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It is perhaps odd that despite gloomy news stories about the risks to growth the world economy is recovering. And this is a rare thing, a synchronised global recovery with activity strengthening in developed and emerging markets for the first time since 2010.
Leading indicators for growth are flashing green. Singaporean export growth, a barometer of global demand, has hit a two-year high. Chinese electricity consumption has rebounded. Arguably Europe’s most important economic indicator, Germany's Ifo business confidence index, is near a three-year high. In the UK, optimism among manufacturing companies has reached its highest level since 1995. Surging North American rail freight volumes point to growing demand. Across the world the regular economic data are coming in on the strong side of expectations.
This all sounds good, and it is. But the pace of this recovery doesn’t look likely to take us back to the sorts of growth rates that were seen before the financial crisis. Global growth is running around 80% of its pre-crisis levels. This so-so performance has been dubbed the New Normal.
Escaping the New Normal requires a recovery in productivity growth. Most rich countries have seen rates of productivity growth slow since 2009. In the UK, for instance, productivity growth has fallen from an annual average of around 2.0% a year before the crisis to about zero.
The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, recently lamented Britain’s “first lost decade” since “Karl Marx was scribbling in the British Library” in the 1860s. He was referring to the fact that wage growth for the average British worker has stagnated in the decade since the financial crisis.
Last year earnings for the median worker in the UK, the person in the middle of the wage distribution, were almost 7% below their pre-recession level in real terms. The latest official forecast shows that real earnings are unlikely to return to pre-recession levels until 2021.
Societies become richer by producing more goods and services from a fixed amount of labour and other inputs. The history of human material progress is the history of ever greater efficiency in production.
Since the financial crisis that process seems to have broken down. Productivity growth has slowed and, for many, wages have stagnated. Across the Western world policymakers and politicians are searching for ways of raising productivity growth.
Free trade helped power a dramatic rise in living standards in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the last three decades it has had a similar impact on the welfare of billions of people in emerging economies.
Yet in the face of a backlash against globalisation, free trade is arguably more at risk than at any time since the 1930s. Those who want to limit trade see it as a way of “bringing home” high-quality jobs and reinvigorating industry.
The polarisation of politics in the Western world has created new challenges to existing political norms. Declining support for established political parties has been paralleled by a growth of alternative, more extreme, parties and politicians. This week we take a look at what voters in the US, UK and Europe are telling pollsters on the big issues.
Mr Trump won a remarkable victory, but he entered office with an approval rating of 45%, a record low for an incoming US President. His rating now stands at 40% compared with an average of 61% for previous Presidents at this stage in their administration.
History has often illustrated the power of the maxim, coined by the French socialist thinker, Auguste Comte, that “Demography is destiny”. The post war baby boom helped drive growth in Europe and North America through the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s Asia enjoyed similar, population-driven, gains.
History also shows that Comte’s dictum could, more accurately, but less elegantly, be rendered as, “Demography and policy are destiny”. To realize the potential of an expanding population a country needs to invest in education and infrastructure, and to have sound government.
Switch on the TV news, follow Twitter or read a paper and it can feel like we are living in an era of high, perhaps unprecedented, uncertainty.
We certainly seem, over time, to have become more aware of uncertainty. Since the 1940s references in English language books to uncertainty, volatility, complexity and ambiguity have soared. The term Chief Risk Officer did not exist before the mid-1990s. Now CROs are an established part of many large companies. In the 1990s the US army War College coined the term VUCA in to describe an apparently new world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
Last week two of the UK’s leading economic forecasters concluded that Brexit is unlikely to cause a sharp slowdown in UK growth over the next three years. This is big news.
Last summer, in the weeks after the referendum, talk of the UK falling into recession was rife. Economists slashed their UK growth forecasts. By August economists expected GDP growth would fall away in the second half of 2016 as Brexit hit home. They saw the UK eking out meagre growth of 0.6% in 2017, the slowest since the recession in 2009.
Inequality in incomes is a hot topic across the industrial world. Although the global recovery is in its eighth year in most rich countries the gap between higher and low incomes has widened.
A conspicuous exception is the UK. I was surprised to learn that take-home incomes for those in the bottom 20% of incomes have risen faster than for those in the top 20% in the last ten years.
The performance of financial markets provides signals about the state of the global economy. Market movements in part reflect shifting expectations about growth, inflation and risk. The messages from markets are fallible. But unlike economists’ forecasts, the positions investors take are backed by real money.
So who made money in financial markets in 2016 and what does it imply for the global economy?