IMF report: Global economy strengthens

CHRISTOPHER RUGABER
Last updated 16:53 09/04/2014

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The global economy is strengthening but faces threats from super-low inflation and outflows of capital from emerging economies, the International Monetary Fund warned today.

The lending organisation expected the global economy to grow 3.6 per cent this year and 3.9 per cent in 2015, up from 3 per cent last year. Those figures were just one-10th of a percentage point below the IMF's previous forecasts in January.

The acceleration was being driven mostly by strong growth in advanced economies, including the United States and the United Kingdom, and a modest recovery in the 18 nations that used the euro.

By contrast, developing nations, particularly Russia, Brazil and South Africa, were now expected to grow much more slowly than the IMF forecast three months ago.

Russia's economy would likely suffer as a result of its fight with the US and Europe over the Ukraine. Others faced high interest rates, which were intended to fight inflation, but could slow growth.

The IMF, in its World Economic Outlook report, sharply upgraded its growth forecasts for the UK, Germany and Spain.

It expected the eurozone to grow 1.2 per cent in 2014 and 1.5 per cent in 2015 after shrinking 0.5 per cent last year.

Both estimates were one-10th of a percentage point higher than the IMF's January forecasts.

The IMF made no changes to its forecasts for US growth, which it estimated at 2.8 per cent this year and 3 per cent in 2015.

''The recovery ... is becoming not only stronger but broader,'' Olivier Blanchard, the IMF's chief economist, said at a news conference today.

The US and European economies were benefiting from smaller government spending cuts and tax increases, Blanchard said. Banks were improving their finances. And investors were increasingly willing to buy European government debt.

Japan, however, was forecast to expand just 1.4 per cent next year, down from the IMF's previous projection of 1.7 per cent, and just 1 per cent in 2015. Higher sales taxes were expected to weigh on growth.

Growth in China, the world's second-largest economy, was expected to continue its slowdown from its double-digit pace of a few years ago. That would have repercussions for many nations that exported raw materials and parts to Chinese factories. China was projected to expand 7.5 per cent in 2014 and 7.3 per cent in 2015, down from 7.7 per cent last year.

The 188-nation IMF and its sister organisation, the World Bank, would hold their spring meetings in Washington this weekend. Finance ministers and central bank governors from the Group of 20 leading economies would meet Thursday.

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The issues highlighted in the IMF's outlook, such as alarmingly low inflation, would likely be high on the agenda.

Yet the meetings would be relatively free of the crisis atmosphere that beset the IMF for several years after the global financial meltdown and European debt crisis.

''Relative to previous years, the global economy is more stable,'' said Jacob Kierkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

''This is going to be an annual meeting that will be more about process and medium to long-run goals.''

Nevertheless, analysts expected European officials, particularly the European Central Bank, to come under pressure to fight low inflation.

Last week, Christine Lagarde, the IMF's managing director, urged the ECB to take ''unconventional measures'' to push prices up.

Such steps could include the purchase of bonds or other financial assets. The US Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have both made such purchases to try to stimulate their economies.

Largarde's comment drew a rebuke last week from ECB President Mario Draghi. He noted tartly that the IMF ''has been ... extremely generous in its suggestions on what we should or should not do'' and added that the ECB disagreed.

Even so, the IMF ''will reiterate the message that the ECB should be more aggressive,'' said Domenico Lombardi, director of the global economy programme at CIGI, a Toronto-based think tank.

''The ECB is behind the curve.''

Inflation in the 18 countries that use the euro currency fell to an annual rate of 0.5 per cent last month. Though consumers could enjoy flat prices, ultra-low inflation could stifle growth.

People and companies postponed purchases knowing that prices would be little changed months later. Debts became harder to pay off. That's a particularly severe problem in Europe, where many governments remain squeezed by debts.

Super-low inflation also raised the risk of deflation - a decline in wages and prices that could cause a recession.

At the meetings, developing countries would likely push for greater coordination of central bank policies.

Many said they've been harmed by the Federal Reserve's pullback of its stimulus this year. The Fed has been paring its monthly bond purchases, which were intended to keep US interest rates low and spur more borrowing and spending.

But the prospect of higher US rates has led investors to pull money from developing countries and reinvest it in the United States for higher returns. That exodus has caused currencies in Turkey, South Africa and other countries to plunge in value.

Eswar Prasad, a former IMF official and fellow at the Brookings Institution, said many Asian nations would likely raise a similar concern.

They were wary of efforts by central banks in Japan and China to depress their currencies, which could make their exports cheaper and give them a trade advantage. Better coordination among central banks could address some of these concerns.

The United States could face criticism because Congress has refused to approve changes to the IMF that would give developing countries more influence.

The Obama administration has sought the changes, which were dropped from legislation that gave US$1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine.

The provisions would have given Russia slightly more influence at the IMF just as lawmakers sought to punish President Vladimir Putin.

- AP

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