9 Economic Trends to Watch in 2014

From the rise of rich, stupid people to the death of peak oil, here's what's trending in the global economy.

Predicting trends is no easy task, especially in the short term. Most people who can do it accurately in the world of economics and finance are millionaires, or they should be. But if you don't have a crystal ball, at least you can watch some short-term trends with long-term implications. Here are nine of my favorites for the coming year -- and beyond.

1. East Asia's declining share of world output

Washington's strategic pivot to Asia seems to have fizzled -- but has the world's economic pivot as well? In 2013, East Asia's share of global output was expected to drop, relative to those of the United States and the European Union. For years, investors have been borrowing cheaply in the United States and elsewhere to capture high rates of return in East Asia. But a midyear signal from the Federal Reserve that the days of easy money are numbered has sent the East Asia's emerging markets tumbling, while manufacturing looks to be returning to Western shores. With China possibly cooling as well during its process of economic and financial reform, will other regions take the lead in growth?

2. Eurozone inflation worries

The European Central Bank's top officials like to say that they have a symmetric target for inflation. Too high is bad, but so is too low. Not surprisingly, inflation fell well under the target of "below, but close to, 2 percent" during the economic downturn of recent years. The question is why it has been allowed to do so again, during a more stable period in which other central banks have continued their aggressive attempts to bolster growth and employment. The officials say risks to prices are balanced right now, but are they really?

3. Slugging U.S. service sector productivity

For decades, manufacturing employment in the United States has dropped as the productivity of manufacturing workers has increased. Today, about 70 percent of American workers are in private service industries. Those among them who don't compete with foreign labor -- hair stylists, gardeners, doctors, and the like -- have slightly more bargaining power than their counterparts in manufacturing and agriculture. But if their productivity doesn't rise, they'll still have trouble obtaining higher wages.

4. The costs of America's staggering wealth inequality

As I've written before, wealth inequality is much more important than income inequality in determining access to opportunity. Severe wealth inequality raises the chance that an opportunity in the economy will go to a rich, stupid person rather than a poor, smart one. This misallocation of opportunities hurts economic efficiency and growth, making the pie smaller for everyone. Right now, the United States has some of the highest wealth inequality in the world; the net worth of the bottom half of families is equivalent to just 1.5 percent of the wealth of the top 10 percent. The results of the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances will reveal whether this trend is getting even worse.

5. Oil, oil everywhere

Peak oil? That buzzword of the last several years seems nothing more than a silly catchphrase now. Since prices shot up roughly a decade ago, countries and companies have had a huge incentive to find new sources of the black sticky stuff. Rates of oil production have set new records annually since 2010, thanks to fracking and geological exploration around the world. With proved reserves having risen by half in only a decade, it's hard to imagine such a rapid increase continuing for long. Yet if it doesn't, rising demand from the growing global economy will push prices higher again.

6. Buy Japan

Remember Japan, the world's third-largest economy? It may be the perennial punching bag of the financial press, but it's still responsible for an important share of world output. Growth in Japan would give the global economic recovery a shot in the arm, and share prices tend to be a good indicator of future booms. Japan's recent shift to massively expansionary monetary policy could spark growth, but it could also lead to inflation. So far, expectations for inflation in the Bank of Japan's quarterly survey, which are consistently biased upward, haven't changed much since Shinzo Abe resumed the office of prime minister in December 2012 and launched the new "three arrows" policy regime. By contrast, stock prices have almost doubled, far exceeding the concurrent rise in the Standard and Poor's 500.

7. The price of rice

After an enormous spike in early 2008 that led to shortages, export bans, and even riots, the price of rice has finally dipped below its earlier trend. Indeed, stockpiling by governments and other policies intended to encourage production and exports have added plenty of slack to the market. Still, a return to strong and sustained growth in the economies where rice is a staple food could quickly lead these problems to recur. Next time, a global downturn might not arrive just in time to tame demand.

8. China's shadow-banking housing bubble

Given the lack of transparency in many Chinese companies, real estate is an especially popular investment in the world's second-biggest economy. Thanks to restrictions in the Chinese financial system, a huge "shadow" banking industry has arisen to finance these purchases. The industry may have been worth about $6 trillion this spring and has been growing fast. Beijing has started a combination of financial reforms that will pave the way for a crackdown on shadow banking, but any dislocations that result could cause havoc throughout the Chinese economy. Because new house prices depend in part on expectations about interest rates and the attractiveness of other assets, they could offer an early tipoff about trouble to come.

9. The rise of bitcoin

A successful currency serves three functions: as a unit of account, a store of value, and a medium of exchange. Bitcoin is making progress as a medium of exchange, with a growing number of vendors accepting it for payment through services like Bitpay. Yet the huge fluctuations in its exchange rate and the apparent ease of theft threaten its usefulness as a store of value and, by consequence, as a unit of account. Who cares how many bitcoins you have if you don’t know what they’re worth from one moment to the next? The adoption of bitcoin around the world is likely to continue in 2014, but it won’t last much longer if the currency fails to stabilize.

Allison Joyce/Getty Images


Presenting the Albies of 2013

The best global political economy writing of the year -- tweets included.

As 2013 draws to a close, I am pleased to announce the 5th annual winners of the Albies, awarded for the best writing in global political economy for the past calendar year. The Albies are named for the late great political economist Albert O. Hirschman. I take great pride in choosing these 10 awards at the end of the calendar year, in no small part because, as you'll see, the winners vary from prestigious university press books to snarky blog posts. The important thing is that these 10 contributions forced the reader to think about the way the global economy works in a way that can't be un-thought. 

