The big shortcoming: A grumpy 2020 for global growth

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Artificial intelligence takes trading to an even higher level and is increasingly becoming the norm

Artificial intelligence takes trading to an even higher level and is increasingly becoming the norm (AFP Photo/Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS)

US political clouds coupled with wider climate and digital transformations point to an unhappy 2020 for the world economy, even if a lurch back to crisis is deemed improbable by experts.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development last month said activity had been hobbled by weaker trade and investment in the past two years, as US President Donald Trump pursues his trade war with China.

The OECD expects global growth to dip in the coming year to 2.9 percent, its lowest level since the world recession of 2009.

"We are in a worrying period," OECD chief economist Laurence Boone said, contrasting proactive actions taken by central banks with the policy foot-dragging by governments in the face of climate change and the march of technology.

The International Monetary Fund was a little more optimistic in its latest World Economic Outlook, forecasting 2020 growth of 3.4 percent but warning nevertheless of a "synchronized slowdown and uncertain recovery".

At a time of populism and protests around the world, politics will remain a wild card next year as Trump bids for re-election under an impeachment cloud and Britain's Brexit divorce from the European Union potentially takes shape.

The post-crisis policies of central banks have led to negative interest rates spreading in some countries, squeezing bank profitability and inflating private debt.

The rise of technological giants sitting on mountains of data is challenging the distribution of wealth between governments and big business, and has the potential to profoundly reshape the world of work once artificial intelligence is applied to exploit that data.

Meanwhile in the face of climate change, industrialists and investors are having to correct their strategies even as Trump sits firm in his policy of denial.

Oil giant Saudi Aramco recently had to trim back the volume of its gigantic share offering.

- Between heaven and hell -

Ludovic Subran, chief economist of German insurance giant Allianz, sees a global "purgatory of growth" coming up.

Any systemic shock next year "will probably not be born in finance, but will be exogenous, for example a big regulatory shock on personal data, or in relation to the climate", he said.

If Trump survives the impeachment process and wins a second term, he could "double the bet against China" at the risk of military confrontation, Subran added.

The alternative is a Democratic win with policy outcomes ranging from the centrism of a Joe Biden or new entrant Michael Bloomberg to the leftist platform of Elizabeth Warren, who wants to raise taxes, turn the economy green and dismantle the digital giants.

Trump and Warren are united in their hostility to the free-trade and liberalisation agendas that, they argue, hollowed out industrial America over the past decades.

The mistrust is felt well beyond the United States.

"We're not worried about how to overcome a cyclical crisis, we know what to do," said Ingo Kuebler, the staff representative at Mahle, a German automotive supplier that has already been forced to downsize as car buyers turn away from diesel engines.

"The big issue is transformation, digitalization, electric mobility," he told AFP, fretting that an influx of cheap Chinese car batteries means "we are dreading the loss of many jobs".

- The big income gap -

With growth faltering, the debate about wealth distribution will likely become still more acute. Anger at inequality runs like a thread through protest movements from rich Hong Kong to developing Chile.

In 2018, according to Oxfam, 26 billionaires had as much money as the poorest half of the world.

"Even when people seem to enjoy basic material comfort, they may still experience the same level of misery and unhappiness as the poorest," French academic Esther Duflo said in October after she won the Nobel prize in economics.

US investor Steve Eisman of "The Big Short" fame thinks that while another global crisis is unlikely, the best that can be hoped for is a slow strangulation of growth.

"What will happen next time, whenever it does happen, will be your normal garden variety of recession where the economy slows and goes negative and people lose money. That'll be painful enough," Eisman told AFP.

"A systemic crisis? Once was enough for our lifetimes," he said, reflecting back on the implosion of 2007-2008 that made hundreds of millions for his hedge fund when he correctly foretold the US subprime collapse.

The prescient strategy of Eisman and other investment mavericks was recounted in a gripping book by journalist Michael Lewis and subsequent Oscar-winning movie.