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World Bank warns global economy may suffer 1970s-style stagflation

The global economy may be headed for years of weak growth and rising prices, a toxic combination that will test the stability of dozens of countries still struggling to rebound from the pandemic, the World Bank warned. REUTERS

The global economy may be headed for years of weak growth and rising prices, a toxic combination that will test the stability of dozens of countries still struggling to rebound from the pandemic, the World Bank warned. REUTERS

Published Jun 8, 2022

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The global economy may be headed for years of weak growth and rising prices, a toxic combination that will test the stability of dozens of countries still struggling to rebound from the pandemic, the World Bank warned.

Not since the 1970s - when twin oil shocks sapped growth and lifted prices, giving rise to the malady known as "stagflation" - has the global economy faced such a challenge.

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The bank slashed its annual global growth forecast to 2.9% from January's 4.1% and said that "subdued growth will likely persist throughout the decade because of weak investment in most of the world."

Fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine has aggravated the global slowdown by driving up prices for a range of commodities, fueling inflation. Global growth this year will be roughly half of last year's annualized rate and is expected to show little improvement in 2023 and 2024.

This will be the sharpest slump after an initial post-recession rebound that the global economy has suffered in more than 80 years, the bank said. And the situation could get even worse if the Ukraine war fractures global trade and financial networks or soaring food prices spark social unrest in importing countries.

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"The risk from stagflation is considerable with potentially destabilizing consequences for low- and middle-income economies," said David Malpass, president of the multilateral development institution in Washington. " . . . There's a severe risk of malnutrition and of deepening hunger and even of famine in some areas."

If the worst outcomes materialize, global growth over the next two years could fall "close to zero," he added.

With few exceptions, the economic outlook is troubled.

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In the third year of pandemic, the global economy this year has been hit by what the World Bank labels "overlapping crises" - fallout from the war in Ukraine, recurring coronavirus lockdowns affecting Chinese factories and the highest inflation rates in decades.

For now, the greatest areas of concern lie beyond U.S. borders. A recession in Europe is a real possibility, as the continent struggles to accommodate nearly 7 million Ukrainian refugees and deal with upheavals in energy markets. Elsewhere, the interruption of grain exports via the Black Sea is hurting countries such as Lebanon, Egypt and Somalia. China is suffering from its rigid zero-covid policies and battling costly property market weakness.

Though the U.S. economy shrank in the first three months of the year during the omicron variant surge, growth is expected to rebound in the current quarter, according to economists' estimates. Financial market gauges of future inflation rates have declined since late April, easing - though not eliminating - fears of a prolonged price spiral.

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Nathan Sheets, global chief economist for Citigroup, called the chance of a significant stagflation outbreak in the U.S. "remote," in a recent client note.

Policymakers must act quickly to mitigate the Ukraine war's consequences, help countries pay for food and fuel, and accelerate promised debt relief, while avoiding "distortionary policies" such as price controls and export bans, the bank said.

The World Bank's Malpass said the global economy is being hampered by inadequate production capacity for key goods. "It's very important to increase supply massively to really try to get at inflation directly by more production. Unfortunately, there aren't signs of that very much yet," he said.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has disrupted global energy markets, threatening Europe with recession and straining the budgets of countries that import large quantities of oil, natural gas, coal and fertilizer, the bank said.

As Europe weans itself from Russian energy products, its purchases from alternative suppliers competes with orders from existing customers, limiting available supplies.

Malpass said that to help offset surging prices, investments in additional energy production were desperately needed, especially to address a shortfall of natural gas supplies, which are used to produce both electricity and fertilizer. Even announcements of future capacity could lower current prices, he said.

"Announcements of major production increases will be essential for restoring noninflationary growth," he said.

The global stagflation threat could have particularly dire effects in the developing world, where per-person income this year remains nearly 5% below pre-pandemic levels, the bank said.

Persistent inflation raises the chances that the Federal Reserve and other central banks will sharply increase interest rates to cool off demand, as happened in the late 1970s. That could lead to a more punishing global slump and financial crises in some emerging markets, the bank said.

In the 1970s, Latin American countries, in particular, borrowed heavily from U.S. banks, taking advantage of low inflation-adjusted interest rates. But when central banks in the United States and Europe turned to fighting inflation and hiked borrowing costs, sixteen Latin American countries stopped making their debt payments, according to the Federal Reserve.

Major banks cut off financing as they sought to negotiate new payment plans, plunging the region into a "lost decade" of anemic growth.

Today, developing countries as a group owe a record amount to foreign banks and other financial institutions. One-quarter of the typical poor country's debt burden now carries variable interest rates, up from 11% in 2010. So as inflation-fighting central banks tighten credit, repayment costs will rise for cash-strapped borrowing nations, the bank said.

Sri Lanka last month defaulted on its foreign debts for the first time, and Malpass said he expects other highly indebted countries will do the same.

But the world's top economies will not escape damage. Bank economists now expect the United States to grow this year by just 2.5%, down from the 3.7% rate they projected in January.

China, the world's second-largest economy, will fall short of the government's annual growth target, expanding by 4.3%. That would be Beijing's worst full-year figure since 1990, excluding 2020 when the pandemic depressed activity.

Investors also could take a beating from a repeat of '70s-style stagflation. The S&P 500 stock index, already down more than 13% this year, could lose an additional 20% or more, according to a recent client note from Bank of America.

Led by the United States, the world roared out of the pandemic downturn with its fastest growth since 1973, a 5.7% gain. The global economy was expected to struggle this year as it adjusted to the loss of pandemic-era government spending and ultralow interest rates. But Russia's invasion of Ukraine - and continued coronavirus flare-ups - have made the situation tougher.

The price of a barrel of Brent crude oil has jumped to nearly $120, up almost 50% this year. And wheat has staged a similar rally, leading the bank to call for urgent action to ease "worldwide food shortages."

The World Bank's downbeat forecast adds to concerns about global weakness. Most major stock markets, including those in the United States, are in the red so far this year. And the bank's sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, lowered its global forecast in April.

With the U.S., and most other major economies suffering the highest inflation in 40 years, many economists in recent months have cited the danger of a 1970s rerun.

After enjoying robust growth for most of the previous decade, the global economy toppled into a prolonged slump in the 1970s. By 1982, global growth hovered near zero even as worldwide inflation surged into double digits, according to the World Bank.

Still, today's global economy differs from the 1970s in important ways, the bank said. The run-up in commodity prices, though painful, pales alongside what happened almost five decades ago. Oil prices quadrupled in 1973-1974 before doubling again in 1979-1980 amid the overthrow of the shah of Iran.

Adjusted for inflation, today's oil prices are one-third below their 1980 level, the bank said.

WASHINGTON POST

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