Greece aside, how's the world economy doing?

July 19, 2015

New York (July 19)  The race is on between the U.S. and British central banks to be the first major economy to raise interest rates after a long period of unprecedented monetary generosity.

It won't happen immediately but both Janet Yellen, who chairs the U.S. Federal Reserve, and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney signalled in the past week that higher rates are close.

Not everything in the world economy, however, is as sanguine as the U.S. and British economies would appear to be.

In the euro zone, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has promised rock-bottom interest rates for the foreseeable future and pledged to see through the bank's monthly 60 billion euro asset purchases until September next year.

In Asia, China's policymakers are struggling to contain stock market mayhem that could still undermine attempts to reverse a growth slowdown. The central bank is now set to pump $48 billion (30.7 billion pounds) into the country's biggest lender.

Japan is still embarked on a massive quantitative easing asset-buying programme and has just cut its growth outlook.

Read More › Japan's economic transformation: Are we there yet?

Elsewhere, countries as diverse as Sweden, South Korea, Guatemala and Azerbaijan have cut rates over the past three to four weeks. Group of Seven economy Canada, Washington's closest developed trading partner, surprised by easing this past Thursday.

In all, 37 central banks around the world have eased monetary policy so far this year to boost growth, fight deflation or both.

Influential though they are, the Fed and BoE are outliers.

Caveat Emptor

So are Yellen and Carney right to be signalling at least an end to near-universal easing?

Clearly they believe that domestic growth, job creation and inflation are on trend to warrant it. But their views are couched in caution.

Carney, for example, has said that interest rates will rise only gradually from their record low of 0.5 percent, and to lower levels than in the past.

Meanwhile, Yellen told Congress that risks remain, notably from spillover from the Greek and Chinese crises. But she added:

"The importance of the initial step to raise the federal funds rate target should not be overemphasised."

Paul Mortimer-Lee of BNP Paribas noted that Yellen expects the path of rate normalisation to be "gradual", steepening or easing depending on how data pans out.

Part of the reason for this caution - beyond the outside uncertainties of China's economy crashing and the euro zone unwinding - is that economic data has not been universally positive.

Britain, for example, has seen prices bump close to deflation and the jobless rate rise for the first time in more than two years, although it is in much better shape than it was.

In the United States, manufacturing is expanding but is highly vulnerable to a strengthening dollar. Retail sales fell in June and May was revised downwards, real weekly wage earnings have slipped lately, and inflation remains weak at just 0.1 percent year-on-year.

It still may be growing at around 3 percent, though.

As for the euro zone, it is still struggling to keep Greece within its fold for fear of suggesting the currency project may not be as permanent as advertised. Growth is ticking up, but expected at only 1.5 percent this year.

The ECB's Draghi was relatively calm about the state of the bloc's economy at his last news conference but only talked about interest rate hikes over the coming "years". He also went out of his way to say:

"If any factors were to lead to an unwarranted tightening of monetary policy, or if the outlook for price stability were to materially change, the Governing Council will respond...."

The message underlying all this is that the United States and Britain may just be getting their heads above water but big risks remain and there is not a lot overly positive going on elsewhere in the world.

The coming week will shed some light on the state of the global economy. Preliminary purchasing manager indexes for some large economies - a reasonable proxy for growth - are due out on Friday.

Reuters polls suggest trends in private sector activity will be largely unchanged for the United States, France, Germany and the euro zone as a whole.

Source: CNBC

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