At a time of nearly universal dismay over the business outlook, there are few experts anywhere who can out-gloom Jim Walker, an economist at an independent Hong Kong research firm called Asianomics. In his thick Scottish accent, Walker predicts the worst global recession since the Great Depression. GDP in the U.S., he says, could contract as much as 5% in 2009, and Europe by 2%. He is no more bullish about the economies in his area of specialty: Asia, a region where most of his colleagues foresee more buoyancy. China won't see GDP rise more than 4% in 2009, he says, and the country's economy may not grow at all. "There is going to be precious little growth anywhere," Walker says.
Before writing off Walker as just another member of a growing Greek chorus of dispirited prognosticators, consider that he has a history of detecting worst-case scenarios before they came to pass. Back in 1995, Walker, then an economist at brokerage house CLSA, penned a report entitled It's Life, Jim, but Not as We Know It: Asia Decoupling, in which he and his team of economists warned that Asian currency regimes, if not reformed, could be susceptible to Mexico-style meltdowns in two to three years. Two years later, the region plunged into the 1997 Asian crisis, which was triggered by the rapid decline of currencies such as the Thai baht.
In this current downturn as well, Walker's dim views, which at first seemed on the fringe, now appear less farfetched. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in late January revised its forecasts for 2009 sharply downward, predicting the slowest global growth rate since World War II, at only 0.5%. IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard said he expects "the global economy to come to a virtual halt." Even China would record only 6.75% GDP growth in 2009, according to the IMF.
Walker has been arguing for months that China was in trouble. As the U.S., Europe and Japan suffer through a recession in 2009, Walker expects Chinese exports to contract. In a sign of how much damage the global slowdown is causing in China, the government this week estimated that 20 million migrant laborers have lost their jobs. But just as important to Chinese growth is private investment. Corporate profitability in China was deteriorating even before the worst of the global financial crisis hit, and that will soften investment, which makes up more than 40% of GDP. In the first 11 months of 2008, profits at 350,000 enterprises in China grew a mere 4.9%, down from 37% in the same period in 2007. "We're already seeing a huge swing in the fortunes of Chinese companies," Walker says. "When people see a very different investment environment, they actually cut their investment. That's the real danger China is facing at the moment."
Other economists believe China's massive stimulus plan will keep growth at a high level despite the global downturn. In November, Beijing announced a $586 billion package, much of it new spending on infrastructure. Wen Jiabao, China's premier, said recently that he expects China to meet its 8% growth target for 2009. Walker, however, is much more skeptical about the government's ability to rescue the economy. "What the government has to contend with is a slowdown in every other sector of the economy," he says. Since the Chinese government accounts for only some 20% of GDP, "how it will make up for a slowdown in the other 80% is beyond me."
The China crunch will have repercussions for the rest of the region and the world. The hope among other economists was that trade within Asia, with a stable China at its core, could spare exporters such as Taiwan and South Korea from the worst of the recession in the West. That hope, Walker argues, has evaporated. A major downturn in China "takes the floor away" from growth in the rest of Asia, he says, leaving the region more exposed to the woes of the U.S. and Europe. Most vulnerable are Asia's smaller, trade-dependent economies. He forecasts Taiwan and Singapore could see GDP sink by 5% to 10% in 2009, while Korea's economy could contract by as much as 5%. "We're still in the very early stages of the downturn in Asia," Walker warns.
There are some bright spots. Walker is relatively bullish on India, which he believes could growth 3% to 5% in 2009, possibly making it the world's fastest-growing economy. The reason, he says, is India isn't as exposed to the global downturn as China. "India has not been growing in the past decade because of excess world growth," Walker says. "Domestic demand is the strong component." He also argues that Asia could take the lead in a global recovery, and might show signs of an upturn by early 2010. The turnaround will be sparked by Asian companies, which generally are in healthy shape. "They are much less leveraged" than in the past, Walker says. "There has been an aversion to taking on debt in Asia since 1998. There is less vulnerability to a downturn in economic activity." As interest rates around the region fall, Asian companies will begin to seek loans and invest, jumpstarting regional growth. "In that sense, the region is in actually quite a good position to springboard back into recovery" ahead of the U.S. or Europe, Walker says.
Still, Walker worries that the pain caused by this global crisis will lead to "a de-globalization move" over the next two years by Asian governments. Countries looking to preserve their own economies could become less eager to promote global trade, he says, and could resort to protectionism as competition for export markets becomes cutthroat. There will be "much more introspection, especially in emerging markets, about joining the party with as much gusto as in the past," Walker says. "There is going to be a lot of questioning about capital market opening. The old model is broken and they don't know what to replace it with."