Commodities: rethinking the global structural outlook

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Commodity prices tend to be fairly insulated from short-term changes in supply and demand. Given this, as long as the wayward global economy did not call into question the long-term economic outlook its effects on commodity markets was only marginal.

The slide since mid-October should therefore be seen as the bellwether of a marked change in the global outlook in the mid and long term. This is why the recent slide in oil prices is a harbinger of bad news, even though there are obvious benefits for consumers in countries that import oil.

Who still doesn’t have a pair of “Birkies”? Or how Made in Germany sheds stereotypes

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Retailing, leather goods, shoes…German brands are flourishing in unexpected places. Birkenstocks sandals, which seem headed to becoming the must-have item for the summer of 2014, are the latest trend in a broader movement towards reshaping “Made in Germany”.

Increasingly present on European shelves, everyday consumer products with relatively low added have gained in popularity and are a far cry from the heavy industrial goods, manufacturing equipment and upscale household appliances that have forged Germany’s industrial fabric. This is particularly interesting given markets’ recent infatuation with exotic emerging countries.

Has Spain Found a Winning Strategy?

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Moody’s decision to upgrade Spain’s sovereign debt rating last week is yet another sign that investor confidence is returning to the Iberian Peninsula—a region often held up as a model for crisis-stricken Southern Europe. The Rajoy administration hopes that lowering Spain’s labor costs will boost the country’s competitiveness, enabling it to export its way out of the crisis. With a battered economy and an arduous deleveraging process that will likely leave a lasting dent in domestic demand, many see this as the only strategy for Spain to get back on track to balanced growth—even if it comes at an immediate high social cost.

So is Rajoy’s bet paying off? Has the Spanish economy picked up enough over the past few months to mark a lasting turnaround in the country’s fortunes?

China: Population Decline on the Horizon

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The issue of population probably didn’t make it onto the agenda of the November plenary meeting held by the Chinese leadership to discuss future economic policy. Yet of all the economic challenges China will be compelled to address in the next few years, accelerated population aging definitely tops the list. In any case, the U.N.’s authoritative projections leave no room for doubt about where the country will be in 2040. Between now and then, the U.N. expects the median age to rise by more than eleven years to 46; the working-age population to shrink by 10 percent; the 15-to-44 age group to lose 200 million members, with the 65-and-over group gaining as many; and the ratio of workers to retirees to plummet from 18 to 2 at present to just 5 to 2. So the graying of China is likely to go extremely fast—even faster, in some respects, than the process under way in Europe. 

Leveraging France’s Key Strengths

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In pursuit of an Alternative Path

The French economy is undeniably in a bad way. But trying to overcome its shortcomings with the kind of shock therapy inflicted on Southern Europe would be the most dangerous response, both for France and the entire euro area. An alternative approach is therefore required—one that will necessarily involve leveraging more effectively the factors that set the French economy apart. This, then, is the value of taking a closer look at France’s key strengths.


France is in a bad way, with a very real risk of lapsing into critical condition 

  • You can’t cure debt with austerity
  • Competitive deflation—a non-option
  • France, Germany: two economies, two models

In pursuit of an alternative path

  • Just what are France’s key strengths?
  • The benefits of favorable demographics for demand, investment, available capital and personal wealth
  • France’s underrated productivity
  • French companies’ international footprint and standing
  • R&D
  • Geographic location, tourism, and agriculture
  • Leveraging the French economy’s strengths more effectively to tackle the crisis

The U.S. Budget: “No, we can’t”

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 Beneath the surface noise of the fiscal drama that has kept Washington on edge for months lies a serious societal choice. The model in vogue in the United States since the Reagan era—low taxes and feeble welfare support—is fast unraveling in a society undergoing major change. With a tax rate some 33 percent below the OECD average and one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios anywhere, the U.S. government’s coffers are virtually empty—leaving it ill-equipped to meet swelling demand for public programs to address such issues as rising poverty, declining geographic mobility, and a rapidly aging population.

The country has two basic alternatives:

  • Either the Americans stand pat in rejecting the inevitable—a hefty increase in taxation—thus accepting, in essence, greater inequality and the demise of the American Dream;
  • Or, as is more likely, they eventually agree to abandon their previous credo, in which case a secular increase in payroll and income tax will be on the agenda.

But either way, the United States of tomorrow will be a very different beast from the pre-crisis United States.

The U.S. fiscal controversy is far from over. More to the point, it has unquestionably weakened the country’s ability to reverse its debt trajectory any time soon.

The Deleveraging Mirage: A Careful Look at Italy Today

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Europe’s most distressed countries should see their debt peak in a year or two, before descending to more manageable levels by 2020. Or at least that’s what the IMF, the European Commission, and the credit rating agencies all claim. Coming on the heels of the 2012 crisis, this is a heartening forecast—but a pretty surprising one, too. Just what is it based on? We’ve examined these institutions’ various scenarios for Italy and Spain, whose mounting sovereign debt burden loomed large in 2012, and for France, where the sovereign debt outlook raises a whole host of questions. Our assessment is as follows:

  • All these projections are marred by overly-optimistic assumptions about these countries’ structural growth outlook and their ability to sustain highly restrictive fiscal policies. This makes subsequent revisions to the projections a foregone conclusion. 
  • Italy is a case in point: the projected growth rate is so fanciful that the country stands virtually no chance of deleveraging as hoped. More conservative forecasts would preclude the prospect of Italy stabilizing its debt in the next few years. They would show rather that by 2020, its debt-to-GDP ratio should verge on 140 percent.
  • Spain seems to be in a better position to achieve such stabilization in the near term. Not only is its debt-to-GDP ratio 30 percentage points lower than Italy’s, but its potential output is apparently on the way up. Italy’s isn’t.
  • Despite recent setbacks, France still seems to have the means to reverse its debt trajectory. If we assume average real GDP growth of 1.2 percent a year between 2013 and 2020, the country should be able as of 2015 to reduce its debt level just by maintaining a primary budget surplus.

What emerges from this analysis is that Italy is the exception—and unquestionably the most vulnerable of the large eurozone economies. This suggests that we’re in for further bad news once today’s widespread projections come up for revision. Which they probably will after the Italian elections, especially if—as is likely—the new government lacks the leeway needed to convince investors that it can and will do something about the country’s huge debt overhang.