By Greg Godels
April 30, 2023
Why do the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank– three of the most highly regarded international economic organizations– project a bleak road ahead for the global economy?
Ominously, the World Bank warns of the possibility of a coming “lost decade” for economic growth.
In January of this year, the World Bank dropped its global growth projection for 2023 to 1.7% from its June of 2022 projection of 3%. To put some perspective on the number, during the era of high globalization before the 2007-9 crash, global growth averaged 3.5%. Since the crisis, growth has averaged 2.8%. And just three months after the January projection, the World Bank warns of an entire decade of lowered growth expectations. As quoted in The Wall Street Journal: “it will take a herculean collective policy effort to restore growth in the next decade to the average of the previous one.”
Likewise, the WTO projects the volume of world merchandise trade to expand at only 1.7% this year from the 2.8% average growth experienced since 2008.
On the heels of the April World Bank alarm, the IMF has announced its worst medium-term growth forecast since 1990.
Accordingly, all three major international organizations have offered challenging, if not dire predictions for the global economy.
Clearly, the capitalist ship that has been buffeted by a global pandemic, raging inflation, a European war, and bank failures is taking on water. While there is no reason to expect the ship to sink, serious alarm bells are going off.
The pundits, policy-makers, and economics professors assured us that the orgy of price increases battering household budgets was only temporary, due to disruptions in global supply chains caused first by the pandemic, then by the war in Ukraine. Those promises were made over two years ago.
Since then, explanations have given way to prayer. The policy tools– a bitter potion of Central Bank interest rate hikes– have proven less effective against inflation than promised. The previous long decade of unusually low interest rates encourages consumers to freely use credit when income is under stress, as it is with rampant inflation. As interest rates soar, those same consumers are slow to recognize their exploding debt load from high interest payments, adding to an already deteriorating standard of living. Reliance on credit thwarts the dampening effects of interest-rate increases upon consumer demand.
Media Pollyannas rejoiced over the March Consumer Price Index numbers, with growth down to 5% over the level of the year earlier (the Fed target is 2%). While the drop is significant, the media neglected to mention that they had been persistently reminding us that the Federal Reserve relies on the core rate over the overall rate in its policy decisions. That rate— the core CPI– actually rose in March (its components– core services and core goods– were both up from February). So much for the power of faith.
Thus, the Federal Reserve will likely raise interest rates again in May, further increasing the cost of newly incurred debt.
And why would inflation ease when consumers are still rushing towards Armageddon by continuing to tolerate price increases? Proctor and Gamble, one of global economy’s biggest consumer-product monopolies (Tide, Charmin, Gillette, Crest, etc.) has raised prices by 10% with little loss in sales volume and with growing dollar revenue. P&G has no incentive to stop or slow price increases as long as revenue (and profits) continue to grow. In fact, why would they? They are in business to make money.
Simple as it may seem, that’s the answer behind the “puzzle” of inflation: “‘The only way to explain this in relation to what we’ve seen in some of the commodity price indices for food is that margins are being expanded,’ said Claus Vistesen, an economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics” as quoted in The Wall Street Journal. Yes, that’s price gouging.
It’s not a “wage-price spiral” as corporate flacks like to opine. Instead, as Fabio Panetta, European Central Bank board member, confesses, it’s “opportunistic behavior” capped by “a profit-price spiral.”
Liberal and social democratic economists decry the Federal Reserve’s strategy of putting a wet blanket on consumption to discourage price rises, but they have no alternatives to offer. They are content to leave the management of the capitalist economy to the capitalists, while denouncing their remedies.
Similarly, the once loud advocates of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) are strangely quiet. During the pandemic, the idea of running large, stimulative deficits without fear of igniting inflation became popular. Left-wing pundits thought that they had found a pain-free method of funding social reforms without tapping the accumulated wealth of the obscenely rich– a magical political elixir. The arrival of spiraling inflation has stifled that talk.
If three major capitalist institutions are foretelling economic uncertainty and instability, it is because we are exiting a distinctive era of capitalist restructuring. Associated with the popular term of “globalization,” the accelerating mobility of capital, the opening up of new areas of capital penetration; a revolution in financial instruments; the release of huge new low-wage, skilled-labor reservoirs; modern, efficient shipping techniques; the removal of trade barriers and the streamlining of regulation; new formerly public areas opened to private development; and the adoption of trade agreements embodying these changes are among the more important and novel features of the era that we are leaving.
