The Real Threat to Growth Is in the Middle East, Not Japan

The Independent (London, England), March 18, 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Real Threat to Growth Is in the Middle East, Not Japan


So much is happening that it is quite hard to pick the signals out from the noise. There are, in essence, five huge economic stories running at the moment, or rather, five stories that have or will have huge economic consequences. The first two are glaringly obvious: the Japan earthquake and the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. As a result the other three - European sovereign debt, China's uneven growth and the US recovery - have been rather pushed aside.

Taken together, though, how these five stories develop will determine the shape of global growth for the next five or so years. This matters directly to all of us in the UK because our recovery depends on global growth being sustained. Unlike in the previous (and much less serious) downturn in 2001, our fiscal position is too weak to give us any real headroom for independent action. Our Budget next week matters to us for obvious reasons but in world terms it is eclipsed by vastly bigger events.

You can catch a feeling for the amount of lost ground that has to be made up from the first graph. It shows the output gap for the different parts of the developed world, the gap between the sustainable long-term output and what is being produced. Why only the developed world? Because there is no output gap in the main emerging economies, which are running at or above their long-term trend output. The slack in the world economy is in our part, not theirs.

So what might derail the global recovery? It will not, short of some further catastrophe that does not bear thinking about, be Japan. It should be said again that this is first and foremost a human story rather than an economic one. However there are economic consequences and it is beginning to become possible to quantify those.

The normal economic response to natural disasters is that initially there is a loss of economic output but subsequently that is more than made up by reconstruction efforts. It is important to separate this loss of output from the loss of wealth, the hit to living standards. This is because resources going into reconstruction, putting things back, are resources not available for consumption. But in macro-economic terms the net impact to growth may well be positive.

You can see some estimates for this in the second graph. This shows some rough estimates, made by Barclays, for what might have happened to growth in Japan as it was, and now following the earthquake and tsunami. Net of everything, there is some hit to growth but it is not huge. As for the loss of wealth, Barclays estimates this as likely to be between 2.4 and 3.4 per cent of GDP. The lower figure would put it similar to that of the Kobe earthquake in 1995. I have seen higher estimates of up to 5 per cent of GDP and those are plausible too. But even the top end of these would not change the overall performance of the world economy.

Japanese debt? Much of the cost of reconstruction will be financed by additional government borrowing but again this is quite modest in the context of the economy as a whole. Japan might add debt equivalent to, say, 3 per cent of GDP. But debts are already more than 200 per cent of GDP so the additional burden is really pretty minimal. Japan's debt problem is really worrying, for even with very low interest rates, debt service is taking up 20 per cent of government revenues. But that is a long-term problem, not something for the next couple of years.

There are other issues, including the fall in share prices, the loss of confidence, the impact on the nuclear power industry worldwide and so on.

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