How China, Brazil and other emerging nations could save the world economy

Are the seeds of a new, and more sustainable, boom in the world’s emerging markets being planted? A survey from global bank HSBC argues so, and that this growth may be a healthier type than in the not-too-distant past by helping the world economy come into better balance.


A rise in domestic demand in China and other emerging markets is probably a good thing for the world's economy. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Central banks in places like Turkey, Poland and South Korea have been cutting interest rates. Inflation across the developing world is tame. Wages in those nations are rising, but so far they're pushing corporate profits down, rather than consumer prices up. The boost in salaries means the countries can rely more on local demand for economic growth, precisely the sort of “rebalancing” -- relying less on U.S. consumption -- that officials have hoped would take root around the world.

It all adds up to a more durable global growth, argues HSBC managing director Pablo Goldberg, who was in Washington this week. He notes that growth in major nations like China, India and Brazil has been below expectations. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a world that is trying to cultivate a more sustainable and less combustible era of economic expansion.

A China growing at 7 or 8 percent, for example, puts a “floor” under world growth, Goldberg said. If authorities scrambled to push the number back to 10 percent – encouraging bank lending or using tools to pump out more exports – they’d risk an eventual crash at home or a trade war abroad.

“The focus on sustainability of growth is something we should welcome,” he said. “The world would be worse off if China tried to stretch it.”

Likewise, the situation has changed the nature of what’s been dubbed the “currency war” – the effort by countries to keep the value of their local money from rising in response to the large amounts of dollars and yen being produced by central banks in Washington and Tokyo. Because growth and inflation are modest, countries like Korea or Turkey that feel their currency is under pressure can respond in more conventional ways – by cutting interest rates – rather than by directly intervening in currency markets (generally to the consternation of trading partners) or imposing controls on capital moving in and out of the country (generally to the consternation of investors).

All in all, it seems a lot more normal out there than it did just a few months ago.

Since last year, “we’ve taken financial risks out, and we’ve taken economic risks out. Things are changing,” Goldberg said.

The big question mark is if, when and how fast, the U.S. Federal Reserve will curtail its program of quantitative easing – and finds a way to keep the United States growing while avoiding inflation, asset bubbles or other problems at home or abroad.

It’s a dicey question. A rapid rise in U.S. interest rates – if the Fed pulls back too fast, or inflation takes hold and forces the central bank to shift course, for example – could cause serious trouble with higher borrowing costs for governments and corporations around the world.

But if Fed officials pull it off – and conditions in developing nations remain on their steady and more settled course – it would put the world close to the oft-stated goal of “strong, sustainable and balanced growth.”

It may not be a perfect world. The euro zone is still under a recession – blowing a major hole in global demand and leaving millions of people without jobs. But at least the scope of that problem is known – with politicians trying to craft a response and  companies and financial institutions making a laggard Europe part of the “base case” for setting their plans, Goldberg said.

But at least economically, it could be a less volatile one.

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Evan Soltas · May 31, 2013