For the last three years the world’s biggest economies - the US, eurozone and China - have been living up to the infuriating euphemism so beloved of policymakers: ”kicking the can down the road”. They have been avoiding the tough decisions that are required to address their fundamental economic, financial and fiscal problems.
The US has postponed its fiscal consolidation and avoided the other structural reforms - investments in infrastructure, education and skills and changes to energy policy - that are required to restore its potential growth rate. The eurozone has been in denial of the fact that some of its member states are insolvent, as well as unable to survive and grow in a monetary union. China has persisted in its weak currency, to support its export and investment-led growth model where savings are too high and consumption too low.
In all cases political constraints - the approaching elections in the US and leadership transition in China at the end of 2012, and the inability of the eurozone’s 17 governments and coalitions to coordinate policies coherently while staggered elections and changes of government take place – have led leaders to avoid the short-term pain and political costs of tough decisions that will yield benefits only over the medium term.
It will become clear in 2012 that this game of “kicking the can down the road” is a zero-sum game. When domestic demand is weak, and either deleveraging or structural constraints are holding back private and public consumption, every country would rather have a weak currency to restore growth by boosting net exports. But if one currency is weaker another needs to be stronger; and if one country’s trade balance is improved another is worsened. So currency tensions can lead to currency wars and eventually to trade wars.
So in 2012, the combination of market pressures and conflicting political constraints will make it more difficult to kick the can down the road. A few eurozone members may need to coercively restructure their debts and even consider exiting the currency union. A slowdown in China’s growth may come close to being a hard landing. Markets in the US may become more concerned about the political gridlock that stops policymakers taking the necessary actions and maintains the unsustainable US twin deficits.
If the world’s biggest economies continue to play the same game and try to kick the cans further down the road for another year, the cans will become bigger and heavier and eventually hit a brick wall. By 2013 at the latest, but possibly already in 2012, a perfect storm of a double-dip recession in the US, a disorderly scenario in the eurozone and a hard landing in China could materialise.