The world economy faces considerable uncertainty in the short term. Will the eurozone manage to sort out its problems and avert a breakup? Will the United States engineer a path to renewed growth? Will China find a way to reverse its economic slowdown?
The answers to these questions will determine how the global economy evolves over the next few years. But, regardless of how these immediate challenges are resolved, it is clear that the world economy is entering a difficult new longer-term phase as well – one that will be substantially less hospitable to economic growth than possibly any other period since the end of World War II.
Regardless of how they handle their current difficulties, Europe and America will emerge with high debt, low growth rates, and contentious domestic politics. Even in the best-case scenario, in which the euro remains intact, Europe will be bogged down with the demanding task of rebuilding its frayed union. And, in the US, ideological polarization between Democrats and Republicans will continue to paralyze economic policy.
Indeed, in virtually all advanced economies, high levels of inequality, strains on the middle class, and aging populations will fuel political strife in a context of unemployment and scarce fiscal resources. As these old democracies increasingly turn inward, they will become less helpful partners internationally – less willing to sustain the multilateral trading system and more ready to respond unilaterally to economic policies elsewhere that they perceive as damaging to their interests.
Meanwhile, large emerging markets such as China, India, and Brazil are unlikely to fill the void, as they will remain keen to protect their national sovereignty and room to maneuver. As a result, the possibilities for global cooperation on economic and other matters will recede further.
This is the kind of global environment that diminishes every country’s potential growth. The safe bet is that we will not see a return to the kind of growth that the world – especially the developing world – experienced in the two decades before the financial crisis. It is an environment that will produce deep disparities in economic performance around the world. Some countries will be much more adversely affected than others.
Those that do relatively better will share three characteristics. First, they will not be weighed down by high levels of public debt. Second, they will not be overly reliant on the world economy, and their engine of economic growth will be internal rather than external. Finally, they will be robust democracies.
Having low to moderate levels of public debt is important, because debt levels that reach 80-90% of GDP become a serious drag on economic growth. They immobilize fiscal policy, lead to serious distortions in the financial system, trigger political fights over taxation, and incite costly distributional conflicts. Governments preoccupied with reducing debt are unlikely to undertake the investments needed for long-term structural change. With few exceptions (such as Australia and New Zealand), the vast majority of the world’s advanced economies are or will soon be in this category.
Many emerging-market economies, such as Brazil and Turkey, have managed to rein in the growth of public debt this time around. But they have not prevented a borrowing binge in their private sectors. Since private debts have a way of turning into public liabilities, a low government-debt burden might not, in fact, provide these countries with the cushion that they think they have.
Countries that rely excessively on world markets and global finance to fuel their economic growth will also be at a disadvantage. A fragile world economy will not be hospitable to large net foreign borrowers (or large net foreign lenders). Countries with large current-account deficits (such as Turkey) will remain hostage to skittish market sentiment. Those with large surpluses (such as China) will be under increasing pressure – including the threat of retaliation – to rein in their “mercantilist” policies.
Domestic demand-led growth will be a more reliable strategy than export-led growth. That means that countries with a large domestic market and a prosperous middle class will have an important advantage.
Finally, democracies will do better because they have the institutionalized mechanisms of conflict management that authoritarian regimes lack. Democracies such as India may seem at times to move too slowly and be prone to paralysis. But they provide the arenas of consultation, cooperation, and give-and-take among opposing social groups that are crucial in times of turbulence and shocks.
In the absence of such institutions, distributive conflict can easily spill over into protests, riots, and civil disorder. This is where democratic India and South Africa have the upper hand over China or Russia. Countries that have fallen into the grip of autocratic leaders – for example, Argentina and Turkey – are also increasingly at a disadvantage.
An important indicator of the magnitude of the new global economy’s challenges is that so few countries satisfy all three requirements. Indeed, some of the most spectacular economic success stories of our time – China in particular – fail to meet more than one. It will be a difficult time for all. But some – think Brazil, India, and South Korea – will be in a better position than the rest.