Editorial: Growth has peaked: challenges in engineering a soft landing

The global economy is navigating rough seas. Global GDP growth is strong but has peaked. In many countries unemployment is well below pre-crisis levels, labour shortages are biting and inflation remains tepid. Yet, global trade and investment have been slowing on the back of increases in bilateral tariffs while many emerging market economies are experiencing capital outflows and a weakening of their currencies. The global economy looks set for a soft landing, with global GDP growth projected to slow from 3.7% in 2018 to 3.5% in 2019-20. However, downside risks abound and policy makers will have to steer their economies carefully towards sustainable, albeit slower, GDP growth.

Engineering soft landings has always been a delicate exercise and is especially challenging today. As central banks progressively, and appropriately, reduce their liquidity support, markets have started repricing risks as reflected by the return of volatility and the decline of some asset prices. Capital flows, which had fuelled the expansion of emerging market economies, have been reversing towards advanced economies and especially the United States. Trade tensions have heightened uncertainty for businesses and risk disrupting global value chains and investment, especially in regions tightly linked to the United States and China. Political and geopolitical uncertainty has increased in Europe and the Middle East.

An accumulation of risks could create the conditions for a harder-than-expected landing. First, further trade tensions would take a toll on trade and GDP growth, generating even more uncertainty for business plans and investment. Second, tightening financial conditions could accelerate capital outflows from emerging market economies and depress demand further. Third, a sharp slowdown in China would hit emerging market economies, but also advanced economies if the demand shock in China triggered a significant decline in global equity prices and higher global risk premia.

Political tensions other than trade have also grown. In the Middle East and Venezuela, geopolitical and political challenges have translated into more volatile oil prices. In Europe, Brexit is an important source of political uncertainty. It is imperative that the European Union and the United Kingdom manage to strike a deal that maintains the closest possible relationship between the parties. In some euro area countries, the exposure of banks to their government debt could weigh on credit growth if risk premia were to increase further, with dampening effects on consumption, investment, GDP growth, and ultimately jobs.

Against this backdrop, we urge policymakers to restore confidence in international dialogue and institutions. This would help strengthen trade discussions in order to tackle critical new issues and to address concerns with the rules and processes of the existing trading system. Concrete action at the G20 level will send a positive signal and help demonstrate that countries can act in a coordinated and cooperative fashion should growth slow more sharply than envisaged.

It is all the more important to cooperate now that policymakers have limited margins for manoeuvre in case of an abrupt slowdown. In some countries, monetary policy is still very accommodative, while public and private debt-to-GDP ratios are historically high. Fiscal stimulus will be scaled back, which is appropriate. But in the event of a downturn, governments should leverage low interest rates to coordinate a fiscal stimulus. In this Economic Outlook, we report simulations showing that a coordinated fiscal stimulus at the global level would be an effective means of quickly responding to a sharper-than-expected global slowdown.

The fragile environment heightens the importance of completing European Monetary Union, as suggested in the latest OECD Economic Survey of the Euro Area. It is urgent for Europe to complete the banking union. The lack of progress has led to higher domestic sovereign debt holdings by banks in some countries, magnifying hazards and maintaining the redenomination risk that undermines confidence. Progress towards establishing a common fiscal capacity would help maintain confidence in the ability of the euro area to react to shocks and sustain growth.

The global recovery since the financial crisis has not led to tangible improvements in the standards of living of many people. While absolute poverty has plummeted in a number of emerging market economies, the crisis exposed decades of widening well-being gaps between the higher-skilled mobile part of the population and a larger number of less-mobile, often less-skilled people in many advanced economies. Income gaps pass from one generation to the next: one’s future prospects are framed by where one is born, educated and starts looking for a job. These entrenched inequalities threaten growth, inter-generational mobility, and fuel discontent with the integrated global economy, which has brought prosperity across large parts of the world.

The general slowdown in productivity growth in many economies constrains real wage growth. But even in highly productive firms, wage growth has been more sluggish than expected, a result in part of technology driving down investment prices. This can prompt substitution of labour by capital, particularly for low-skilled, high-routine jobs. As digitalisation deepens, the divide between high-skill, low-routine jobs and low-skill, high-routine work risks widening. In addition, slower business dynamics preserve firms which are less productive and accordingly are less able to increase wages. Together with declining redistribution, this trend risks fuelling inequalities.  

Governments can do more to foster higher productivity and wages. Strengthening product market competition would not only favour wider diffusion of new technologies, thereby raising productivity growth, but also help transfer productivity gains to wages. Investment in skills can help workers seize the gains from technological progress as higher-skilled labour is less easily replaced by new technologies. Effective active labour market and skills training policies can help those at risk of being excluded from the labour market.

Certain policy decisions are exacerbating many of the headwinds faced by our economies. Better policies, built on greater trust and openness, are needed now more than ever in order to create jobs, sustain growth and raise living standards.

21 November 2018


Laurence Boone

OECD Chief Economist

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