That era gave capitalism a new lease on life, with growing profits, hyper-accumulation, and vastly expanded speculative investments. Little of that enrichment was shared with the masses, resulting in unprecedented inequalities of income and wealth.
The great economic collapse of 2007-2009 exhausted the vitality of the epoch of globalism– capitalist internationalism– that lasted over two decades. Vast sums of hyper-accumulated capital channeled into riskier and riskier speculation, a process that eventually collapsed from its own arrogance.
Rather than surrender to the inevitability of the “creative destruction” that always naturally follows a crash– the natural process of sweeping away the toxic “assets” left in the wake of a crash– the great financial wizards in the financial centers of New York, London, Paris, Zurich, etc. sought to isolate, protect, and sustain the garbage of the disaster and “inflate” a deflated economy through “creative restoration.”
Popularized by economist Joseph Schumpeter, the term “creative destruction” refers to the wreckage left after an economic crash– the deflated and fictitious “values” associated with bank and enterprise failures, overpriced, unrealized goods and services, lost jobs, bad investments, ruined securities, etc. For Schumpeter and his followers, this destruction was essential for a reset of the economy, a new, fresh beginning, sweeping away the waste products of the crash.
Historically, the pain of a crisis is borne excessively by poor and working people, but the rich and powerful and the corporations are set back as well. The more severe the downturn, the less able the elites are to push all of the consequences onto those less powerful and more vulnerable. And the worse the downturn, the greater the political resistance to business-as-usual.
But after 2007-2009, working people’s institutions were extraordinarily weak, the mainstream party systems offered little advocacy for the victims of the crash, and the policy makers were determined and confident that they could avoid or buffer the period of creative destruction. They believed that they possessed the financial tools that would stabilize and resuscitate the global economy without a period of retrenchment and the accompanying economic setbacks. Central banks spent trillions to buy the worthless “assets” and place them in a lockbox until values could be restored and sold back into markets. And they embarked on an unprecedented decade of free money (ultra-low interest rates) to allow sickly, unprofitable, and marginal enterprises to live on life support and to compete another day. The discipline of the market– of winners and losers– gave way to state intervention to keep everyone in the game.
They only succeeded in postponing the inevitable. Today, the effort to forego creative destruction is failing and global institutions know and recognize that failure with their dire projections.
What will follow the collapse of globalism remains a matter of conjecture.
However, we can see that we are entering a period of growing uncertainty and conflict. The rise of rightwing populism has spawned a strong dissatisfaction with conventional answers and a rise in nationalism and protectionism. Governments in Europe (Hungary, Poland, Italy, the Baltics, etc.) in Asia (India, Turkey, Taiwan, Japan, etc.) have taken a decidedly rightward turn, embracing militarization, sectarianism, anti-liberalism, and nationalism. The US and its allies are no longer the champions of free markets, employing tariffs, sanctions, and other aggressive, winner-take-all measures.
The alliances and the rules of the game that were established in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century are now crumbling. Global leadership is now contested, with the war dangers that ensue. The win-win illusions of globalization are mutating into the voracity of grab-whatever-you-can.
We have not seen in memory a period where the US and its allies simply steal the financial assets of a country like Venezuela or Russia with impunity. All signs point to not a world order, but a world disorder, with alliances coming and going between old allies and old enemies. Turkey can attack Russian planes over Syria and sell drones to Russia to use against Ukraine. Saudi Arabia can assist fundamentalists in killing Russians in Syria and then broker a global oil deal with Russia. Russia can sell weapons to both Peoples’ China and India, as tensions rise between the two. The US can destroy pipelines that offer cheap Russian energy to Germany with impunity, while the UAE sells sanctioned Russian oil back to Germany. And so it goes. Increasingly, the only principle behind international relations is absence of principle.
Understandably, the highly-educated– normally Pollyannaish– minds diligently working for The World Bank, the IMF, and WTO foresee a rough road ahead for global capitalism. The rest of us should take notice.