2020: Year of the fragile economy

The global economy is toeing a fine line between economic growth and recession, with a number of threats poised to disrupt the already tepid global rally.

That's according to the latest report from the World Bank on the global economic outlook for 2020, aptly named "Fragile, Handle with Care".

Trade tensions, slowing growth in major economies, financial stress in emerging markets, escalating geopolitical tensions and extreme weather events all threaten to tip the world's economic scales.

Global growth is projected to raise by 2.5% for the year ahead, a small rise from last year's estimated 2.4%.

However, for this to happen, the World Bank's vice president of equitable growth, finance and institutions Ceyla Pazarbasioglu said things have to go to plan.

"Following a year during which weak trade and investment dragged the world economy to its feeblest performance since the global financial crisis, economic growth is poised for a modest rebound this year," she said.

"However, for even that modest uptick to occur, many things have to go right."

Emerging markets are expected to grow 4.1% this year, led by a handful of larger emerging economies, stabilising after recession and economic slowdown.

That said, about a third of these developing economies are projected to decelerate during the year ahead as exports and investments weaken.

The outlook is also shadowed by the debt that has been accumulated by these economies, with total debt climbing to 170% of GDP in 2018, up from 115% in 2010.

Debt accumulation similarly threatens the world's advanced economies, with Pazarbasioglu warning that current low interest rates should be approached wisely.

"Public borrowing can be beneficial and spur economic development, if used to finance growth-enhancing investments," she said.

"However, although currently low interest rates mitigate risks, the three previous waves of debt accumulation have ended badly."

Similarly, the World Bank's prospects group director Ayhan Kose said low interest rates did not provide true protection against economic downfall.

"Low global interest rates provide only a precarious protection against financial crises," he said.

"The history of past waves of debt accumulation shows that these waves tend to have unhappy endings. In a fragile global environment, policy improvements are critical to minimise the risks associated with the current debt wave."

Productivity slowdown also underlies the fragile outlook for advanced economies in 2020.

"Weaker investment and efficiency gains, dwindling gains from the reallocation of resources to more productive sectors, and slowing improvements in the key drivers of productivity have sapped momentum in this key driver of lasting growth," Pazarbasioglu said.

Pazarbasioglu also warned of the governments of emerging economies using price controls, which she said "despite good intentions, can dampen investment and growth, worsen poverty outcomes, and lead to heavier fiscal burdens".

While inflation has declined in many of these emerging economies, the World Bank has warned that global fiscal pressures and rising debt levels could easily put these countries at risk; sending prices higher.

The trends facing economic growth for the year ahead have serious implications for the eradication of poverty.

"Even if the recovery in emerging and developing economy growth were to take place as expected, per capita growth would advance at a pace too slow to meet development goals," Pazarbasioglu said.

The World Bank said the forecast for 2020 was unpredictable considering the fragility of the current global market.

"While the global economic outlook for 2020 envisions a fragile upward path that could be upended, there is a high degree of uncertainty around the forecast given unpredictability around trade and other policies," it said.

"If policy-makers manage to mitigate tensions and clarify unsettled issues in a number of areas - they could prove the forecast wrong by sending growth higher than anticipated."

The World Bank has not included the recent escalating tensions between Iran and the US in their global economic outlook for 2020, with the cut-off for forecasts set at December 20.

Markets have been shaken by the recent hostilities, including a revenge-style attack by Iran on US military bases in Iraq.

Thankfully, markets rebounded overnight after Trump stated that Iran was "standing down", indicating there would be no armed retaliation from the US.

Demand for oil, bonds and gold has lifted as investors turn towards commodities and "safer" investments to hedge their wealth against global uncertainty and fears of a new war in the Middle East.

Read more: USWorld BankIranCeyla PazarbasiogluAyhan Kose
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