More than eight years after the global financial crisis exploded in late 2008, economic growth remains generally tepid, while ostensible recovery measures appear to have exacerbated income and other inequalities. Yet, despite the G-20 group of the world’s largest economies raising the level, frequency and profile of its meetings, effective multilateral cooperation and coordination remains a distant dream.
Little reason to cheer
The United Nations’ recent World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) 2017 offers little cause for comfort:
• the world economy has not yet emerged from the protracted slow growth following the 2008 financial crisis;
• significant uncertainties and risks weigh heavily on its projected modest global recovery for 2017-2018;
• despite modest economic growth, global carbon emissions have not declined in the last two years;
• more alarmingly, new investment in renewable energy dropped sharply in the first half of 2016, as progress in emissions mitigation in recent years could easily be reversed;
• growth in the least developed countries (LDCs) will remain well below the sustainable development goals (SDGs) target in the near term; and
• below-target growth and tax revenue threaten critical public expenditure on healthcare, education, social protection, and climate change adaptation.
Unfortunately, the WESP does not attract as much media attention or fanfare as other similar global reports, such as the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) World Economic Outlook or the OECD’s Global Economic Outlook. Nevertheless, WESP was the only such report to identify risks to the global economy before the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, while both the IMF and OECD largely ignored them.
Even after US sub-prime housing debt problems became apparent and Lehman Brothers had collapsed, both remained optimistic, predicting a soft-landing in the US at worst, which they suggested would be off-set by robust growth in Europe. Both supported the turn to ‘fiscal consolidation’ as soon as ostensible ‘green shoots of recovery’ were spotted in 2019. Despite greater consideration of ostensibly Keynesian policy options since, seriously Keynesian macroeconomic analysis remains largely off-limits.
WESP 2017 identifies policy paralysis and lack of policy coordination as among the main factors holding back global economic recovery. Over-reliance on unconventional monetary policy and fiscal consolidation in major economies, especially in Europe, are contributing not only to policy uncertainty, but also to growing inequality.
Protracted weak global demand – due to fiscal contraction, high household debt and growing inequality – has reduced incentives for firms to invest. Political and policy uncertainties, due to events such as ‘Brexit’, have also discouraged private investment. Thus, investment has slowed significantly in major developed and emerging economies. The extended period of weak investment is driving the slowdown in productivity growth.
Meanwhile, international trade expanded by just 1.2 per cent in 2016, the third-lowest rate in the past three decades. Slow world trade growth is both contributing to and symptomatic of the global economic slowdown.
What needs to be done?
Thus, WESP 2017 calls for a more balanced policy mix – moving beyond excessive reliance on monetary policy – to restore a healthy growth trajectory over the medium-term for the global economy as well as to tackle some social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.
Government support for public goods, such as combating climate change, remains crucial, as private investors tend to evaluate risk and return over short-term horizons and under-invest in public priorities. Investment in research and development, education and infrastructure would promote sustainable development as well as social and environmental progress, while supporting productivity growth.
WESP 2017 also calls for greater international coordination to ensure complementarities among trade, investment, and other public policies, and to better align the multilateral trading system with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ensure inclusive growth and decent work for all.
Global Green New Deal
Any recession or economic crisis also offers the opportunity to weed-out lagging activities or obsolete practices, and to restructure the economy to put it on a more sustainable path. Thus, to tackle the global financial crisis, in early 2009, the UN proposed a Global Green New Deal (GGND) comprising of public work programmes and social protection, including in developing countries. This bold proposal remains relevant as the global economy struggles to recover, and achievement of the SDGs is threatened.
Most critically, public works programmes should be launched, not only in developed countries, which can resort to deficit financing, but also in developing countries, where resources are more limited and policies are generally more hostage to the global financial system. Thus, GGND can not only accelerate economic recovery and job creation, but also address sustainable development challenges more generally. To be more effective, GGND should be part of a broader international counter-cyclical effort comprising three main elements:
1. Financial support for developing countries, provided through the multilateral system, to prevent their economic slowdown.
2. National government-led investment packages in developed and developing countries to revive and ‘green’ national economies.
3. International policy coordination to ensure that developed countries’ investment packages not only create jobs in developed countries, but also have strong developmental impacts in developing countries. These should involve collaborative initiatives among governments of developed and developing countries.
The window of opportunity to restructure the global economy towards a more sustainable path has been closing as governments procrastinate, adopt self-defeating fiscal consolidation policies, and give up economic management responsibility to the monetary authorities. ‘Quantitative easing’ has not only failed to ensure a robust recovery, but has also exacerbated the inequalities and disparities breeding ethno-chauvinist populism. Bold, internationally well-coordinated actions are needed now more than ever.