As we reach the end of a miserable 2009, signs continue to mount across the globe that the world economy is stirring back to life. The U.S. finally returned to growth in the third quarter, with its strongest showing in two years, India posted inspiring 7.9% growth and the results out of tiny Taiwan, one of the economies slammed the hardest by the global recession, were so impressive one economist beamed that the island "got its groove on." Stock markets, aside from a downward blip here and there, have generally been buoyant. During this season of Thanksgiving and holiday cheer, there seems to be good reason to give thanks and be cheerful.
Or maybe not. The worst of the crisis is almost certainly behind us, but that doesn't mean the crisis is over. Lying ahead are a slew of unresolved problems, policy challenges and, no doubt, further surprises. Unemployment remains a serious global issue, and may yet get worse; excess capacity left over from the boom years haunts the recovery; and the drastic stimulus programs utilized to fight the recession are creating a new menu of potential troubles. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said in an address in London in late November that "the storm has passed" but "the global economy remains very much in a holding pattern stable, and getting better, but still highly vulnerable." He added: "There is a lot of uncertainty in the air."
That was made clear on Nov. 25 when the city-state of Dubai shocked the global investment community by asking creditors of its main corporate arm, ports-and-property conglomerate Dubai World, for a six-month payment standstill on its almost $60 billion of liabilities. The surprise hit stock markets in Asia and the U.S., while sending investors scrambling for safe havens like the U.S. dollar. Experts have since engaged in a rabid round of speculation over what the Dubai debt crisis might mean for the world economy. Some see the problem as little more than a big real estate bust. "I don't see what the big deal is," Willem Buiter, economist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, wrote bluntly. Others see the Dubai crisis as the potential flashpoint for a new stage of the global crisis, a sign that heavily indebted sovereign states might begin having trouble financing their deficits, or that investors will reassess their exposure to risky emerging markets in some kind of financial "contagion." BofA Merrill Lynch strategists postulated in a report that "one cannot rule out as a tail risk a case where this would escalate into a major sovereign-default problem, which would then resonate across global emerging markets."
Scary stuff, indeed, but so far, that worst-case scenario doesn't appear to be materializing. The central bank of the United Arab Emirates promised on Sunday to stand behind the country's banks with fresh liquidity, causing stock markets in Asia to rebound on Monday. Nevertheless, the Dubai debacle is just the kind of dangerous unknown that can still arise out of the financial crisis, even while a general recovery is under way. Financial crises change the rules of the game, especially when it comes to determining how money flows, and where and to whom. Perceptions of risk among bankers and investors can change but the ramifications of that change are often delayed, and not easy to predict.
Take the Asian financial crisis of 1997. In South Korea, the biggest corporate failure the collapse of the humungous Daewoo Group happened two years after the onset of the crisis, when healthy economic growth had already returned. The crisis had undermined the fundamental willingness of a reformed banking sector and reform-minded government to continue backing the country's bloated and financially irresponsible companies. Daewoo's problems originated before the Asian crisis, but they only exploded after the crisis.
The fact is that the world economy continues to be burdened by heavy baggage created during the boom times, problems that could take years to resolve. U.S. consumers are undergoing their own debt workout, one that might even worsen if joblessness continues to rise. Though defaults on credit cards in the U.S. fell in October, delinquencies, or late payments, rose a sign that financial firms could expect more losses down the road. Japan, which experienced its fastest growth in two years in the third quarter, is dealing with the nasty problem of deflation, an indication that the economy is suffering from excess capacity. The falling prices, by eating away at the financial health of companies, could lead to more downsizing and slower growth. "The recent price falls are not right and worrisome," Japan's Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii recently said.
And on top of the old problems, new ones are appearing as well. Fears continue to mount that the loose monetary policies put in place by central banks worldwide are creating potentially destabilizing increases in property and stock prices. "Asset bubbles could be the next fragility as the world recovers, threatening again to destroy livelihoods and trap millions more in poverty," World Bank President Robert Zoellick recently wrote in the Financial Times. Property-market analyst Nicole Wong at brokerage CLSA argues that Hong Kong may inevitably be heading for "another boom and bust" in its real estate sector, due to a combination of tight supply and easy money. "The answer to the question could there be a property bubble in Hong Kong is yes," she says.
Even countries apparently powering through the recession are hounded by tricky policy conundrums. After Chinese banks engaged in massive lending aimed at combating the global downturn, China's regulators warned in late November that they must meet mandated capital requirements or risk sanctions, a strong sign that Beijing is worrying over the possible fallout from its stimulus program. China also faces a tough choice on its currency regime. The government is under increased pressure from the U.S. and European Union to allow the yuan to appreciate, though policymakers remain nervous about the negative effect that could have on its struggling export sector. China "is like watching a duck swim," says Giles Chance, author of the recently published book China and the Credit Crisis. "On the surface it seems fine, but underneath it's quite chaotic."
That metaphor could describe the entire world economy. The emerging recovery is masking a whole lot of chaos. Let's hope the duck keeps swimming.