Saturday, December 30, 2006

World Economy at Risk From Chaos of Bush Regime

The world survived 2006 without a major economic catastrophe, despite sky-high oil prices and a Middle East spiralling out of control.

But the year produced abundant lessons for the global economy, as well as warning signs concerning its future performance.

Unsurprisingly, it brought another resounding rejection of fundamentalist neo-liberal policies, this time by voters in Nicaragua and Ecuador. In neighbouring Venezuela, Hugo Chavez had an overwhelming electoral victory: at least he had brought some education and health care to the poor barrios, which previously had received little of the benefits of the country's enormous oil wealth.

Perhaps most importantly for the world, voters in the US gave a vote of no-confidence to President George Bush, who will now be held in check by a Democratic congress.

When Bush assumed the presidency in 2001, many hoped he would govern competently from the centre. More pessimistic critics consoled themselves by questioning how much harm a president could do in a few years. We now know the answer: a great deal.

Never has the U.S.�s standing in the world�s eyes been lower. Basic values that Americans regard as central to their identity have been subverted. The unthinkable has occurred: an American president defending the use of torture, using technicalities in interpreting the Geneva Conventions and ignoring the Convention on Torture, which forbids it in any circumstances.

Likewise, whereas Bush was hailed as the first �MBA president�, corruption and incompetence have reigned under his administration, from the botched response to Hurricane Katrina to its conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In fact, we should be careful not to read too much into the 2006 vote: Americans do not like being on the losing side of any war. It was this failure, and the quagmire into which the U.S. had once again so confidently stepped, that led voters to reject Bush.

But the Middle East chaos wrought by the Bush years also represents a central risk to the global economy. Since the Iraq war began in 2003, oil output from the Middle East has not grown as expected to meet rising world demand. Although most forecasts suggest oil prices will remain at, or slightly below, present levels, this is largely due to a perceived moderation of growth in demand, led by a slowing U.S. economy.

Of course, a slowing U.S. economy constitutes another major global risk. At the root of the U.S.�s economic problems are measures adopted early in Bush�s first term. In particular, the administration pushed through a tax cut that largely failed to stimulate the economy because it was designed to benefit mainly the wealthiest taxpayers. The burden of stimulation was placed on the Federal Reserve, which lowered interest rates to unprecedented levels.

While cheap money had little effect on business investment, it fuelled a real estate bubble, which is bursting, jeopardising households that borrowed against rising home values to sustain consumption.

This economic strategy was not sustainable. Household savings became negative for the first time since the Great Depression, with the country borrowing $3bn a day from foreigners. But households could continue to take money out of their houses only as long as prices continued to rise and interest rates remained low. Thus, higher interest rates and falling house prices do not bode well for the U.S. economy.

According to estimates, roughly 80% of the increase in employment and almost two-thirds of the increase in gross domestic product in recent years stemmed directly or indirectly from real estate.

Making matters worse, unrestrained government spending further buoyed the economy during the Bush years, with fiscal deficits reaching new heights, making it difficult for the government to step in now to shore up economic growth as households curtail consumption.

Many Democrats, having campaigned on a promise to return to fiscal sanity, are likely to demand a reduction in the deficit, which would further dampen growth.

Meanwhile, persistent global imbalances will continue to produce anxiety, especially for those whose lives depend on exchange rates. Though Bush has long sought to blame others, it is clear the U.S.�s unbridled consumption and inability to live within its means is the major cause of these imbalances. Unless that changes, global imbalances will continue to be a source of global instability, regardless of what China or Europe do.

In light of these uncertainties, the mystery is how risk premiums can remain as low as they are.

With the dramatic reduction in the growth of global liquidity as central banks have successively raised interest rates, the prospect of risk premiums returning to more normal levels is itself one of the major risks the world faces today.

Joseph E. Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate in economics and professor of economics at Columbia University.