Stimulus goes global. Will it be enough?
The key is how well nations manage the spending.
Think 2008 was rough? Most indications are that 2009 will be even rougher for the global economy.Skip to next paragraph
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For the first time since World War II, the world's advanced nations – representing 80 percent of global output – will all see their economies contract simultaneously. Smaller economies will see slower growth and even dynamos like China, whose economy is still expected to grow by 8.5 percent, worry about social unrest from the slowdown.
And that's the optimistic scenario, painted by the International Monetary Fund and others. While the IMF back in November forecast that the US economy would contract by 0.7 percent while Japan's and the European Union's would fall by 0.2 percent, pessimists see larger declines, especially for the US.
As a practical matter, one of the only certainties for the year ahead is that government deficits will balloon as nations try to stimulate their economies and restart the cycle of growth.
How deeply the global recession cuts, analysts say, will be a function of how well they manage this spending.
If mismanaged and if the direst economic predictions are borne out, a storm that began on Wall Street could have profound political and social effects, particularly in the most vulnerable economies.
What are the ways out of the current crisis?
In one word, "Keynesianism" – the idea set out by economist John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s that governments lower interest rates (which has already happened) and increase spending (which is about to happen) to jump-start their faltering economies.
At the heart of the theory is the expectation that massive new outlays on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure will create jobs and stimulate consumer spending, cushioning the downturn at first and eventually stimulating economic growth.
The theory holds that if managed correctly the economic benefits of this spending will eventually be a multiple of the cost, allowing for the deficit accrued to be paid back later through higher tax revenue.
In practice though it's hard to know when you're spending too little to create the needed economic boost and when you're spending so much that you've generated a crippling, rather than manageable, debt burden. Getting that balance right will be the main task.
All eyes are on the United States. With an economy three times the size of its nearest competitor (Japan), it still sets the global tone for consumption and growth.
President-elect Obama has indicated that he will seek a nearly $800 billion government stimulus program to create jobs, pump money back into consumers' pockets, and thereby set the stage for recovery.
If such action isn't taken, a recession could "linger for years," he warned on Thursday. "I don't believe it's too late to change course, but it will be if we don't take dramatic action as soon as possible," he said in prepared remarks for a speech at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Is stimulus the right move?
Although dissenters are easy to find – both those who think it's too large and those who think it's too small – far scarcer are those who think spending by global governments shouldn't expand at all. No economists or governments are predicting job gains in 2009, and most large companies are bracing to fire workers and cut costs to prevent themselves from drowning in red ink.