Worldwide economy roars ahead

Led by bustling business activity in the US and Asia, the global economy has finally begun a strong revival - one that some see turning into a sustainable boom.

Worldwide economic growth could hit 4 percent or higher this year, well above what was forecast just months ago. A key reason: Low interest rates, set by many nations' central banks after America's stock market meltdown rippled around the world in 2000 and 2001, are bearing fruit in consumer demand.

A US recovery is now matched by signs of health in Japan. China and India, meanwhile, are roaring ahead so speedily that the talk is about when, not if, they become economic superpowers.

This doesn't mean there aren't danger signs - notably high oil prices and new risks of inflation. But some economists see the promise of growth matching the 4.8 percent pace last seen, by one measure, in 1984.

"The strongest performance in a generation," reckons Michael Mussa, a former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief economist who forecasts world growth hitting 4.75 percent this year.

The world may enjoy "solid growth that goes on and on and on" - rather than boom and bust, adds Richard Reid, an economist in London with Citigroup, the largest American banking firm.

An underlying factor in this recovery: The balance of economic power in the world is shifting. When 10 more nations and their 70 million people join the European Community May 1, the EC's economy will be about the same size as that of the US.

The US remains the world's only military superpower. But it has company in the economic sphere. That means the Bush administration may need to be less unilateral in economic policies, says C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics. It can't ignore market forces. So the US has "no other option" than to be cooperative on trade and similar issues.

China already ranks as probably the fourth largest economy in the world on the basis of the purchasing power of its huge population. At present growth rates, it will join the US, Europe, and Japan as an economic superpower within 20 years.

India may not be many years behind, given its splendid recent economic performance. India's economy could grow 10 percent this year, figures Nariman Behravesh, chief economist for Global Insights in Waltham, Mass. "India could be on the verge of something of a takeoff."

A year ago, the world scene was different. Many economists were concerned with deflation. Prices were falling in Japan. Federal Reserve policymakers expressed concern that the US might see something similar. Continental Europe was suffering extremely slow growth.

This prompted policymakers in the US, Japan, and Europe to stimulate their economies with extraordinarily low interest rates and major budget deficits.

Though the American economy was already coming back from recession a year ago, the recovery was jobless - a trend that may now be turning around..

Financial markets, too, are now mostly pleasing investors.

"Global financial vulnerabilities have subsided," notes an IMF report last week. Banks and other financial institutions are enjoying stronger balance sheets.

It's a "sweet spot," states the report. "Economic activity and corporate earnings have made a strong recovery, most noticeably in the United States, but also in the other parts of the world. "

Add it all up, and Mr. Mussa predicts 4.75 percent real growth - after inflation - in the world. Mr. Reid says 4 percent. Mr. Behravesh, using a different method of calculation, says 3.5 percent - still vigorous.

The recovery now appears strong enough that this week's US inflation report - a 0.5 percent rise in consumer prices last month - stirred concerns that the Fed may raise interest rates soon.

China's economy is so hot that the government is putting on the brakes, with two rate hikes in just three weeks. Last year, China's economy grew 9 percent after inflation. This year, economists expect about 8.5 percent.

Japan's economic recovery, which got a weak start last year after more than a decade of malaise, should grow 2.5 percent in 2004, says Mr. Reid.

Europe remains a relative sluggard. Reid forecasts 1.4 percent growth for the 12-nation euro area. Still, an improvement from 0.4 percent last year. With steep oil prices, Russia also is thriving. Its gross domestic product could grow 5 to 6 percent this year, says Behravesh.

As for the US, it remains the lead engine for the world, with a predicted growth this year of about 4.5 percent.

Economists do see some potential hazards for the world economy, including oil prices that could retard growth if they rise.

Another risk is a sharp fall in the dollar against the currencies of US trading partners. If the high US deficits in both international trade and the federal budget make foreigners wary of holding US financial assets, it could drive American interest rates higher, hurting the economy.

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