The global economy faces its biggest test of confidence since the European sovereign debt crisis as investors fear it’s running out of engines.
Japan and the euro area are throwing up fresh signs of weakness by the day and emerging markets such as China are dragging instead of driving growth. The sense of tumult is being exacerbated by war in the Middle East, the standoff in Ukraine, street protests in Hong Kong and the spread of Ebola to Dallas.
The worry is that five years since the world limped out of recession, central banks have virtually exhausted their stimulus arsenals if inflation and activity keep fading. That leaves the hopes of financial markets riding on the U.S. to resume its historical role as a locomotive robust enough to pull up demand elsewhere.
“The global economy and the markets have a history of traumatic economic events,” said Paul Mortimer-Lee, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas SA in New York. “Psychologically and physically they have not recovered fully and are anxious about a relapse.”
The doubts remained evident across financial markets today. European stocks fell for an eighth day in the longest rout since 2003, oil fell toward $80 a barrel and Treasuries rose. Bonds from Greece to Spain slid while the dollar strengthened.
A Bank of America Corp. survey of fund managers this week showed the lowest optimism in the outlooks for economic growth and inflation in two years, pushing them to increase their cash balances and avoid commodities.
“Investors have huge questions about the world right now,” said David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer at Sarasota, Florida-based Cumberland Advisors Inc.
The latest catalyst for concern was yesterday’s news that U.S. retail sales dropped 0.3 percent in September and wholesale prices unexpectedly fell for the first time in a year.
That added to the drumbeat of disappointing data from elsewhere, which this week alone included the weakest German investor confidence in two years and Chinese factory-gate prices dropping for a record-tying 31st month.
Japanese industrial production tumbled 3.3 percent from a year ago, and U.K. inflation unexpectedly plunged to its lowest in five years. Prices in Israel and Sweden are even falling in an indication of deflation, while euro-area inflation was today confirmed at 0.3 percent in September, the weakest in almost five years.
The epicenter of the economic worries is the euro area, where European Central Bank President Mario Draghi is trying to tackle the weakest inflation in almost five years as investors bet it will deteriorate further amid signs powerhouse Germany is now faltering.
Having pulled the euro-area economy out of its debt panic in 2012, Draghi has sought to boost prices by cutting interest rates to record lows, issuing cheap loans to banks and laying the groundwork to begin buying private-sector assets this month.
That leaves purchases of government debt as the last option. While Draghi says he is open to quantitative easing if necessary, it would run into opposition from Germany. Governments throughout the bloc have yet to deliver the economic reforms and easier fiscal policy he would prefer to see first.
“Europe has now entered a more dangerous phase in their crisis,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James & Associates Inc. in St. Petersburg, Florida. “They’ve got to do quantitative easing. They don’t have any choice because that’s the only game in town.”
Unlike five years ago when they proved strong enough to lift the world out of its slump, emerging markets are now stumbling, too. A property slump in China is pushing down the nation’s annual growth to what analysts project is the slowest pace since 1990, while Brazil is trying to escape the recession it entered in the first half of the year.
Some emerging markets are being sideswiped by subpar global growth as geopolitical tensions from the Ukraine conflict also weigh on investor confidence and threaten to sink Russia’s economy into a recession, Gustavo Reis, a New York-based economist at Bank of America Corp., said in a phone interview.
“We’re seeing an impact not only on the Russian economy, which is pretty visible, but also on European confidence indicators,” Reis said. “That is having an impact on the global economy.”
Oasis of Prosperity
The biggest reason for confidence that the storm will prove short lived are signs the U.S. is again a potential oasis of prosperity even as the foreign weakness and rising dollar draw the concern of Federal Reserve officials.
Grounds for optimism include the lowest unemployment rate in six years, a deleveraging of debt by companies and households and the likelihood cheaper energy and low bond yields will support consumer spending and business investment. Bloomberg News reported that yesterday Fed Chair Janet Yellen voiced confidence in the durability of the American expansion at a closed-door meeting in Washington last weekend.
“Things aren’t looking bad enough in the rest of the world to drag the U.S.,” said Peter Hooper, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank AG and a former Fed official. “I wouldn’t say the world’s falling apart by any means.”
The growth scare in markets comes just days after finance chiefs were urged by the International Monetary Fund to find new ways to support their economies after the Washington-based lender again cut its outlook for global growth this year and next.
The problem is even with inflation now close to its recessionary lows by some measures, governments and central banks are almost out of ammunition, having exhausted it by swelling budget deficits and cutting interest rates in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
In addition to the ECB, the Bank of Japan is holding off boosting its quantitative-easing program and China is refraining from broad-based stimulus. Germany is pushing back against calls to spend more.
“My concern is that the markets are looking for a ramping up of policy support elsewhere and that may not be delivered,” said Charles Collyns, chief economist at the Institute of International Finance and a former U.S. Treasury official.
Less worried is Julian Jessop, chief international economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London. The U.S. is robust, China is switching to more sustainable growth, cheaper oil should support demand and policy makers can ease policy if they really need to.
“It’s hard to be positive given how negative the mood is in the markets but I think sentiment is unnecessarily pessimistic,” he said.