November 18th, 2011
01:00 PM ET

El-Erian: The anatomy of global economic uncertainty

Editor's Note: Mohamed El-Erian, CEO and co-CIO of PIMCO, is the author of When Markets Collide. More For more from El-Erian, visit Project Syndicate or follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

By Mohamed El-Erian, Project Syndicate

The sense of uncertainty prevailing in the West is palpable, and rightly so. People are worried about their futures, with a record number now fearing that their children may end up worse off than them. Unfortunately, things will become even more unsettling in the months ahead.

The United States is having difficulties returning its economy to the path of high growth and vigorous job creation. Thousands of people have taken to the streets of U.S. cities, and thousands of others in Europe, to demand a fairer system. In the Euro Zone, financial crises have forced out two governments, replacing elected representative with appointed technocrats charged with restoring order. Concern about the institutional integrity of the Euro Zone – key to the architecture of modern Europe – continues to mount.

This uncertainty extends beyond countries and regions. Those looking around the next corner also worry about the stability of an international economic order in which the difficulties faced by the system’s Western core are gradually eroding global public goods.

It is no coincidence that all of this is happening simultaneously. Each development, and certainly their occurrence in tandem, points to the historic paradigm changes shaping today’s global economy – and to the anxiety that comes with the loss of once-dependable anchors, be they economic and financial or social and political.

Restoring these anchors will take time. There is no game plan as of now, and historic precedents are only partly illuminating. Yet two things seem clear: different countries are opting, either by choice or necessity, for different outcomes; and the global system as a whole faces challenges in reconciling them.

Some changes will be evolutionary, taking many years to manifest themselves; others will be sudden and more disruptive. Yet, as complex as all of this sounds – and, by definition, paradigm changes are complicated affairs that, fortunately, seldom occur – a simple analytical framework may help shed light on what to look for, what to expect and where, and how best to adapt.

The framework relies on an often-used analytical shortcut: Identifying a limited set of explanatory variables in what statisticians call “a reduced-form equation.” The objective is not to account for everything, but rather to pinpoint a small number of variables than can explain key factors, albeit neither perfectly nor fully.

Using this approach, it is possible to argue that the future of many Western economies, and that of the global economy, will be shaped by their ability to navigate four inter-related financial, economic, social, and political dynamics.

The first relates to balance sheets. Many Western economies must deal with the nasty legacy of years of excessive borrowing and leveraging; those, like Germany, that do not have this problem are linked to neighbors that do. Faced with this reality, different countries will opt for different de-leveraging options. Indeed, differentiation is already evident.

Some, like Greece, face such a parlous situation that it is difficult to imagine any outcome other than a traumatic default and further economic turmoil; and Greece is unlikely to be the only Western economy forced to restructure its debt. Others, like the United Kingdom, have moved quickly to take firmer control of their destiny, though their austerity drives will inevitably involve considerable sacrifices.

A third group, led by the U.S., has not yet made an explicit de-leveraging choice. Having more time, they are using the less visible, and much more gradual, path of “financial repression,” under which interest rates are forced down so that creditors, including those on modest fixed incomes, subsidize debtors.

De-leveraging is closely linked to the second variable – namely, economic growth. Simply put, the stronger a country’s ability to generate additional national income, the greater its ability to meet debt obligations while maintaining and enhancing citizens’ standards of living.

Many countries, including Italy and Spain, must overcome structural barriers to competitiveness, growth, and job creation through multi-year reforms of labor markets, pensions, housing, and economic governance. Some, like the U.S., can combine structural reforms with short-term demand stimulus. A few, led by Germany, are reaping the benefits of years of steadfast (and underappreciated) reforms.

But growth, while necessary, is insufficient by itself, given today’s high unemployment and the extent to which income and wealth inequalities have increased. Hence the third dynamic: the West is being challenged to deliver not just growth, but “inclusive growth,” which, most critically, involves greater “social justice.”

Indeed, there is a deep sense that capitalism in the West has become unfair. Certain players, led by big banks, extracted huge profits during the boom, and avoided the deep losses that they deserved during the bust. Citizens no longer accept the argument that this unfortunate outcome reflects the banks’ special economic role. And why should they, given that record bailouts have not revived growth and employment?

Calls for a fairer system will not go away. If anything, they will spread and grow louder. The West has no choice but to strike a better balance – between capital and labor, between current and future generations, and between the financial sector and the real economy.

This leads to the final variable, the role of politicians and policymakers. It has become fashionable in both America and Europe to point to a debilitating “lack of leadership,” which underscores the extent to which an inherently complex paradigm change is straining traditional mindsets, processes, and governance systems.

Unlike emerging economies, Western countries are not well equipped to deal with structural and secular changes – and understandably so. After all, their histories – and certainly during what was mislabeled as the “Great Moderation” between 1980 and 2008– have been predominantly cyclical. The longer they fail to adjust, the greater the risks.

Those on the receiving end of these four dynamics – the vast majority of us – need not be paralyzed by uncertainty and anxiety. Instead, we can use this simple framework to monitor developments, learn from them, and adapt. Yes, there will still be volatility, unusual strains, and historically odd outcomes. But, remember, a global paradigm shift implies a significant change in opportunities, and not just risks.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mohamed El-Erian.

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Topics: Economy • Global

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    Just think. When the GOP regain power, they will start a war with Iran (totally unfunded of course). Then they will draft all the poor people to fight(die) in the war (just like the GOP wants) and give "no bid" contracts to the rich people. Killing two birds with one stone!!! Then we can use Iran's oil to pay for the war. And when the war is over, Iran will sell us cheap oil!!! Just like Iraq........Oh wait........Never mind.

    November 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  2. Onesmallvoice

    In 1968 Gov. Jerry Brown said it best, "We need to rid Washigton D.C. of these 'war horses' and replace them with more responsible people". Until we do, things will only deteriorate!!!

    November 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    No doubt we all have to face the uncertainty and anxiety that haunt the global economy. Our abilities "to monitor developments, learn from them, and adapt" ourselves are very personal, hence the opportunities and risks that come our way are individual. Everyone will have his cycle of fortune and misfortune. Don't give up on hope!

    November 19, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Reply

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