“Growth expectations seem to fall consistently,” said Maury Obstfeld, economic counsellor at the IMF. “I think the year coming is going to be a year of great challenges.”
Fears that the outlook could be even gloomier have roiled financial markets during the first few weeks of the year. China officially entered a bear market last week after a brutal selloff Friday that sent the Shanghai Composite Index down 20 percent from last year’s high. It also announced late Monday that its growth rate had slowed to 6.9 percent in 2015, the slowest pace in a quarter century.
On Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has logged its worse two-week start to a year in history.
The IMF forecast that growth in China will further slow to 6.3 percent this year and fall to 6 percent in 2017 — below Beijing’s official target for the pace of expansion. Many analysts are skeptical of the country’s estimates of growth, and some fear its economy is in much worse shape than officials are willing to acknowledge.
China’s boom had been built on exporting its low-priced goods around the world, driving domestic investment in factories, equipment and infrastructure. China’s seemingly insatiable demand for raw materials also helped buoy resource-rich countries such as Brazil and Zambia.
Now the tide is turning. Chinese exports face stiff price competition from other Asian countries at the same time that worldwide demand is sagging. Beijing is attempting to shift the country’s economic engine from manufacturing and trade to consumer spending, but the adjustment is slow and painful. And lately, investors have begun to question whether officials are up to the challenge.
“We don’t see a big change in fundamentals in China … but the markets are certainly very spooked by small events that they find very hard to interpret,” Obstfeld said.
The slowdown in China is spilling over to several key emerging markets, which had ridden Beijing’s coattails to prosperity during the boom. The IMF pointed to political upheaval and a sharper contraction than expected in Brazil as a key factor behind the downgraded global forecast.
Meanwhile, the IMF said it expects oil prices to remain “low for long.” The price of Brent crude oil on international markets recently fell below $30 a barrel, a psychologically important benchmark. Many analysts also expect Iran to ramp up production after U.S. sanctions were lifted this weekend, adding to the global supply glut and holding back prices.
Emerging markets had supported much of the growth in the world economy following the 2008 financial crisis. But as they slow down, countries such as the United States and those in Europe lack the momentum to pick up the slack. The IMF estimates that advanced economies will grow a modest 2.1 percent this year, compared to the 4.3 percent rate of growth in emerging markets.
Even that may prove optimistic. Standard & Poor’s cut Poland’s credit rating last week over concerns that its new national ruling party could interfere with its central bank and other key government institutions. Poland has boasted one of the strongest economies in the European Union, but its currency plunged following the downgrade.
The IMF also reduced its estimate for U.S. growth, projecting it will plateau over the next two years at 2.6 percent. The Federal Reserve recently began withdrawing its support for America’s economy by raising interest rates. The move was intended to signal its confidence in the resilience of the recovery, but the IMF suggested the economy may not be as robust as hoped.
“We’re not as optimistic about a pickup in U.S. growth,” Obstfeld said.