Workers walk past Caterpillar machines at a factory in Gosselies, Belgium, in 2013. Caterpillar Inc. said it could cut 10,000 jobs through 2018 as part of its restructuring and cost reduction plans. (Eric Vidal/Reuters)

It’s beginning to look like the economic game of 2016 will be a tug of war, defined by a simple question. Will the plodding but steady U.S. recovery be derailed by the weakness of so-called “emerging market” economies, led by China, Brazil and others? The betting (so far) is that the American recovery will survive, but it’s hardly a sure thing. The outcome, needless to say, could decisively affect the presidential election.

The fact that the question is being asked at all constitutes a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. After the 2008-09 financial crisis, the consensus was that the New World (China and other emerging-market countries) would rescue the Old (the United States, Europe and Japan). With rapidly expanding middle classes, the New World — China especially — would continue to import vast quantities of raw materials and sophisticated consumer and investment goods.

Events haven’t gone according to script.

“We’ve had a huge plunge in emerging-market growth,” says Nariman Behravesh, chief economist for the consulting firm IHS. By IHS’s estimates, economic growth in these countries has dropped by about half, from 7.4 percent in 2010 to 3.8 percent in 2015. Some countries have simply lost speed; China declined from 10 percent in 2010 to less than 7 percent this year, according to many estimates. Other countries have suffered recessions. Brazil’s economy, which grew more than 7 percent in 2010, is expected to shrink 3 percent this year.

As a result, prices of raw materials — conspicuously, oil — have dropped sharply. Some global industries have surplus production capacity, and emerging-market imports are well below expectations. The fallout has already affected the U.S. economy. Caterpillar recently announced as many as 10,000 layoffs through 2018, because demand for the company’s earth-moving equipment — heavily used in mining operations — has been soft. And the Federal Reserve recently cited global uncertainty as one reason for not increasing U.S. interest rates.

Still, many economists doubt that the emerging-market debacle will squash the U.S. recovery. “The U.S. consumer and the housing market are big driving forces,” says Behravesh. U.S. exports to emerging-market countries are only about 4 percent of the economy (gross domestic product). Any loss of exports can be overwhelmed by higher consumer spending, which is nearly 70 percent of GDP. And Behravesh thinks consumer spending will remain solid for many reasons: strong job growth (around 200,000 a month); low interest rates (households’ interest payments as a share of disposable income are the lowest since the mid-1980s); and low gasoline prices.

David Stockton, a former top Fed economist now at the Peterson Institute, agrees that emerging-market countries have “only small spillovers” for the United States. The American economy, he says, should continue expanding next year. But Stockton worries that there’s an outside possibility that a further slowdown in China could trigger a broader reaction. China’s currency, the yuan, would depreciate, making Chinese exports cheaper. To protect themselves, other countries would engage in competitive devaluations. As uncertainty increased, there would be a worldwide “pullback in risk-taking.” People and businesses would spend less. Global stock markets would sag.

What compounds the danger, he says, is that governments seem to lack the weapons to combat a new slump. Central banks (the Fed in the United States, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan) are already holding interest rates close to zero. There’s little enthusiasm for bigger budget deficits.

So the global economy is not flirting with a new recession — not yet, anyway. But it’s not a remote possibility either. Whatever happens will shape the election, and all the candidates are in the same boat: They can’t do much about it.

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