"We are living on borrowed money and on borrowed time. For the United States, and for other countries, an economic moment of truth has arrived." -- William D. Eberle, Richard N. Gardner and Ann Crittenden in a paper for the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies.
The global economy appears to be emerging in 1985 from a distressing period of stagflation: The international economic agencies are forecasting economic growth averaging about 3 percent for much of the industrial world and inflation of about 5 percent, its lowest level since 1972.
Although still fighting much more serious and persistent inflationary problems, Third World countries -- including those that have been most burdened by their international debts -- also appear to be making progress. All countries -- except, obviously, the oil-exporting nations -- have benefited greatly from the sharp drop in crude oil prices. And oil prices promise to plummet even further.
But the global economy -- the big and small nations alike -- still must contend with the huge American budget deficit, which is both blessing and plague. On the plus side, the deficit's expansionary influence provides a stimulus to their exports. The negative, of course, is the upward pressure on high interest rates, in turn promoting a high dollar, sucking in investment from every quarter of the globe.
Equally, the high dollar/interest rate impact of the budget deficit on the American economy is a bittersweet mixture: On the positive side, low-priced imports have helped keep inflation down here. On the other hand, the reverse effect -- the costly tag on American exported goods -- has badly hurt American manufacturers and stimulated a protectionist wave that the Reagan administration has not been able to exorcise and that could get worse this year.
C. Fred Bergsten of the Institute for International Economics said he senses a demand for action within the American business community if the dollar stays high and the trade deficit worsens. Even extreme measures such as import surcharges may be sought, he warned.
Whether the dollar, which is labeled as overvalued by many, will continue on its present course is one of the big question marks for 1985. A common forecast is a moderate decline from present peaks.
At least a few doomsayers predict a dollar collapse that could shake the international monetary system and bring on a world recession. That is a minority viewpoint, although most agree that it is theoretically possible. Shafiqul Islam of the New York Federal Reserve Bank staff said in a bank research paper (September 1984):
"Whether the dollar will fall gradually or suffer a sudden collapse depends on what triggers the decline. . . . A 'dollar crash' will occur only if a series of 'negative' events lead to a sudden and sustained shift in market sentiment, and the authorities fail to convince market participants of their ability to prevent such a crash."
Like the future course of the dollar, the direction of American trade policy is likely to have an important bearing on overall prospects for the world economy: Increasingly, officials recognize the close relationship of trade and development finance issues, especially for the Third World debtor countries.
Phillips & Drew, investment counselors in London, forecast that world trade volume, after expanding by nearly 11 percent in 1984, will grow by only 5 percent this year and 4 percent in 1986. That would be a blow to Third World debtor nations that can service their debt (let alone actually repay the capital) only by increasing their exports. But despite repeated pledges of open trade principles by the industrial world leaders at economic summits, new barriers to trade seem to grow.
World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials do their best to persuade their rich-nation members that it is in their own interest to boost the total volume of trade with the Third World.
The expanding economy in the United States in 1984 was a boon for foreign exporters of all kinds, who enjoyed the positive side of the $130 billion American trade deficit. But against a real growth rate of 6.7 percent in 1984, the general expectation is for an expansion of only about 3 1/2 percent this year.
What all this adds up to is that the Third World debt problem, and the associated problem of inadequate population control measures, are still very much alive, and will continue to be until global economic growth is sustained at a reasonable level for a number of years.
Meanwhile, the relatively rich nations of Western Europe have had to accept the reality that the attractiveness of the even richer American economy persuades their companies and citizens to invest money here, depriving their own domestic economies of funds that could support a badly needed, job-creating expansion.
Europe's economy is expected to grow between 2 and 3 percent this year, but that won't be enough to cut record unemployment rates.
Europe's continuing inability to revitalize itself -- termed "Eurosclerosis" by Italian central banker Lamberto Dini -- is a perplexing phenomenon, and one that worries many economic and political analysts here and in Europe. Dini warned that Europe, which strove for growth and economic integration through the Common Market from 1955 through the end of the 1960s, has lost its vigor and willingness to innovate.
As the EEC bickers, welfare-state costs pile up and the unemployment rolls grow. In high-technology industries, although there are some bright spots, Europe lags behind Japan and the United States. And all of these troubles are exacerbated by high interest rates, which have kept Europe from following an expansionary fiscal policy.
Another concern has emotional roots: Europeans see America turning more to its Pacific Basin partners and away from old friends in Europe -- a trend that Dini feels threatens the Atlantic Alliance.
Europe's potential decline also worries former State Department undersecretary Robert D. Hormats, now at Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York. Hormats said in an interview that the fragile state of the European economy weakens the political structure there, threatening the ability of the United States and the Soviet Union to reach a meaningful understanding on arms control.
So long as European economies are unable to boost their growth rates, their currencies will remain weak against the dollar. European private investors will continue to expand their investments here. The Catch-22 is that these investments, if kept at home, would give their local economies a badly needed economic thrust, stimulating the creation of jobs. But Europe is troubled by more than high American interest rates: All sorts of rigid rules exist within the Common Market apparatus limiting the free flow of labor, goods and services.
Pointedly, the finance ministers of the five "key currency" countries -- the United States, Japan, West Germany, France and Great Britain -- who met here last week to discuss international financial problems agreed that one way to attack exchange rate volatility is to get rid of some of these market-inhibiting "rigidities."
But that will take a greater degree of willingness to submerge national economic policy to international imperatives than anyone seems willing to do. For this year , therefore, international economic policy is likely to be made as it has been in the recent past: with ad-hoc responses to crises as they develop.