Recovery At Risk

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It's winter in Argentina, but the chill that country is feeling isn't seasonal. It's economic. Argentina is on the verge of defaulting on its debt, and people have taken to the streets to protest economic policy. A debacle in Argentina is by itself no big threat to the U.S., and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has said as much. Nor is a meltdown in Turkey. But Argentina is only one of several dangerous financial storms brewing overseas that in combination could damage the U.S. economy. Think about sharply rising energy costs, lower output and an even shakier stock market.

As if we don't have enough to worry about. Last week the government reported that the domestic economy barely has a pulse. It grew at a 0.7% rate in the second quarter, the weakest in eight years. Yet beyond Argentina lurk at least three more insults that could make things worse. In the Middle East, OPEC is flexing its muscles again. Last week it vowed to cut oil production 4% to prop prices. In Europe, the single-currency system called the euro may be fighting for its survival if stagflation continues to cripple the region. And in Asia, Japan's new Prime Minister is struggling to carrying out his ambitious reform to revive economic growth. Failure will deepen Japan's coma and take Asia with it.

Why should we worry? Because the U.S. economy's ability to take a punch isn't as great as it was in the late 1990s. Then we were swept up in the most powerful expansion in modern history, and a Russian debt default or even the Asian crisis of 1997 couldn't stop it. Now, with the U.S. economy ailing, the damage from the same kind of crisis gets magnified. Here's how:

ARGENTINA: THE FIRST DOMINO? Just four years ago, Argentina was sizzling like one of its famous steaks. Its economy was firmly linked to the dollar, and this kept a lid on inflation, a longtime scourge. But dollarization has limitations. Argentina's neighbors began depreciating their currencies to sell more goods in world markets. Worse yet, the dollar continued to soar, making Argentina even less competitive.

Last week Argentina moved closer to defaulting on its $128 billion in debt, an amount equal to about half its GDP. "Argentina's domestic financial shield may be beginning to crack," observes international economist Shandra Modi of IDEAglobal, a consulting firm in New York.

What It Means to the U.S. Beware contagion. Argentina will not be able to service its debt much longer. "A technical default is all but inevitable," says a banker. But the danger to the U.S. is not so much Argentina as the spillover. Brazil and Mexico are the critical economies south of the U.S. border, and Mexico's is in a recession. U.S. bank exposure to Argentina as of March was about $12 billion; now add Brazil's $24 billion and Mexico's $18 billion. During the past decade, thousands of U.S. firms have invested heavily in Latin America, buying companies, building plants and partnering deals. O'Neill has said he rejects the idea that "contagion" is inevitable in global financial markets. But consider that foreign direct investment in Brazil, which it needs to keep its accounts buoyant, fell about $3.5 billion in the first half of 2001.

OPEC GETS POLITICAL Since peaking last September at $37.80 per bbl., oil prices have tumbled to below $25. This breather from high energy costs is going to be short-lived. In the past two years, members of the cartel have stuck close to their output quotas, which they demonstrated in last week's announced production pullback. That will bring crude prices above $25 per bbl. again. Should crude top $30 for a prolonged period, it will further eviscerate U.S. corporate profits and have a deeply corrosive effect on the entire U.S. economy.

The chances are rising that OPEC will sharply curb production to both spur higher prices and increase political pressure on Washington and Israel. "The Saudis are set to do this," asserts Marvin Zonis, a political- and economic-risk expert at the University of Chicago. "They are very dissatisfied with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, specifically with Israel."

What It Means to the U.S. Shades of the '70s? No. Non-OPEC oil sources have increased significantly since then. But higher energy costs are like an ugly tax. Consumers shelled out an extra $50 billion last year because of higher gas prices. "The danger is that OPEC could be too successful," says Nariman Behravesh, chief global economist for DRI-WEFA, an economic consulting firm. "If they hang tough with their quotas and oil prices stay high as the world economy slows down, the downturn could be even more pronounced."

OPEC could yank the supply chain if fighting between Israelis and Palestinians escalates. "This is not a stretch," says Nicholas Sargen, chief global-market strategist at JP Morgan Private Bank. "As the violence picks up, the probability rises that OPEC could get involved again."

EUROSCLEROSIS Europe has been getting that sinking feeling all year, an inevitable result of the U.S. economic downturn. After expanding 3.4% in 2000, the single-currency system could see its growth plummet to 1% or less this year. But here's the rub: even as the 12 member countries' economies languish, the European central bank, which conducts a single monetary policy for all euro-zone nations, has been very skimpy in lowering interest rates. After seven rate increases within a year, the ECB grudgingly dropped rates just once, on May 10--and then by a quarter of a percentage point, to 4.5%.

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