2013 was a particularly rich year for the political economy field. In no particular order, here are the 10 Albie winners:

  1. 1. Mark Blyth, Austerity: History of a Dangerous Idea. Blyth pulls no punches in this jeremiad against the single-most destructive macroeconomic policy idea of the last five years. He patiently explains why austerity-based policies are a bad idea during a recession, and then goes on to burrow deep into the intellectual roots of the austerity idea. I don't agree with his argument for why austerity has been advocated, but there is no denying the force of his argument for why it's an ill-conceived policy.
  2. 2. Sarah Kendzior's Twitter feed (@sarahkendzior). Kendzior writes about the role that fear and contingency play in the global workplace. I don't agree with many of her points -- in fact, there are times where I find her intellectually infuriating -- but she's never boring nor bombastic, and she's caused me to contemplate what it means to be privileged in the current economy. She's a scholar, a blogger, and an Al Jazeera columnist, but I think it's really on her Twitter feed that the "full Kendzior" is on display. I'm glad to see her acknowledge in this interview the care she devotes to crafting her tweets -- because very few others do it as well as her.
  3. 3. Nina Munk, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Writing accessibly about development economics is a high-wire act, but Munk accomplishes it brilliantly. She shadows Sachs as he cajoles world leaders to fund his Millennium projects, and also visits those places to tell the whole story. The final chapter, in which Munk interviews a chastened Sachs (usually an oxymoron), is particularly devastating.
  4. 4. Hélène Rey, "Dilemma not Trilemma: The Global Financial Cycle and Monetary Policy Independence," Jackson Hole Symposium, August 2013. Think that the rest of the world has decoupled from the U.S. economy? Think again. Rey's provocative essay suggests that the global financial cycle has been simplified into capital rushing into the developing world during times of stability, and rushing into the United States during times of crisis. Domestic policies are almost immaterial. Rey's argument has its critics, but at a minimum, it offers a cautionary note on the utility of open capital accounts
  5. 5. Neil Irwin, The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire. A rip-roaring narrative of how the central bank heads in the United States, Britain, and the Eurozone reacted to the subprime mortgage bubble, the 2008 financial crisis, and the ensuing sovereign debt crisis in Europe. Irwin is particularly good on the hidden role that the U.S. Federal Reserve played in bailing out European banks, and the G-7/G-20's role in shifting the macroeconomic policy consensus in early 2010 and late 2011.
  6. 6. Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff," PERI Working Paper Series, April 2013. There are very few moments when an academic paper can really alter the expert consensus about a particular policy. This paper, however, shredded Reinhart and Rogoff's argument that countries should try really, really hard to avoid having their government debt-to-GDP ratio climb over 90 percent. The discovery of an Excel error made this paper permeate the public consciousness, and weakened the intellectual force of pro-austerity arguments in the developed world.
  7. 7. Noah Smith, "What is ‘derp'? The answer is technical." Noahopinion, June 4, 2013. As debates about the merits of quantitative easing have persisted since the crisis, a certain group of economists and foreign policy folk have consistently warned about the incipient dangers of inflation and foreign indebtedness. Why have these warnings persisted despite very little evidence that either concern is really, well, disconcerting? Smith's blog post uses simple Bayesian statistical theory to explain the persistence of such beliefs in the face of massive evidence to the contrary -- or, as Internet slang refers to it, "derp."
  8. 8. World Bank staff and the Development Research Center of China's State Council, China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative Society. Now this might seem like an odd choice, since the draft version of this document came out in 2012, and the Third Plenum document came out last month and will have a more significant effect on Chinese economic policy. But the final version of the China 2030 report did come out in 2013, and one can argue that it functioned as something of a template for the Third Plenum decisions. That intellectual link strongly suggests -- though it's hardly conclusive -- that Chinese economic reforms will trend away from the "Beijing Consensus" or "China model" that gets so much play in Washington.
  9. 9. (tie) Thomas Oatley, W. Kindred Winecoff, Andrew Pennock and Sarah Bauerle Danzman, "The Political Economy of Global Finance: A Network Model." Perspectives on Politics 11, no. 1: pp. 133-153; Sean Starrs, "American Economic Power Hasn't Declined-It Globalized! Summoning the Data and Taking Globalization Seriously." International Studies Quarterly 57, no. 4: pp. 817-830. One of the biggest mistakes foreign affairs commentators have made in recent years is to assume state-controlled wealth is the ne plus ultra of economic power. These two papers, by looking and private capital flows and asset ownership, offer a different perspective. Oatley et al use some nifty network analysis to show that U.S. capital markets have become more, not less central, since the 2008 financial crisis. Starrs looks at corporate ownership data to point out that U.S. private-sector control over key portions of the global economy have increased over the past decade.
  10. 10. Hiau Looi Kee, Cristina Neagu, and Alessandro Nicita. "Is protectionism on the rise? Assessing national trade policies during the crisis of 2008." Review of Economics and Statistics 95, no. 1: pp. 342-346. Hey, remember how Global Trade Alert keeps warning people of a tsunami of protectionism that has yet to happen? This paper is just one of many to point out an unsung story of the past few years: the failure of trade protectionism to explode in the wake of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. This is one of the great "dog that did not bark" events that merits further investigation.

Honorable mentions: The Economist, "Bitcoin Under Pressure"; Larry Summers's IMF speech on secular stagnation; David Shambaugh, China Goes Global; Thomas Hale, David Held, and Kevin Young, Gridlock; and, finally and most appropriately, Jeremy Adelman's magisterial biography, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman.