There is no good news on the international, economic front. It ranges from what is known, which is grim, to what isn't known, which is at best uncertain.
The economy of the entire world is now struggling with the after-effects of oil-price increases of 150 to 180 percent over the past 24 months and faces yet another year of discouraging stagflation and rising unemployment.
One of the most meaningful (and chilling) statistics I have seen in a long-time comes from the respected Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development: OPEC's price increases will cost the industrial world a staggering $550 billion in gross national product this year compared with what it otherwise would have been.
The $550 billion figure represents the direct impact of OPEC price increases since 1978, coupled with tight fiscal policies, to lessen the inflationary impact. In percentage terms, it amounts to a loss of 6.5 percent of the industrial world's real GNP.
Similar figures are not really available for the less-developed world. But the major international lending agencies estimate that the poor countries paid at least $50 billion to buy oil last year, or equal to about one-third of all the money they earn from exports, while their combined balance-of-payments deficit will rise from $70 billion last year to $80 billion in 1981.
Hans Mast, executive vice president of Credit Suisse of Switzerland was quoted by Time Magazine as saying the world is moving into "its most difficult phase since World War II, and governments cannot do very much about it. After three decades of Keynesianism, old instruments of policy do not work any more."
In the industrialized world, much of which was in a true recession in the latter part of 1980, the prospects at best are for a weak recovery in 1981. And the U.S., which suffered a brief, sharp dip early in 1980 (which did nothing to reduce the inflation rate) seems headed for a brand-new recession in 1981, brought on by record-high interest rates.
Nothing is more uncertain than the outlook for the American economy, as the new administration of conservative Ronald Reagan moves into power. Although the United States doesn't play the overwhelmingly dominant role it once did, the American economy is still the biggest in the world.
As the Harris Bank of Chicago recently noted, "Developments in the United States . . . will set the tone for economic prospects throughout the industrialized world. . . . Given its size, a discouraging performance by the U.S. economy would have a negative impact on policies and living standards throughout the world."
Perhaps an equally significant uncertainty is whether or not there will be further interruptions to oil supplies from the Middle East. At best, extensive damage to oil fields in Iraq and Iran pose a big question mark about oil supplies later in 1981. Once the war is over, according to William L. Randol of Salomon Bros., it will take at least nine months to a year to boost exports close to prewar levels. And beyond that, no one knows where the next explosive interruption will come in the Middle East.
In a December speech in San Francisco, Assistant Treasury Secretary C. Fred Bergsten said: "The United States and the global community as a whole remain acutely vulnerable to further energy price hikes and supply interruptions. Adjustment has begun, but we are far from restoring even a modicum of energy independence."
For the rich nations, the prospective 1981 economic growth numbers are truly anemic: The OECD said in its annual outlook report that the real growth rate in the industrial world, which average 3.8 percent in the decade ending 1978 and had fallen to 1 percent last year, will be no better than 1 percent this year. The growth rates achieved during the 1970s seem far out of reach: The OECD doesn't look to getting back even to 3 percent growth before 1982, and that assumes no further big oil price hikes or interruptions to supply.
The GNP outlook for 1981 is for negative results in Germany, England and Italy, and positive results of 1 1/4 percent or lower in Canada, France and the United States. Japan, with a 3 3/4 percent growth in 1981, is expected to be the star performer.
In contrast to what happened after the first oil shock, most observers say there is little reason to believe that there will be a decline in the relative price of oil. On the contrary, the expectation is that there will be a sustained increase in the real price.
Even before the Bali oil price hike, Salomon Bros.' Randol warned that "there is no control mechanism to place an upper limit on prices, as long as there is no meaningful spare capacity in the system." Sheikh Yamani, the Saudi Arabian oil minister, talked darkly of a $50-per-barrel price as early as this spring -- a figure (give or take a couple of dollars) that seems certainly to be within range by the end of the year.
Jan Tumlir, chief economist for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), told the Time Magazine outlook session that he expects "for the first time we will have a generalized recession in the sense that the imports of the developing countries will increase only marginally, if at all."
In adding up the GNP cost of the OPEC price increases to that massive $550 billion figure, OECD said that direct impact accounts for 4 1/2 percent of the total, while the fiscal restraints adopted by various countries make up the balance of 2 percent of the total. For the United States, the OECD said, the loss of GNP is even worse -- 7 1/4 percent overall -- the difference being the impact of a larger rise in domestic energy prices (compared with Europe and Japan) as they moved up closer to the world market.
And these estimates do not take into account the impact of tight monetary policies that most countries felt they were forced to follow -- and which, combined with austere fiscal policies, contained the inflationary consequences better than was the case after the first oil price shock.But it is clear, the OECD says, that the monetary policy has led to high interest rates which throughout the world have choked off residential and other forms of investment.
In other words, the world response to OPEC's price demands of 1979 and 1980 has been to damp down the normal growth of the economies of all of the oil-importing nations, assigning priority attention to control of inflation, rather than the improvement of national standards of living. It all translated into an enormous transfer of wealth from the non-OPEC world to the OPEC world last year, and the story won't be any different in 1981.
Emil Van Lennep, director-general of the OECD makes the anti-inflation strategy explicit: "I am impressed by the unanimity with which governments have chosen, first, to break inflation . . . [it] has to be broken not only because of the social injustice and political strains it induces, but because it destroys prosperity and jobs."
Lennep also stresses that recovery in the rich world won't be sustained unless gains are made on the productivity front, which implies not only tax incentives for investment, but halting the disquieting protectionist trend which risks "perpetuating the existence of inefficient producers."
But the propspect of slow growth, combined with uncertainty over oil supplies and prices, distresses the outgoing members of the Carter administration -- although they don't pretend to have any better macro-economic solution than Van Lennep's anti-inflation strategy, which in fact has been endorsed by all of the major powers at recent economic summits.
"I think it will be another year of stagnation, with inflation much too high, even if some progress is made in getting the rates down," said a Carter economist. "Growth rates will be very slow everywhere, with unemployment continuing to rise, at least in the early part of the year."
In more specific terms, Europe has been in a recession since about mid-year. The German economy hit a peak in the first quarter of 1980, and it has been downhill since then. The slide started earlier in England, where industrial production at the end of the year was down about 8 percent from its peak in mid-1979. The United States, Italy and Canada moved into recession by midyear.
Japan managed to sustain a moderate growth rate by keeping up its exports, but real domestic activity was about as stagnant as in the rest of the developed world. French economic activity slumped after the first quarter, but the economy managed to hold onto a fractional positive growth rate at the end of 1980.
"The world," summed up former IMF Managing Director H. J. Witteveen in his typically understated way, "continues to be plagued by a number of seemingly intractable problems, linked together in a puzzling and complex network."