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Expect global growth to slow for rest of year

12 September 2018

Anna Stupnytska, global economist, Fidelity International, outlines why she believes global growth for the rest of 2018 should continue slowing, with growth in the US, which has been the engine of the global economy, losing momentum into year-end. With China’s direction of travel also downward, Anna believes these factors could be the triggers that lead to the next bout of economic and market pain.

US: Losing momentum

The US, which has been the growth engine of the global economy, is likely to start slowing into year-end but the fiscal stimulus will continue to boost growth through 2019. Broader financial conditions in the US are still easy, but mild tightening – through rising interest rates, less-easy monetary policy and a strengthening dollar – are all starting to weigh on growth. We believe both the level and pace of this tightening matter. As such, we need to see much more tightening in financial conditions, and at a faster pace, to start worrying about serious growth implications.

While the US economy has been powering on thus far, there are now signs it may be running out of room. The economy is close to hitting capacity constraints – both in labour and product markets. And as labour market conditions continue to tighten, cost and wage pressures are building up. But we don’t see any flashing red lights yet as the picture is not broad-based across sectors. Indeed, real wage growth is heading into negative territory. Overall, the economy is heating up, but there are no signs of overheating yet.

We expect the Federal Reserve to stick to the plan of four rate rises through 2018, but next year a combination of three more planned hikes, further quantitative tightening and treasury issuance form a ‘triple whammy’. We believe that something will have to give – and we don’t think it will be fiscal! The biggest risk to global growth is the risk of the Fed doing too much.

Another worrying trend is the high level of corporate sector debt, which stands out as one of the biggest imbalances in the system. Debt as a percentage of GDP is now in line with previous cycle highs of around 45 per cent, although the pace of increase has been more measured relative to the last two episodes in 2001-2002 and 2008-2009. We think the size of this debt could certainly trigger a recession, but this is unlikely to be the epicentre of another crisis – at least for now.

Much has also been written about the flattening yield curve which is generally viewed as a precursor of a recession. While we don’t think that a US recession is imminent, we cannot dismiss the yield curve signal completely.

Cooling China

Indicators in China have been mixed. On the positive side – PMIs are stable, imports are surprisingly strong, manufacturing PPI is healthy and house prices are still robust. However, investment, especially infrastructure, is very weak, and real estate construction is negative. Plunging retail sales volumes stand in contrast with second quarter GDP that was supported by a huge boost from consumption; this suggests that growth is materially weaker than the official number. All these factors indicate that the direction of travel has undoubtedly been downward.

Since June, the government has taken several steps to create ‘easier’ conditions to boost liquidity in the system. However, genuine fiscal loosening through measures such as the much touted corporate R&D tax cuts amount to just 0.065 trillion renminbi or 0.07 per cent of GDP. Other steps include ‘asking’ banks to lend, and ‘urging’ local governments to use more of their 1.35 trillion renminbi ‘special bond’ quota for infrastructure, which was only 25 per cent tapped in the first half of 2018. Overall, while we believe these measures are better than nothing, their magnitude still seems small and the numbers are unlikely to be game-changing.

What could cause the next global recession?

Outside of the US, a shock has to be pretty big to spill over globally, including into the US. A sudden stress in China’s financial system or a hard landing is an on-going risk, but we now believe such a risk is currently higher than average. Other triggers could be the ongoing Turkey crisis, a multilateral trade war scenario or a break-up of the euro (a scenario that is unlikely for now, but has the potential to derail global growth).

The situation in Turkey may yet represent a systemic shock that could lead to global contagion. But for major central banks to react, it has to spread to other emerging markets (EM) and dramatically tighten global financial conditions. In a sense, the situation has to get much worse before a significant global policy response. But there are other factors at play that make the Turkish situation much more unpredictable: the Erdogan-Trump politics, other interested parties (namely China and Russia) and hidden exposures – all this against the backdrop of tightening global liquidity. Maybe it’s time to dust off that classic EM crisis handbook?