Publicly, finance ministers and central bank governors have held off on raising fears that a global recession is coming — but in private, international and national officials are not nearly so certain.
The communiqué issued at the end of the IMF and the World Bank’s annual meetings in Washington this week agreed that the global economy is not slipping into recession. But as policymakers and economists gathered in the bustling corridors of the buildings surrounding 19th Street in Washington, the worry was that the forecast of an improving global outlook next year could, at any moment, be punctured by a tweet from the White House.
That would turn the IMF’s relatively sober forecast that 3 per cent global growth this year will rise to 3.4 per cent in 2020 into something much uglier.
Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s new managing director, captured the concerns when she said the chill in the Washington air reminded her of an “unfortunately appropriate” line from the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
“The breath of autumn begins to ice the roadway,” she said.
The IMF broadly defines a world recession as growth slipping below 2.5 per cent a year. This is still far from the fund’s base case. Although the global economy is experiencing its weakest performance since the financial crisis — because trade wars have knocked confidence, investment, trade and manufacturing — the IMF expects a pick-up next year.
Highly stressed economies are unlikely to suffer the same fate in 2020 as they have this year, and the large emerging economies of Mexico, Brazil and Russia are likely to do a bit better, the IMF believes. But it did not forecast any improvement in the “big four” global economies — China, the US, the eurozone and Japan.
On the sidelines of the meetings, the mood was gloomier. The IMF’s forecast could easily be knocked off course by further tit-for-tat trade disputes — perhaps quite soon if the Trump administration imposes tariffs on European automobiles.
Erik Nielsen, chief economist of UniCredit, predicts a global recession in 2020.
“Our difference with the IMF baseline is that we assume [trade] policies will not improve,” he said.
His concern, shared by many officials, is that any further rounds in the trade wars would confront policymakers with the unpalatable prospect of attempting to counter recessionary forces with a nearly-empty toolbox.
Pinelopi Goldberg, the World Bank’s chief economist, came closest to articulating these fears in public.
“Policy is supposed to remove instability, instead it is suppressing old certainties. No one knows what tomorrow will bring,” she said.
Policymakers were relieved at the recent truce between the US and China on trade, but have little confidence that it will last — a sentiment Ms Georgieva captured by calling for the countries to move towards a more durable “trade peace”.
Meanwhile, European officials are growing increasingly anxious about the prospect of an all-out transatlantic trade war as tensions with the US mount over aircraft subsidies, car tariffs and digital taxation.
“Do you really think that opening a trade war between the US and the EU is the best political signal that we can send to the rest of the world,” Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, asked ahead of a meeting with Robert Lighthizer, US trade representative.
One reason for optimism is that the problems remain concentrated in manufacturing and trade, while services, household incomes and jobs are still strong.
Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, cautioned that it was too early to say a recession was likely. It would be easy to say “protectionist, backward trade policies will immediately mess you up, but we’ve been careful not to say that because it’s probably not true”, he said.
But almost everyone at this week’s gathering accepted that the slowdown was serious and the unusual divergence between manufacturing and services was unlikely to last.
Gita Gopinath, IMF chief economist, said she was concerned about “whether and when weakness in manufacturing may spill over into the services sector” and noted that new orders were softening in the US, Germany and Japan.
Attention focused on what policymakers could do to counter a new global downturn.
Few were in any doubt that the Federal Reserve would continue cutting interest rates, but monetary policy is unlikely to be effective in Europe and Japan — where interest rates are either at zero or close to it — so the fear is that the world could sink into a possible recession without any lifeboats.
Worse, the IMF warned that companies and parts of the financial sector had taken on very large quantities of debt, which might amplify a downturn.
All eyes are on how much fiscal policy could do. The IMF called on Germany to take advantage of its ability to borrow at negative interest rates; fiscal policy would have to act decisively elsewhere too, it added.
The fund’s next major update to its outlook, published next April, will look at how the world can deal with a recession with rates at rock bottom.
The IMF’s membership, however, took only a small step towards expanding its own resources.
It agreed to discuss doubling a second-line borrowing facility to maintain its funding at about $1tn over the coming years, but the US opposed an increase in IMF quotas because it would have boosted China’s voting power in the institution.
If the synchronised slowdown does lead to a more serious global recession, policymakers must hope this limited measure will give them sufficient firepower to fight any resulting crises.
Additional reporting by Claire Jones