereign credit spreads have edged up for most countries and risen substantially for some frontier markets.
Capital flows and exchange rates. With investors generally lowering exposure to riskier assets, emerging market economies experienced net capital outflows in the third quarter of 2018. As of early January, the US dollar remains broadly unchanged in real effective terms relative to September, the euro has weakened by about 2 percent amid slower growth and concerns about Italy, and the pound has depreciated about 2 percent as Brexit-related uncertainty increased. In contrast, the Japanese yen has appreciated by about 3 percent, on higher risk aversion. Several emerging market currencies—including the Turkish lira, the Argentine peso, the Brazilian real, the South African rand, the Indian rupee, and the Indonesian rupiah—have staged recoveries from their 2018 valuation lows last August-September.
The assumptions about tariffs, policy stances, and financial conditions underpinning the forecast are broadly similar to those in the last WEO.
The baseline forecast incorporates the US tariffs announced through September 2018 and retaliatory measures. For the United States, these include tariffs on solar panels, washing machines, aluminum, and steel announced in the first half of 2018; a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion worth of imports from China, and a 10 percent tariff on an additional $200 billion of imports from China, with the latter rising to 25 percent after the current 90-day “truce” ends on March 1, 2019. For China, the forecast incorporates tariffs ranging from 5 to 10 percent on $60 billion of imports from the United States.
Average oil prices are projected at just below $60 per barrel in 2019 and 2020 (down from about $69 and $66, respectively, in the last WEO). Metals prices are expected to decrease 7.4 percent year-over-year in 2019 (a deeper decline than anticipated last October), and to remain roughly unchanged in 2020. Price forecasts for most major agricultural commodities have been revised modestly downwards.
Global Growth to Slow in 2019
Global growth in 2018 is estimated to be 3.7 percent, as it was last fall, but signs of a slowdown in the second half of 2018 have led to downward revisions for several economies.
Weakness in the second half of 2018 will carry over to coming quarters, with global growth projected to decline to 3.5 percent in 2019 before picking up slightly to 3.6 percent in 2020 (0.2 percentage point and 0.1 percentage point lower, respectively, than in the previous WEO). This growth pattern reflects a persistent decline in the growth rate of advanced economies from above-trend levels—occurring more rapidly than previously anticipated—together with a temporary decline in the growth rate for emerging market and developing economies in 2019, reflecting contractions in Argentina and Turkey, as well as the impact of trade actions on China and other Asian economies.
Specifically, growth in advanced economies is projected to slow from an estimated 2.3 percent in 2018 to 2.0 percent in 2019 and 1.7 percent in 2020. This estimated growth rate for 2018 and the projection for 2019 are 0.1 percentage point lower than in the October 2018 WEO, mostly due to downward revisions for the euro area.
For the emerging market and developing economy group, growth is expected to tick down to 4.5 percent in 2019 (from 4.6 percent in 2018), before improving to 4.9 percent in 2020. The projection for 2019 is 0.2 percentage point lower than in the October 2018 WEO.
Risks to the Outlook
Key sources of risk to the global outlook are the outcome of trade negotiations and the direction financial conditions will take in months ahead. If countries resolve their differences without raising distortive trade barriers further and market sentiment recovers, then improved confidence and easier financial conditions could reinforce each other to lift growth above the baseline forecast. However, the balance of risks remains skewed to the downside, as in the October WEO.
Trade tensions. The November 30 signing of the US-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement (USMCA) to replace NAFTA, the December 1 US-China announcement of a 90-day “truce” on tariff increases, and the announced reduction in Chinese tariffs on US car imports are welcome steps toward de-escalating trade frictions. Final outcomes remain, however, subject to a possibly difficult negotiation process in the case of the US-China dispute and domestic ratification processes for the USMCA. Thus, global trade, investment, and output remain under threat from policy uncertainty, as well as from other ongoing trade tensions. Failure to resolve differences and a resulting increase in tariff barriers would lead to higher costs of imported intermediate and capital goods and higher final goods prices for consumers. Beyond these direct impacts, higher trade policy uncertainty and concerns over escalation and retaliation would lower business investment, disrupt supply chains, and slow productivity growth. The resulting depressed outlook for corporate profitability could dent financial market sentiment and further dampen growth (Scenario Box 1, October 2018 WEO).
Financial market sentiment. Escalating trade tensions, together with concerns about Italian fiscal policy, worries regarding several emerging markets, and, toward the end of the year, about a US government shutdown, contributed to equity price declines during the second half of 2018. A range of catalyzing events in key systemic economies could spark a broader deterioration in investor sentiment and a sudden, sharp repricing of assets amid elevated debt burdens. Global growth would likely fall short of the baseline projection if any such events were to materialize and trigger a generalized risk-off episode:
Beyond the possibility of escalating trade tensions and a broader turn in financial market sentiment, other factors adding downside risk to global investment and growth include uncertainty about the policy agenda of new administrations, a protracted US federal government shutdown, as well as geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and East Asia. Risks of a somewhat slower-moving nature include pervasive effects of climate change and ongoing declines in trust of established institutions and political parties.
With momentum past its peak, risks to global growth skewed to the downside, and policy space limited in many countries, multilateral and domestic policies urgently need to focus on preventing additional deceleration and strengthening resilience. A shared priority is to raise medium-term growth prospects while enhancing economic inclusion.
Multilateral cooperation. Building on the recent favorable developments noted above, policymakers should cooperate to address sources of dissatisfaction with the rules-based trading system, reduce trade costs, and resolve disagreements without raising tariff and non-tariff barriers. Failure to do so would further destabilize a slowing global economy. Beyond trade, fostering closer cooperation on a range of issues would help broaden the gains from global economic integration, including: financial regulatory reforms; international taxation and minimizing cross-border avenues for tax evasion; reducing corruption; and strengthening the global financial safety net to reduce the need for countries to self-insure against external shocks. An overarching challenge for the global community is mitigating and adapting to climate change to lower the likelihood of devastating humanitarian and economic effects from extremes in high temperatures, precipitation, and drought (Chapter 3, October 2017 WEO). In a growing and ever more complex world economy featuring new and bigger risks, adequate IMF resources will continue to be a key stabilizing factor in global capital markets.
Domestic policies. The policy priorities across advanced economies, emerging markets, and low-income developing countries remain broadly the same as discussed in the October 2018 WEO.