There are warning signs that the world is heading for another economic crisis. Stock markets around the world have fallen since the beginning of the year and some market analysts are comparing the situation with the 2008 financial crisis.
We’re in for a “cataclysmic year”, warned the Royal Bank of Scotland in January, urging clients to “sell everything except high quality bonds”. RBS wasn’t the only financial institution to sound the alarm after a combination of poorly performing stocks, falling oil prices and slowing Chinese economy sparked the concerns of the global markets. “The financial crisis will reawaken,” predicted Société Générale's Albert Edwards. “It will be every bit as bad as in 2008-09 and it will turn very ugly indeed.”
But others took a different view. “The good news is there isn’t going to be another global financial crisis,” said Nouriel Roubini, a man whose bleak economic predictions – including that of the global financial crisis in 2008 – have earned him the nickname Dr Doom. Speaking at Davos earlier this year, his tone was far from dark: markets swing from one extreme to another, he explained, and "right now, the data is negative and people are overreacting”.
Whatever the future path of the global economy, what most experts agree on is that we’re in for a bumpy ride. Some bumps are bigger than others. Here are a few of them.
China – ‘a certain degree of volatility is OK’
The biggest player in the global economy is experiencing a faltering manufacturing sector and rising national debt. On top of this, falling share prices, stock-market closures and low GDP figures have China's financial sector bracing for a crash landing. While the nation's economic woes cast a long shadow across the world, optimists say the outlook isn’t as dark as it seems. “Having a certain degree of volatility is OK,” said Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, in Davos this year. “The market sorts out things eventually."
Eurozone – ‘Draghi disappoints’
Brexit, Grexit and the influx of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria are all threatening the financial stability of the European Union. In December, European shares fell sharply as ECB president Mario Draghi refused to shore up the union's flagging economy with more new money.
In addition, the central bank’s decision to cut interest rates further has contributed to plunging shares in commercial banks as clients look for safer places to invest money. Shares in Deutsche Bank have dived 40% already this year, fuelled by fears over low interest rates, cheaper oil and general growth prospects for the global economy. But Draghi remains positive: Europe “has the instruments” to recover, he recently said.
Commodities – ‘a period of distress’
A combination of oversupply and weak demand have ravaged the natural resources industry. The growth slowdown in China and other emerging economies has reduced demand for crude oil and metals, with copper falling to a six-year low in December 2015 and now trading below the cost of production. "We're entering into a period of severe distress," says Garrett Nelson, analyst with US-based BB&T, with "dramatically deteriorating" credit metrics for metals and mining companies.
Image source: CNN Money
Oil prices – ‘severe stress for exporters’
The price of crude oil has been dropping since 2014, and there seems to be no floor in sight. Financial instability around the world is the net result, although more optimistic analysts say cheaper oil could end up stimulating global growth. There seem to be two dominant factors at work: less demand for energy from a slowing China, and a global oversupply of crude oil thanks to a surge in homegrown US production. The downward trend looks likely to continue, say economic analysts, with the IMF’s Lagarde forecasting years of pain for oil-exporting economies. They’re under “severe stress”, she said in a speech to the University of Maryland this month, “and some currencies have already seen very large depreciations."
Emerging markets – ‘new, harsh reality’
Latin America has been hit particularly hard by falling oil prices, with Brazilian and Venezuelan economies suffering from dwindling revenues. Nigerian, Russian and Middle Eastern oil producers have also been hit by the drop in demand. Over in Turkey, South Africa and Mexico, large corporations are facing insolvency after the US Federal Reserve raised interest rates. The combination of higher borrowing costs and an increasingly valuable dollar could cause a chain of economic reactions that lead back, catastrophically, to the US and other developed markets. It’s a “new, harsh reality”, said Lagarde in her Maryland speech. “Growth rates are down, capital flows have reversed, and medium-term prospects have deteriorated sharply."
What now for the world economy?
The outlook for global markets may be complicated, but it changes constantly, and there are bright spots. Cheaper oil could prove the optimists right and stimulate global growth, for example. Europe and the US are showing signs of recovery. According to the IMF, worldwide GDP is expected to rise by 3.4% next year. The worst may not be over, but maybe we can cling to the words of Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz when he says: "Every downturn comes to an end.”