Our World in 2009

Certainly the most authoritative publication which predicts the grand occasions and developments of the following year is the widely circulated Economist, published in the UK. Even by its own admission many of its predictions for 2008 were way off target. That of course is true of all other publications that engage in this annual crystal ball-gazing. But then the Economist is no ordinary weekly – it is the weekly on economics and political issues of the day. Yet it got the US presidential elections wrong and like everyone else did not foresee the financial meltdown which started in the US and saw the nationalisation of nine banks across the US and Europe and the injection of more than a trillion US dollars. Incidentally, economists by a margin of 2 to 1 supported Barack Obama for the presidency of the US.

The US, therefore, is as good a place to start any prediction for 2009 when come January 20, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the first black President of the USA, the world’s only superpower. That is an occasion of historic proportions in a world that has for centuries been defined by colour and class. The world has changed dramatically since Obama began his campaign for the White House on the winning slogan, ‘Yes, We Can.’ The problem for him is how he can persuade the Americans that that statement comes with the unstated qualification, “but not now.” The truth is not even Superman could right the wrongs of US economy in one year.

America’s hope
Yet there are positives from an Obama presidency. He is one reason why the world will start looking at the US through changed lenses. The other is why they should. America accounts for some 20% of global GDP, ie one out of every five dollars spent. It is the willingness of the American consumer to spend – often money it does not have, on goods it does not produce – which has driven China and India, two of the most populous nations of the world to record growth lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.

But then there are some contradictions. Some economists are troubled that a President Obama, committed to righting the US economy will adopt protectionist measures. He has signalled as much with the promise to give tax breaks to American firms that stay at home. He is also on record as describing NAFTA as “devastating” and “a big mistake,” although he later back-peddled and indicated he would not unilaterally reopen negotiations on NAFTA as he had earlier threatened to do. As increasing number of jobs are perceived to be lost to Mexico, Canada, India and China, the unanimous support which Obama has received from US labour may start to unravel. Already faced with the worst economy ever to have been inherited by an incoming US President, Obama will find that he has one of the shortest honeymoons on record with a zero margin for error.

Obama has also indicated that he would go full steam in a stimulus package designed to slow and then reverse the rate at which the economy is contracting. Estimates of the decline are anywhere between 3-5%, a catastrophic rate indeed, that would spell trouble for the rest of the world. If not the US, can the BRIC countries − Brazil, Russia, India and China − prevent the world economy nose-diving?

The elephant and the dragon
Not too long ago conventional wisdom was that the Chinese and Indian economies could do just that. But more recently, the pessimists have been in the ascendancy. The close of 2008 finds India sabre-rattling with its long-term rival Pakistan following the Mumbai bombing last month. Suddenly the Indian star is losing its brightness with the ever-present political uncertainties resurfacing. Elections predicted to be held in the first half of the year will almost certainly see the governing party paying a huge political price for its failure to respond quickly and decisively to the attack which India blames on Pakistan. The country that has had an average annual growth rate in the past five years in excess of 8% with the major share coming from services is almost certain to slow. The most direct impact will be on the poor, with tens of millions falling back into poverty.

This columnist for one has never been comfortable with an economic philosophy in which economic growth must necessarily be accompanied by a widening of the income and wealth gap. And that is what has been taking place in India. The World Bank reckons that in 2005 the number of persons living below the poverty line was 456 million compared with 420 million in 1981, although when measured as a percentage of the population there was a drop of some 18%. India’s infrastructure is poor, foreign investment is declining and the value of business on which the country’s hugely successful outsourcing information technology sector has been built has also declined.

China too will have its own problems. Its economy and rapid growth have been driven by exports which for seven years until November 2008 kept rising at rates so phenomenal that they astounded economists around the world. Then in November the Chinese reported the first year on year decline in exports of 2.6%. That is as bad for the economy as for the psyche which had started to entertain dreams of a Chinese century. But China’s fortunes in 2009 are bleak only by its own stratospheric standards.

The safest bet to weather an economic storm is to have lots and lots of money. China certainly does. It has re-invested upward of $1 trillion, mostly earnings from manufacturing exports, into American government bonds and government-backed mortgage debt. Its challenge is on choosing between further lending to finance American consumption of China goods or risk a further slowdown of exports on which it has built a modern economy that is the envy of the rest of the world. Its greatest challenge in 2009, however, is not the meltdown itself but how it responds to it. And there the signs for the Year of the Ox in the Chinese calendar are not good. Its instinctive response was a return to censorship.

Brazil and Russia
That takes a huge chunk out of the BRIC countries which some leading thinkers consider as having the potential to challenge the West as the most powerful economies, all within the next few decades. This may seem wishful thinking but those countries cover over twenty-five per cent of the world’s land and forty per cent of the world’s population. But Brazil too is experiencing its own challenges and its Congress recently approved on Thursday a cut of 10.3 billion reals ($4.38 billion) in the government’s 2009 budget to cope with an expected decline in tax revenues as a result of the global economic slowdown.

That leaves Russia. Judging by Putin’s swagger and the short uneven war with Georgia, one gets the impression that Russian power, pride and influence are rising. But with oil prices falling, Russia will have its own economic problems in 2009 with the usual mix of reduced foreign investments, rising imports and declining exports, restrictions on credit and inflation reducing real income.

Here at home
The end of 2008 of course was highlighted by the opening of the bridge across the Berbice River. It was a tremendous Christmas gift not only to Berbicians but to Guyana, and the government should be complimented on the achievement. But as the government looks at the prospects for 2009 it can do so only with at best guarded optimism. Forty years after Independence, Guyana is still mainly a commodity producing country which has only just graduated from being a country subject to the strictures of the IMF.

We are still without any real plan or direction. After more than two decades of allocating the nation’s forestry resources mainly to foreign investors, the country now wakes up to the possibility of carbon credits with President Jagdeo so convinced that he is prepared to make fundamental changes to the use of our forests, all without consultation.  The problem is that so much of our forests have already been allocated that any decision by the President on the use of the forests will require the agreement of the licensees. We could then be in a situation similar to that with GT&T where the government is unable to negotiate out of a lop-sided agreement following years of dithering.

The shelving of any plans for hydropower leaves the consumers at the mercy of the Guyana Power & Light Company which is easily the most inefficient operator of its kind in the region. Perhaps because GPL is state-owned and managed it has escaped the kind of criticism to which GuySuCo has been subjected, sometimes unfairly. It should not escape the attention of the decision-makers that none of the growth sectors of the economy rely on power by GPL for their operations. Until GPL can become an efficient producer and transmitter of electricity, the country’s economic progress will be retarded.

Over the past few years there has been a boom in commodity prices but the national budget has little to show for it. In fact in the midst of the boom, our national sugar company continues to rely on Government for support. National performance like growth in GDP is distorted by the role of international operators in bauxite, rice, gold and forestry. Excessive taxation is imposed on labour while investors enjoy all forms of concessions. There is an obsession with GDP while ignoring people issues like employment and poverty.

The country has so far taken the ostrich’s view of the economic crisis. It is time that we take our heads from the sand if we are to successfully negotiate with the challenges of 2009.

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