As the world economy continues to struggle, people are taking to the streets by the thousands to protest painful cuts in public spending designed to reduce government debt and deficits. This fiscal fury is understandable. People want to regain the confidence they once had about the future when the economy was booming and more of us had jobs. But after a protracted economic crisis, this will take planning, fair burden-sharing, and time itself.
The IMF has argued for some time that the very high public debt ratios in many advanced economies should be brought down to safer levels through a gradual and steady process. Doing either too little or too much both involve risks: not enough fiscal adjustment could lead to a loss of market confidence and a fiscal crisis, potentially killing growth; but too much adjustment will hurt growth directly. At times over the last couple of years we called on countries to step up the pace of adjustment when we thought they were moving too slowly. Instead, in the current environment, I worry that some might be going too fast.
A few days after the first sunrise of 2012 kissed the shores of Latin America, it is natural to ask: What does the New Year hold for the region’s economies, especially with Europe still under stress? For sure, a dimmer economic environment, here and abroad. Growth has softened in the larger countries of the region. Looking North, the United States is growing a bit more, but elsewhere activity is softening, including in China—an increasingly important customer for the region’s commodities. Perhaps more importantly, global financial markets are still strained, because many questions about advanced economies remain unanswered. What should countries do in the face of this risky outlook? A lot depends on their current macroeconomic situation.
Coming in to the 2011 Annual Meetings of the IMF and World Bank this past weekend, I had warned of the dangerous new phase for the global economy and had called for bold and collective action. Coming out of the Meetings, I feel strongly that the global community is beginning to respond. Why? Three reasons: a shared sense of urgency, a shared diagnosis of the problems, and a shared sense that the steps needed in the period ahead are now coming into focus. So, looking ahead, follow through—by all concerned—is now even more important. That means taking action not in the years ahead, but in the weeks ahead. And, in that, we are all in this together and we can only get out of it together.
We are back in the danger zone. Since our previous report, financial stability risks have increased substantially—reversing some of the progress that had been made over the previous three years. Several shocks have recently buffeted the global financial system: unequivocal signs of a broader global economic slowdown; fresh market turbulence in the euro area; and the credit downgrade of the United States. This has thrown us into a crisis of confidence driven by three main factors: weak growth, weak balance sheets, and weak politics.