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Analysis: Years of weak growth sow doubt in economic rescue plans

Finance ministers and central bank governors from the G20 arrive for a family photo during the 2013 Spring Meeting of the International Mone
Finance ministers and central bank governors from the G20 arrive for a family photo during the 2013 Spring Meeting of the International Mone

By David Gaffen and Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than three years after the end of the global recession, sluggish activity across rich and poor economies is confounding policymakers who expected more by now and raising concerns that options for kick-starting growth are increasingly limited.

They face a sobering checklist:

The U.S. economy remains shackled by a mountain of household debt and continues to whipsaw between periods of modest growth and next to none at all.

The euro zone is mired in recession, lurching from crisis to crisis and now dealing with the latest trouble spot in Cyprus.

And even such star performers as China and Brazil have run low on gas. China in 2012 posted its weakest year of growth since 1999. Brazil's economy slowed to a near standstill; at the same time, it faces a growing threat from inflation.

Against this backdrop, the exasperation of finance ministers and central bankers attending last week's Group of 20 and International Monetary Fund meetings was palpable. The official communiques and sideline discussions reflected their frustration over the failure so far to deliver an effective mix of policies to finally get an upper hand on a long-lasting crisis that shows little sign of ending.

"We cannot unmistakably declare that the worst is behind us," Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said on Friday. "There is a risk of a prolonged crisis, despite all our efforts in the G20 and other international forums."

Central banks across the developed world have held interest rates at rock-bottom levels since 2008 while pumping more than $6 trillion into their banking systems through loans and asset-purchase operations known as quantitative easing, or "QE." The European Central Bank has helped lower borrowing costs for the governments of Spain and Italy. Ireland, Portugal and Greece have been bailed out.

And yet a return to normalcy appears a distant dream.

The IMF last week ratcheted back its projections for world economic growth in 2013. Rich nations face a third consecutive year of growth below 2 percent, with U.S. GDP seen growing just 1.9 percent.

The IMF projects Japan's economy will be so weak consumers will bid prices just 0.1 percent higher this year, while China is seen accelerating only marginally to an 8 percent rate. Weakened demand has fueled a plunge in commodities including copper, which will hurt the economies of Latin America.

At the meetings of top finance officials in Washington, frustrations were especially evident regarding the euro zone, which is beset by a debt crisis. The IMF expects the euro zone economy to contract for a second consecutive year.

"Unless Europe gets its act together and unless the green shoots that we see in the U.S. actually flower and become solid plants, and unless Japan does the near impossible task of reflating its economy and having inflation of 2 percent - how is it that developing and emerging market economies can achieve high growth?" Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said at an event on the sidelines of the meetings.

WARILY WELCOMING JAPAN'S STIMULUS

The desire for a stronger path of growth helps explain why officials, even those in emerging markets, have had a sanguine response to Japan's new plans to stimulate its economy with $1.4 trillion in bond-buying by the country's central bank.

Mantega pointed out that unemployment remains high in large advanced economies and that more fiscal stimulus may be needed, an elixir that has been resisted in some quarters, particularly in the euro zone. He also noted that emerging markets are "inevitably affected" by tepid demand in the United States, Japan and elsewhere, as they have been unable to sustain the kind of growth rates seen in years past.

Still, it was clear officials worried advanced countries were becoming overly dependent on ultra-easy monetary policies that have become less effective over time. Years of low interest rates could even plant the seeds for the next crisis.

"Even though some advanced economies did several rounds of QEs, nothing changed," a South Korean G20 official told Reuters.

Part of the climate of frustration in global policymaking circles results from the fact the that the global economy is more interconnected in terms of finance and trade than it was a few decades ago, making it more difficult to adopt policies that help one country without hurting others.

Before the 2007-2009 financial crisis, a handful of advanced nations dominated international economic policymaking. Now the G20, which includes rich and poor countries as well as the European Union, is the principal venue for steering the global economy.

Poor nations worry that rich nations' monetary stimulus will destabilize their economies by flooding them with capital, fueling inflation or asset bubbles. Money printing by the United States, Europe and Japan also subtracts value from the currencies of the rich world, helping its exporters at the expense of factories in countries like Brazil.

This breeds tension in a large forum like the G20, where a variety of contrasting voices compete to shape consensus.

"You're not going to have a perfectly optimal set of policies for everyone in the world," said Tharman Shanmugaratnam, chairman of the International Monetary and Financial Committee, which advises the IMF on the global monetary and financial system.

Tharman said the trick was to find a mix of policies that would help economies grow without risking future bubbles. "We need a new framework," he said.

(Additional reporting By Paul Eckert; Editing by Theodore d'Afflisio)

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