Sun, Sep 07, 2008 - Page 11 News List

Economists find plenty to discuss but scant accord

‘MINI-DAVOS’Experts at an Italian summit argued about topics including the future of the global economy and the fate of US and Chinese shoppers

AP , CERNOBBIO, ITALY

Oil prices are down, the dollar is up, and US growth and exports have perked up a little. So is the global financial crisis winding down any time soon? Top economists and business leaders meeting at an Italian lakeside resort found plenty to discuss but little to agree on.

Peter Sutherland, chairman of British oil company BP PLC, predicted on Friday that global economic conditions would remain difficult for some time — but will eventually recover due to growth in China and the rest of Asia.

Sutherland, who is also chairman of London-based Goldman Sachs International, said equity markets would regain strength over time, but acknowledged it was impossible to tell exactly when that would occur.

“I expect a continued period of difficulty because of lower growth, higher inflation and credit markets — but like everything it will pass,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the Ambrosetti Forum at the Villa d’Este on Italy’s Lake Como.

Few were willing to make predictions on the record on Friday, but in private conversations there was a clear sense of optimism that by end of next year the bad debt traced largely to the US subprime crisis will have worked its way out of the system and that global financial markets will have stabilized.

Jim O’Neill, Goldman Sachs’ head of global economic research, said he believes the credit crisis was largely a problem for the US — as well as Britain and Spain — and that it amounted to an inevitable correction after years of debt-fueled demand and deficit spending.

THINKING GLOBALLY

“If you’re thinking truly globally, you have to think very differently from what we’ve been brought up on,” he said. “The problem is very US-centric ... It is conceivable that this is a structural shift and going forward the US will see a very different evolution in its growth.”

O’Neill — widely credited with the fashionable acronym BRIC to signify the rapidly emerging Brazil, Russia, India and China — said that those economies were performing well and the global economy was expected to grow at almost 4 percent over the next year.

And with economies so interlocked, O’Neill said, those countries should be accorded a more prominent place in global governance, regardless of concerns about democratic credentials — for example by including them in a rejiggered G8, which now includes Russia but not the other three.

“If I believed that the Chinese consumer was about to collapse I would have a completely different view,” he said.

Others at the off-the-record conference expressed skepticism that Chinese consumers could take the place of the Americans any time soon.

BLIP OR TREND

Another issue that occupied delegates was whether the recent rally in the US dollar was just a blip or a new trend that could trouble rising exports which have to date helped stave off recession.

The dollar has rallied more than 10 percent against the euro and sterling in recent weeks, largely due to fears of an economic slowdown in Europe.

Delegates clashed over whether the current inflationary uptick in the US and some European nations was a long-term threat.

Others voiced concern at what they see as a populist tendency toward protectionism emerging during the current US election campaign, particularly on the side of the Democrats.

Some argued that lower oil prices — crude oil has retreated from July’s record high above US$147 a barrel to around US$106 now — and a bust in the commodity boom would have a deflationary effect.

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