The beginning of each year is high season for economic forecasters. With few exceptions, Wall Street economists try to give as upbeat an interpretation as the data will allow: they want their clients to buy stocks, and gloom-and-doom forecasts do little to sell them. But even the salesmen are predicting a weaker American economy in 2005 than in 2004. I agree, and am actually on the pessimistic side: in 2005 we may begin to pay for past mistakes.
The biggest global economic uncertainty is the price of oil. Clearly, oil producers failed to anticipate the growth of demand in China -- so much for the wisdom and foresight of private markets. Supply-side problems in the Middle East (and Nigeria, Russia, and Venezuela) are also playing a role, while George W. Bush's misadventure in Iraq has brought further instability. While prices have fallen slightly from their peaks, OPEC has made it clear that it does not intend to allow much of a further decline.
High oil prices are a drain on America, Europe, Japan, and other oil-importing countries. The effect is just like a huge tax that transfers wealth to the oil-exporting countries. America's oil import bill over the past year alone is estimated to have risen by around US$75 billion.
If there were any assurance that prices would remain permanently above even US$40 a barrel, alternative energy sources (including shale oil) would be developed. But we are now in the worst of all possible worlds -- prices so high that they damage the global economy, but uncertainty so severe that the investments needed to bring prices down are not being made.
Meanwhile, the world's central bankers have been trained to focus exclusively on inflation. Many will most likely recall how oil price increases in the 1970s fueled rapid inflation, and will want to show their resolve not to let it happen again. Interest rates will rise, and one economy after another will slow.
The march towards higher interest rates has already begun in the US, where the Federal Reserve is betting on a fundamental market asymmetry. For the past three years, falling interest rates have been the engine of growth, as households took on more debt to refinance their mortgages and used some of the savings to consume. The Fed is hoping that all of this will not play out in reverse -- that higher interest rates will not dampen consumption. Hope may not be enough. American households are far deeper in debt today than four years ago, magnifying the potential adverse effects of rising interest rates. Of course, American mortgage markets allow households to lock in the lower interest rates. But in economics, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and here the cost can be enormous: new home buyers will have to pay more, and thus will be less willing and able to pay as much. Real estate prices could well decline, with a strong likelihood, at the very least, of a slowdown in the rate of increase. This, too, will dampen demand.
This is only one of the uncertainties facing the US economy. Clearly, some of the growth in 2004 (there is uncertainty about how much) was due to provisions that encouraged investment in that year -- when it mattered for electoral politics -- at the expense of 2005. Then there are America's huge fiscal and trade deficits, which not only jeopardize future American generations' wellbeing, but represent a drag on the current US economy (a trade deficit is a subtraction from aggregate demand). As one of my predecessors as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, Herb Stein, famously put it, "If something can't go on forever, it won't." But no one knows how, or when, it will all end. Indeed, President Bush says that he intends to spend the political capital he earned during the election; the problem is, he appears intent on spending America's economic capital as well. His promises include partial privatization of social security and making his earlier tax cuts permanent, which, if adopted, will send the deficits soaring to record levels. What, exactly, this will do to business confidence and currency markets is anybody's guess, but it won't be pretty. As a result, an even weaker dollar is a strong possibility, which will further undermine the European and Japanese economies. Moreover, America's gains will not balance Europe's losses: the uncertainty is bad for investment on both sides of the Atlantic, and if lack of confidence in the dollar leads to flight from American stocks and bonds, the US economy could be weakened further.