A month into 2024, the consensus forecast for the global economy remains cautiously optimistic, with most central banks and analysts projecting either a soft landing or potentially no landing at all. Even my colleague Nouriel Roubini, famous for his bearish tilt, regards the worst-case scenarios as the least likely to materialise.
The CEOs and policymakers I spoke to during last month’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos echoed this sentiment. The fact that the global economy did not slip into recession in 2023, despite the sharp rise in interest rates, left many experts upbeat about the outlook for 2024. When asked to explain their optimism, they either cited the US economy’s better-than-expected performance or predicted that artificial intelligence would catalyse a much-hoped-for productivity surge. As one finance minister remarked, “If you are not naturally optimistic, you should not be a finance minister.”
The world’s economists appear to share this outlook. The WEF’s Chief Economists Outlook for January 2024 found that while a majority of respondents foresaw a mild global downturn in 2024, most were not overly concerned and viewed the expected slowdown as a healthy correction to the inflationary pressures caused by excessive demand.
Even the disruption to global trade caused by Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea and the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza have not dampened the jubilant mood of analysts and business leaders. The US stock market is at record levels, and even the normally conservative International Monetary Fund revised its growth forecasts upward, with the latest World Economic Outlook describing the risks to global growth as “broadly balanced”. This characterisation marks a significant departure from the cautious tone the IMF typically uses to discourage finance ministers from engaging in unsustainable spending sprees.
In a crucial election year in which voters in dozens of countries – representing half the world’s population – will head to the polls, government spending is already expected to surge. In macroeconomics, this phenomenon is known as “political budget cycles”: incumbent politicians want to stimulate the economy to improve their chances of being re-elected, so they increase public spending and run larger deficits.
Despite the relatively buoyant consensus, recent developments suggest that the risks to global growth are still tilted to the downside. For starters, I am deeply sceptical of the Chinese government’s announcement that its economy grew by 5.2% in 2023.
GDP growth figures have long been a politically charged issue in China, particularly over the past year, as Xi Jinping consolidated his one-man rule by sacking numerous top officials, including his defence and foreign ministers. With the Chinese economy grappling with deflation, falling property prices and weak demand, it is increasingly evident that its economic woes are far from over – and that Xi is determined to control the narrative.
The combination of a prolonged economic slowdown and a collapsing real-estate sector could bring China to the brink of a Japan-style “lost decade”. The obvious Keynesian solution to the country’s slow-moving train wreck of collapsing real-estate ventures and local government debt is to initiate direct cash transfers to households. But, given that Chinese consumers are more inclined to save (in contrast to their spendthrift US counterparts), and that government debt is already rising rapidly, a debt-deflation spiral seems increasingly likely.
Meanwhile, despite dodging a recession in 2023, European economic growth is widely expected to remain lacklustre this year. Moreover, European countries’ persistent unwillingness to invest in their own defence suggests that Donald Trump’s potential return to the White House in 2025 could necessitate a painful adjustment. Alarmingly, European leaders do not seem to be preparing for such a scenario, even as the war in Ukraine depletes their ammunition stockpiles faster than they can be replenished.
Europe is also grappling with the adverse economic effects of Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which uses tax incentives to lure European companies. While the IRA is ostensibly aimed at accelerating the US’s green-energy transition, it is essentially a protectionist trade policy. It may have provided the US economy with a short-term boost, but its long-term consequences could mirror those of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which triggered an international trade war and exacerbated the Great Depression.
Nevertheless, Biden’s trade protectionism is mild compared with Trump’s plan to impose a 10% tariff on virtually all imported goods, a move that could wreak havoc on the global trading system. European countries are understandably rooting for Biden, who – unlike Trump – has repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to reining in Russian expansionism.
Alarmingly, both Democrats and Republicans in the US seem uninterested in cutting government spending, let alone reducing the deficit. Regardless of which party controls Congress after November’s election, a deficit-fuelled spending spree is all but certain. But if real interest rates remain elevated, as many expect, the government could be forced to choose between deeply unpopular fiscal tightening or pressuring the Federal Reserve to allow another bout of inflation.
Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism. As the world confronts yet another turbulent year, policymakers and analysts need to bear in mind that a soft landing means little if the runway is in an earthquake zone.
Kenneth Rogoff is professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University. He was the IMF’s chief economist from 2001-03.
© Project Syndicate