2011: A year of substantial economic risks

A worker gathers coins thrown by tourists into a well to pray for good luck and wealth at a temple in Beijing Economic power is gradually moving from the West to the East, resulting in changes to how the world economy is run

Economic concerns rank high as we enter 2011, though the problems vary in different parts of the world.

Robert Ward, a director with the Economist Intelligence Unit, talks about risks that keep him awake at night and insists "they should keep you awake at night as well".

One major risk facing the world economy at the moment is related to a slow transition of economic power from the West to the East.

The rise of the emerging world, in particular China, and the coinciding weakening of the West, in particular the US, has resulted in a "collapse of consensus of how the global monetary system should be run", Mr Ward continues.

In simple terms, China favours tight controls of the economy whereas the US prefers free market solutions, "hence the volatility here", he says.

The tension has resulted in a currency war, where major economies seek to devalue their own currency in order to boost their own competitiveness; China through central controls, the US by way of "printing money on a scale we've never seen before".

Business horizons

The year behind us, the year ahead

In turn, this has made life tough for small countries, which have responded by introducing capital controls.

Add a high risk of deflation in the US, which could result in more quantitative easing (essentially printing money) and thus more pressure towards currency wars and capital controls, and there are reasons to be concerned about whether the world economy can cope, Mr Ward reasons.

Asian inflation

An additional risk comes in the form of inflationary pressure in China and elsewhere in Asia.

"There's a high risk that inflation in China will get out of hand," predicts Mr Ward.

MF Global senior analyst Edward Meir says inflation is a threat across the region. He warns that "central banks, particularly in Asia, will have to step up the pace of tightening in order to stave off inflationary pressures".

And if the response is monetary tightening, reasons Mr Ward, the result could be a slowdown in the Chinese economy so severe that it has a negative impact on the rest of the world.

A Chinese man rolls a boat on the Yalu River, the China-North Korea border river Steering through choppy economic waters will be challenging in 2011

"Last year, the wealth that China added to the economy is bigger than Ireland, Greece and Portugal combined," he says.

At home, meanwhile, Beijing may want to deflate the ballooning housing market, thus threatening the finances of many in the vast middle class.

So, both for China and the rest of Asia, the key goals must be "keeping inflation under control and ensuring that rapid capital inflows do not lead to macroeconomic imbalances and/or asset price bubbles that might in time jeopardise financial stability", according to Capital Economics.

"The internal effects of China coming off the rail don't bear thinking about," the EIU's Mr Ward says.

European woes

With Greece and Ireland having received multi-billion euro-loans to bolster their economies, and amidst much concern about Portugal's ability to cope without assistance, many fear there could be even worse to come - especially if Spain's troubles worsen.

Start Quote

If the euro did collapse, it would make Lehman Brothers look like a tea party”

End Quote Robert Ward Economist Intelligence Unit

"The European crisis is yet another source of concern for us," says Mr Meir, and Mr Ward agrees.

"Spain is the really big one, and it is really sick as well," he says.

"If Spain wobbles and collapses, it'll be very bad news for everyone, not just in Europe but all over the world," reasoning that it could result in the collapse of the euro.

"If the euro did collapse, it would make Lehman Brothers look like a tea party.

"It could tip the eurozone into a depression."

A year of austerity

Major macro economic problems in the US, Asia and Continental Europe do little to lift the spirit in the UK, where all eyes are on the economy.

Inflation is a big worry here, with prices rising while wages fall or stay the same.

"The things that are going up are essentials like utility bills, food and clothes," says Howard Archer, chief economist at IHS Global Insight.

And BGC Partners strategist Howard Wheeldon agrees, predicting "a grim year for consumers".

Add to that the sting of swingeing government spending cuts - in the UK and other Western countries - and it becomes clear that the year ahead will be difficult.

"One of the dangers for 2011 is the risk of political damage as governments use blunt fiscal austerity measures to reduce deficits," reason Redmayne-Bentley's stockbrokers and investment managers.

"That could choke off recovery and result in a year when a rich world struggles with a weak and jobless recovery, and an emerging world growing four times as fast."

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