With global growth chugging along, the world's economies are exposed to a number of risks, as a handful of economic indicators have gone far beyond the bounds of their historical norms, according to a report for the world's central banks.
The signs include record housing prices, soaring debt and an ever-widening U.S. current-account deficit. Any shift back to more-ordinary levels could potentially be "rapid and disruptive" for the global economy, according to a report yesterday by the Bank for International Settlements, an organization that fosters cooperation among the world's central banks.
On the whole, worldwide growth is strong and inflation is tame, but many central banks are nevertheless worried. The last time the world economy faced such a confluence of imbalances was in the late 1960s, which contributed to the inflation of the 1970s and the debt crises of the 1980s.
One of the textbook prescriptions to deal with many of the possible problems is higher interest rates. But that medicine can cause excessive unemployment and slower growth, the report said. The challenge is to address the sources of "potential unsustainability without, in the process, inducing a marked slowdown in world growth," Nout Wellink, president of the BIS, told central bankers yesterday at an annual meeting at its headquarters in Basel, Switzerland.
"In the absence of timely policy action, the risk is that a more disruptive market-driven adjustment might take place further down the road," he said.
One of the major problems is strong growth in the United States and China compared with weak growth in Japan and the euro area. This is prompting an unprecedented U.S. current-account deficit, the broadest measure of the gap on trade and investment income between the United States and the rest of the world.
It measured 5.7 percent of gross domestic product last year, compared with a surplus of 0.4 percent in the euro area and 3.7 percent in Japan. The BIS said that such levels are unprecedented for a country issuing a major reserve currency, and can lead to a disorderly decline in the dollar, turmoil in other financial markets, a possible U.S. recession and trade protectionism.
The BIS report urged everyone to commit to unpleasant compromises now in order to avoid even more unpleasant alternatives in the future. The United States needs to raise savings rates and cut budget deficits to curb imports. Europe and Japan should boost demand by making their economies more flexible. China and other Asian countries need to allow their currencies to fluctuate more against the dollar so that they don't have such a great export advantage, the BIS said.
But those remedies are proving controversial because national interests are at stake. Wellink -- in a gripe often heard from European officials -- noted that prospects for lower deficits in the United States "are not very encouraging."