Monday, September 10, 2007

Global Growth Threatened as U.S. Contagion Spreads (Update1)

By Rich Miller
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Sept. 10 (Bloomberg) -- This time, when the U.S. sneezes, the rest of the world may well catch a cold.

Global economic growth looks likely to slow markedly in the months ahead as further weakness in the U.S. infects Asia and Europe. That would represent a shift from the last 18 months, when the world economy proved immune to a U.S. slowdown and grew at an annual clip of more than 5 percent.

What's different now is the U.S. slump is starting to spread from the domestic housing market to consumers who buy imports from companies such as Toyota Motor Corp. And the sudden increase in borrowing costs that followed the collapse of the subprime-mortgage market is now showing up overseas, raising the price tag on credit worldwide.

``It will be a much bigger deal this time,'' says Raghuram Rajan, a former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund who's now a professor at the University of Chicago. ``I don't see growth falling off a cliff, but it will slow.''

If growth in the U.S. slips below 2 percent from an average of 2.3 percent in the first half, the global economy may suffer a modest slowdown to about 4.75 percent, say forecasters at Morgan Stanley & Co., Global Insight and the Economist Intelligence Unit. The contagion from a U.S. recession would hurt more, cutting global growth to 3.5 percent or less.

`Major Problem'

``If we have a major problem in the U.S., the rest of the world will feel an impact,'' says Otmar Issing, former chief economist of the European Central Bank.

Faced with an unsettled global outlook, central bankers in England, Europe, Canada, Australia and South Korea held back on raising interest rates last week. In the U.S., futures-market traders are betting that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and his colleagues will cut rates when they meet on Sept. 18.

The world economy is most at risk when a shock -- like the steep oil-price increases of the 1970s -- hits the U.S. and other nations simultaneously, according to an April IMF study. That's what seems to be happening now, as global investors and lenders turn more cautious in response to rising delinquencies on loans to borrowers with patchy credit.

To be sure, the world economy is stronger than it was when turmoil last struck credit markets a decade ago, driving much of Asia into recession.

Slower Growth

Still, there's agreement that global growth will suffer -- even among some prominent Wall Street proponents of the theory that the rest of the world can ``decouple'' from the U.S., including Jim O'Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and Stephen Jen, head of foreign-exchange research for Morgan Stanley, both in London.

While Luxembourg Prime Minister and Finance Minister Jean- Claude Juncker doesn't see a ``major'' hit in 2007 for the 13 nations that use the euro, ``there could be a stronger impact'' next year, he told reporters Sept. 5. Juncker is the chairman of a panel of euro-zone finance ministers.

Even before the latest rise in borrowing costs, some of Europe's strongest housing markets were showing signs of weakness. Spanish home starts plunged 21 percent in May, virtually wiping out growth for the year, while Irish house prices suffered their first annual decline in at least a decade in July.

Qualceram Shires Plc, an Irish maker of ceramic bathroom sinks and toilets, said on Sept. 4 that its first-half profits fell 7.4 percent as cooling property markets in Ireland and the U.K. reduced sales.

Trouble Ahead

There could be further trouble ahead. U.K. lenders, including Merrill Lynch & Co.'s Mortgages Plc unit and Deutsche Bank AG, are tightening terms on home loans, raising the cost for borrowers with less-than-perfect credit ratings.

``The same person trying to get a mortgage will find the situation more difficult now than three months ago,'' says Fionnuala Earley, chief economist at Nationwide Building Society, the U.K.'s fifth-biggest home lender.

European companies also face higher costs as the region's banks become stingier with their money, says Adam Posen, a former Fed official who is now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

German business confidence fell to a 10-month low in August after a rise in the cost of credit, according to the Munich- based Ifo Institute for Economic Research.

Tighter Credit

While tighter credit will take a toll on Asia, the region's economies are even more vulnerable to a slowdown in U.S. demand for their products. Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the U.S. economy, rose at an annual rate of 1.4 percent in the second quarter, its slowest pace in a year.

Asia is ``still heavily dependent on exports,'' Stephen Roach, chairman of Morgan Stanley in Asia, said in an interview on Sept. 6. ``And the largest market for most Asian economies remains the overly extended American consumer, who I think is the next shoe to drop in the subprime shake-out scenario.''

Some Asian countries are already feeling the impact. The growth of Thailand's exports slowed to an annual rate of about 6 percent in July and August from 18.1 percent in June. Malaysia's exports declined for a second straight month in July as waning U.S. demand reduced shipments of electrical and electronic goods.

Even China's booming economy is susceptible to a consumer- led slowdown. The U.S. is China's biggest single-nation trading partner, accounting for nearly one-fifth of its record $107.7 billion exports in July.

`Serious Risk'

``The rising probability of a U.S. recession and growing trade protectionism means China's export growth is at serious risk,'' Huang Yiping, chief Asia economist at Citigroup Inc. in Hong Kong, said in an Aug. 30 report to clients.

Faced with inflation at a 10-year high, China has raised interest rates and acted to curb bank lending to cool its overheated economy. Sun Mingchun, an economist for Lehman Brothers Holdings in Hong Kong, said in an Aug. 31 note that those concerns ``could be turned on their head if the global economy turns down sharply.''

Japan, Asia's biggest economy, is already showing signs of faltering. Gross domestic product contracted at a 1.2 percent annual pace in the second quarter, almost twice the rate forecast by economists, as companies pared spending and net exports failed to contribute to growth, a report today showed.

Toyota, Japan's largest automaker, saw its U.S. sales drop for the second straight month in August, the first back-to-back decline in 4 1/2 years. Weaker demand in California, Toyota's biggest U.S. market and one of the states where housing is slumping, was partially to blame.

``There is a lack of confidence over where the economy is heading,'' Bob Carter, head of U.S. sales for the Toyota brand, said on Sept. 5. The Toyota City, Japan-based company ``would welcome'' a Fed interest-rate cut, he added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rich Miller in Washington
Last Updated: September 9, 2007 21:54 EDT

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