World Hopes to Avoid US Slump

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE economic and financial situation in the world is hardly boring at the start of 1991. The United States is in a recession. Abroad, the economic picture is mixed.

A potential war with Iraq could further upset oil prices.

The Uruguay Round of international trade negotiations must be restarted after suspension of the talks last month.

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In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, governments are struggling to lead their national economies through considerable chaos into greater prosperity based on free-market principles.

Many commercial banks in the US are swimming hard to keep their heads above troubled financial waters.

Wall Street, after a wild but prosperous decade, faces the discipline of sharply lower income.

Here's the outlook in these sectors:

The Economy: In the US, economists are counting on the Federal Reserve System to ease monetary policy to give the economy a boost later this year.

Almost half the 50 US economists surveyed by Blue Chip Economic Indicators (Sedona, Ariz.) now forecast zero growth or less in the output of goods and services in 1991 as compared with 1990. That implies an outright contraction in the first part of the year. The consensus of the 50 figures real gross national product (after inflation) fell in the last quarter of 1990, and will contract again in the first three months of 1991. They foresee modest renewed growth in the second quarter. For the year 1991, the consensus predicts real growth of a mere 0.3 percent. Much will depend on what happens in the Gulf.

A survey by Globescope (Glen Carbon, Ill.) of 49 economists here and abroad finds the world economy slowing. Their average forecast sees growth in real terms in 1991 of 1 percent in Canada, 3.8 percent in Japan, 3 percent in Germany, 2.4 percent in France, 2.3 percent in Italy, 1.2 percent in Britain, 3 percent in Spain, 1.8 percent in Australia, 3.7 percent in Mexico, and 1.4 percent in Brazil.

Those forecasts are close to those late last month of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the club of 24 industrial democracies. Economists at the Paris-based organization say that robust growth in Japan and Germany should prevent the troubles in the US economy from dragging the world into recession.

Unemployment in the US, the OECD predicts, will rise to 6.4 percent this year and 6.7 percent in 1992. Canada, Britain, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, and Iceland are expected to join the US in recession or a slump close to recession in severity.

The OECD economists hold that the ``shock'' in oil prices from the Gulf crisis will do less damage to the world than the oil shocks in the 1970s. That's because the rise in oil prices is substantially less and because the exposure of the OECD economies, in terms of oil use per unit of output, has fallen considerably since 1973.

Energy: Most analysts expect oil prices to drop sharply if peace comes to the Middle East. In recent months, Saudi Arabia and other oil producers have made up for the loss of crude production from Iraq and Kuwait. So the world would quickly face an oversupply of oil should Iraq and Kuwait reenter the export market.

However, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, meeting in Vienna on Dec. 12, agreed to restore output quotas once the crisis is over. The oil exports of 11 of OPEC's 13 members are now at a little more than 23 million barrels a day, which is about 500,000 over the 22.5 million quota for all 13 countries.

If war does break out, fear of damage, if not actual damage, to the oil facilities of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms could send oil prices to new high levels, the experts reckon.

President Bush is expected to present his administration's energy policy late this month.

Trade: World merchandise trade probably exceeded $3.3 trillion last year. Economists say that failure of the Uruguay Round could start trade wars and increase restrictions on imports, hampering international commerce. The world, they say, could gradually divide into three trading blocs built around Europe, the US, and Japan.

Jeffrey Schott, a fellow at the Institute for International Economics, says the round is not dead: ``Its promising yield is ripe for picking, but remains unharvested. After suspension of the high-level talks in Brussels on Dec. 7, lower level negotiators resumed their work. ``Their task will not be easy,'' Mr. Schott says. ``The differences over agricultural reform are fundamental and will require political intervention at the highest level to craft a compromise.''

Soviet Union: Output of the Soviet economy fell a sharp 4 percent in 1990, according to a joint report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the OECD, and the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. That drop in output is two to four times larger than the decline in national output during a mild US recession. The report suggests the West should not provide large-scale financial support for the Soviet Union until it has embarked on a fundamental reform of its economy. The report did approve food aid, technical assistance for economic reform, and limited project aid, such as that in the energy industry.

On Dec. 12, President Bush approved up to $1 billion in federally guaranteed loans to allow Moscow to buy food and other agricultural goods. Two days later, leaders of the European Community agreed in principle to give the Soviets $2.4 billion in emergency food, medical aid, and technical assistance.

During 1991, the Soviet Union is expected to negotiate for membership in the IMF and the World Bank. In effect, the industrial democracies are trying to embrace the Soviet Union in the Western economic system, but at not too much cost.

Banking: After the costly debacle in the US savings-and-loan industry, trouble in commercial banking makes Washington nervous. The Federal Reserve System, fully aware of the danger, moved Dec. 4 to boost bank profits by cutting reserve requirements. It also has trimmed interest rates considerably in the last two months in an attempt to prevent further decline in the economy. Nonetheless, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation expects a $5 billion loss this year from failing banks, reducing its reserves to $4 billion. It may impose a one-time assessment on banks equal to 1 percent of their total deposits in order to bolster the fund by about $28 billion. The FDIC has also asked Congress for authority to base the level of premiums on the riskiness of the assets held by banks. The riskier the assets, the higher the premiums.

The Treasury Department is expected to present to Congress a wide range of proposals on overhauling the nation's banking system. These could give banks more powers to compete in the financial area and lead to greater consolidation of banks.

Wall Street: Will stock prices go up in the US in 1990?

As is normal, opinions differ. ``A period of improving US corporate profits lies ahead which should produce good gains on US stocks,'' says John Dessauer, a market letter publisher. John Winthrop Wright, a money manager in Bridgeport, Conn., says contrariwise that the major stock market averages are still priced at the higher end of their historical price/value range. So he expects stock prices ``to be subject to recurring bouts of selling during 1991.''

What is more certain, however, is that stock and other financial markets likely will continue to become more international.

``We are living in a global financial community,'' says James Jones, chairman of the American Stock Exchange. ``The trend is toward cross-national joint ventures.''

In other words, exchanges like the AMEX are joining with other exchanges in the design and trade of financial products.

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