A Threat to Global Recovery: Too Many Factories

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A worker sits on steel wire coils at a steel market in China's Shanxi province on May 14, 2009

The half-decade before the financial crisis was a go-go time for the global economy. Consumption reached unprecedented heights; so did oil prices and shipping rates. And that frantic buying and selling was a boon for manufacturing. As U.S. consumers flexed their credit cards for flat-panel TVs and video games, factories sprouted around the world to make all the stuff that was crammed into consumers' SUVs. But amid the recession, spending has shrunk dramatically, as debt-laden U.S. consumers are learning to save — and those factories have a lot less to do. During the downturn, the rates at which industrial capacity was being utilized in the U.S. and Japan, the world's two largest economies, plummeted to the lowest levels on record. In China, the world's workshop, tens of thousands of factories making mostly low-end merchandise have shut down.

A slowdown on the world's assembly lines is a normal part of any recession. As demand shrinks, so must production. But now that the recession is easing, there is considerable debate among economists about whether manufacturers will be rehiring workers and restarting assembly lines anytime soon. Despite aggressive downsizing by industries like auto manufacturing over the past 18 months, there are fears that the world remains stuck with so much excess production capacity that any recovery will be anemic, plagued by deflationary pressures, high unemployment and ailing bank-loan portfolios. "Unless we deal with the excess capacity situation, we will have a protracted crisis that will continue to wreak havoc on all countries," warned World Bank chief economist Justin Lin in a July speech.

There's evidence that this dire scenario is uncomfortably possible. Although China's economy is growing relatively strongly, the government is so concerned about excess capacity that it recently banned investments in aluminum production and imposed stiffer conditions on new projects in the steel, coal and petrochemical sectors. Without such controls, "it will be hard to prevent vicious market competition and increase economic benefits, and this could result in facility closures, layoffs and increases in banks' bad assets," a government statement said.

The rest of the industrialized world may be in worse shape. To measure excess capacity, economists use a metric called the "output gap," defined as the difference between the potential output of a given economy and what is actually being produced (including services). The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is projecting that, despite global production cutbacks, the situation is actually getting worse because the recovery will be weak. In 2010 the output gap among 24 OECD member nations is projected to widen to -5.7% — the widest gulf by far in the post–World War II era.

Minding the gap isn't merely an academic exercise. Excess capacity directly affects the biggest question facing policymakers today: when to exit from stimulus programs that were introduced to combat the recession. Everyone agrees the cure for excess capacity is increasing demand, whether it is generated through a fundamentally strengthening economy or through artificial means like "Cash for Clunkers" measures. Turn off the tap too quickly before normal demand recovers, and the downturn could persist. "The best way of reducing excess capacity is by not prematurely unwinding stimulus spending," Lin of the World Bank told TIME.

But what if this recession isn't an ordinary recession? There is a widespread belief among economists that a secular shift in global spending patterns is under way. U.S. consumers, the usual drivers of economic growth, are reducing their outlays and may do so for years to come as they pay down debt. Under this "new normal" scenario, some of today's spare capacity may never come back into action because total demand will remain depressed indefinitely. Factories in some crowded sectors will have to be permanently closed or retooled to make different products.

Retooling is not impossible. Germany's Volkswagen is converting part of a car-engine plant to produce "green" electrical generators. And if you buy into the great Asian growth story, then there is a chance that spending by wealthier consumers in countries like China and India can offset at least some of the decreased demand in the West. HSBC economist Frederic Neumann said in a September report that some Asian manufacturers have gained back the power to raise prices, implying that the impact of excess capacity in the region might not be as severe as some fear. "What was so scary about the recession were the unprecedented output gaps that conjured up images of endless industrial slack and competition so fierce that no one could ever hope to raise their prices again," Neumann wrote. "What's happened now, however, is almost as stunning ... pricing power is starting to return far earlier than anyone dared to predict."

Others are not so sanguine. HSBC's China economist, Qu Hongbin, worries that his country is full of manufacturers trying to hang on while waiting for overseas demand to recover. "There still is hope that we'll go back to the old days," Qu says. But "demand in the future will be lower than in the past," he says. "That means the factory owners have to face reality" — the reality of them no longer cranking out ever more widgets in a widget-weary world