The global economy: Another year of living dangerously

Published on The Economist, March 24, 2011.

The year without crisis is not to be. First, Arabian upheaval put oil markets on edge. Then earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear accident clobbered the world’s third-largest economy. How much of a setback to growth do these twin crises represent? And how should economic policymakers react to them?

Japan’s share of world output has been shrinking for decades, but at 9% it remains large enough for the hit to the country’s growth to subtract noticeably from global output. Then there are the ripple effects on the rest of the world. Japan is a large—in some cases the sole—supplier of intermediate goods to the world’s electronics and automotive industries, from the hardened glass on Apple’s iPad to gearboxes in Volkswagens. 

Many makers of such parts have had to slow or halt shipments because of damaged roads, power cuts or the loss of components from their own suppliers. The effects have spread well beyond Japan, causing shutdowns from South Korea to Spain. Still, the history of such disasters is that much of that lost production is eventually recovered and reconstruction delivers a fillip to subsequent growth … //

… What should the rest of the world do? In a show of sympathy the G7 joined the Bank of Japan in selling the yen after it spiked dramatically. Such actions should be limited, however. Japan is too dependent on exports and its priority should be stimulating domestic demand and ending deflation, not cheapening the yen. A better way for outsiders to help is to ensure that concerns over radiation in Japanese products do not become an excuse for protectionism.

Avoidable aftershocks

Other central banks face a more complicated task. Even as higher oil prices and hobbled Japanese production reduce growth they add to mounting inflation risks (Britain is now fretting over inflation of 4.4%). But most rich-world economies have ample economic slack, and in several countries fiscal tightening will tug at recovery. Britain’s coalition government has reaffirmed its commitment to austerity with this week’s budget (see article), and America has begun to cut spending. Both the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve should resist the temptation to tighten soon.

The European Central Bank seems intent on raising interest rates next month. That would be a mistake. In the euro zone underlying inflation and wage growth are both subdued and inflation expectations are under control. By raising rates the ECB would strengthen the euro and frustrate the efforts of countries like Greece, Ireland and—the next in line for bailing out—Portugal to grow their way out of their debts.

There is only so much economic policymakers can do about crises that spring from war or nature. In this case, the priority should be not making matters worse. (full text).

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