Second Quarter Forecast 2009: Global Trends
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I've been in this business a long time. Some days it feels like a very long time. But never in all the years that I've been in the financial markets have I felt like business per se has less impact on my investment decisions. Let me explain.

GM shares have gone from being a claim on earnings from car sales to being a call option on whether the US government will extend another lifeline. Banks' capital structures have gone from being the province of Boards of Directors and CFOs to the "expertise" of Congressional committees and appointed regulators. Used to be when I thought about Financial Centers New York and London came to mind. Instead now I have to think about Washington and Brussels.

My friend George Friedman and his team at STRATFOR are where I turn when I need help thinking about these new realities. George's team provides me context and understanding of the environment in which financial developments are going to take place. I may tweak him about his ties, but if you saw George speak at my conference in La Jolla, you know that he's an absolutely compelling speaker. And it's small wonder that his latest book spent those weeks on the New York Times bestseller list too.

Below you'll find STRATFOR's 2Q Forecast. I hope you find it as helpful as I do in formulating my plans. What I can tell you with certainty is that if you're not taking into account the impact of geopolitical events on the markets, it's no different than trading agricultural futures without a weather forecast. George and his team provide their Members - myself included - with forecasts and on-going analysis that's invaluable in understanding the seachange in the global economy. And in exchange for me not teasing him any more, he's offering my readers a special rate on a STRATFOR Membership. Click here to join STRATFOR at this special rate and get access to a full year of the same geopolitical intelligence I use in my strategic planning. You'll be glad you did.

Yours, John Mauldin
Editor, Outside the Box


Second Quarter Forecast 2009: Global Trends

Editor’s note: STRATFOR arranges its primary forecasts — in this case the document below — topically rather than geographically. Thus, the entirety of our South Asia and Global Economy coverage for the quarterly is included in this primary forecast. Those portions of the Middle East and Eurasia forecasts that are not included in this forecast have been appended with the other regional sections.

Executive Summary

STRATFOR’s 2009 annual forecast focused on three broad trends: the global recession, the Russian resurgence and the evolution of the jihadist war.

There are number of indications that the U.S. economy is showing signs of life, but it will be weeks — if not months — before these glimmers may assemble into a firm recovery. At that point, it would be a minimum of an additional three months before a U.S. recovery could foster a global recovery. This means that for the second quarter, STRATFOR is able to take a pass on this part of our forecast. Either this quarter will be the dark before the dawn, or it will be the dark before midnight. Either way, it will be dark. A noticeable recovery will have to wait until the third quarter.

In the first quarter, Russia was convinced that it had the new U.S. president and his administration right where it wanted them: so obsessed with the Afghan war that Russia could demand anything it wanted in exchange for allowing military supplies to enter Afghanistan from the north. Russia miscalculated. It seems the Obama administration puts something above fighting the Afghan war on its priority list: limiting Russia’s resurgence. The second quarter will be Russia’s time to consolidate the advances it has made over the course of the past four years, before the Americans can gain any capacity from their planned Iraqi drawdown. Washington will be looking for ways to bolster allies against Moscow, with a somewhat ambivalent Turkey taking center stage.

Finally there is the jihadist war itself. The U.S. divide-and-conquer strategy has worked reasonably well in Iraq: Some Sunni militants, rather than shooting at U.S. forces, are now being integrated (after a fashion) into the fragile yet strengthening Iraqi federal government. This is allowing the United States to remove some forces from Iraq, and thus to surge some into Afghanistan. The American intent is to rework the divide-and-conquer trick on the Taliban. However, this tactic is not likely to be replicable for a mixture of historical, demographic and geographic reasons. The most likely reason for the plan to not succeed is because in Iraq, the “good” Sunnis the Americans courted were locals — nationalists under pressure from Shiite Iran — while the “bad” Sunnis were foreign Islamists. In Afghanistan, there is no neat factional split within the Taliban. So for the Americans, the next three months will be about trying to force a square peg into a round hole. There will be little if any progress, and the Pakistani government’s lack of enthusiasm for the conflict will allow the region’s militants to expand the scope of the war.

Primary Forecast

 

Global trend: The Economy

Undoubtedly, there is plenty of bad news — stock market surges tend to be the first major sign that the U.S. economy is healing, but the stock market cannot seem to find its feet, and employment remains well off ideal levels. Yet in the latter half of the first quarter, there were several developments indicating that the credit chokehold that caused the American recession to go global has begun to slacken. The availability of credit is the critical issue when evaluating this recession. Until firms and consumers can reliably borrow, economic growth cannot recover.

There are limited signs that credit is indeed loosening, and that some life is creeping back into the U.S. economy. Recent changes in accounting rules in the United States and Europe should grant banks the confidence they need to resume lending, independent of anything the governments might attempt. The Obama stimulus package — albeit far from perfect for actually stimulating the economy — is beginning to take effect. Retail sales have been surprisingly buoyant and since consumer spending comprises 70 percent of the American economy, this is a critical factor. Even more important is the fact that the stock of inventories has dropped for six consecutive months (September 2008 to February 2009, the latest month for which data is available) in the steepest decline on record. With inventories low, producers will soon be getting orders. That is how economic recoveries begin. There are even flickers of activity in the most moribund U.S. economic sector: housing.

But even if the United States economy is indeed showing signs of life, four caveats must kept in mind.

First, even a robust resumption in U.S. growth will not begin on any specific date. Instead, there will be increasingly bright glimmers of light here and there that will not be fully recognized until six months after the fact. It appears that the second quarter may be a transition quarter for the United States, with the more noticeable growth happening later in the year.

Second, the future of the American automotive industry his shifted from bleak to dark, with General Motors Corp. in particular planning for imminent bankruptcy (and GM is not the worst off of the Detroit Three). The dislocations caused by this industry’s implosion will be felt far and wide and even if they somehow do not delay the recovery, they are certain to have a material impact on how serious the average American views the recession as being.

Third, a resumption in growth in the United States historically does not mean an immediate rebound in either income or employment figures — both tend to be lagging indicators — particularly if the automotive industry breaks apart. Therefore, even if the recession does let up in the second quarter and growth turns nominally positive, that does not mean that most Americans will feel like the situation has improved. Bear in mind that it did not become conventional wisdom that the United States’ 2001 recession — which actually ended in October 2001 — had ended until 2004. Dispelling Americans’ mental gloom required more than two years of strong and sustained growth.

Fourth, while STRATFOR is certain that the U.S. economy will lead the world out of recession — the roughly $10 trillion American consumer market will demand products from, and thus generate growth in, Asia and Europe — STRATFOR is equally certain that there will be a lag of one to three quarters between a U.S. recovery and a global recovery. Most of Asia has suffered export plunges of at least 50 percent, and industrial output is down by a third the world over. Even if the Americans already have eaten through existing inventory, it will take some time for foreign suppliers to spin their industrial bases back up. The global system does not turn on a dime.

This means in the quarter ahead STRATFOR actually gets to opt out of taking a hard stance on this issue. If the United States does not recover, the world will remain mired in recession. If the United States begins to recover, the world will remain mired in recession and will begin pulling out later in the year. Either way, the second quarter is not going to be a comfortable time; it just might be slightly less uncomfortable for the Americans.

Internationally, there will be only one force aside from the U.S. economy to watch: the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was recapitalized at the April G-20 summit to handle the growing need for bailouts. The IMF’s assistance programs can be split into two parts. First, traditional structural adjustment programs will provide funds to states that have made poor economic decisions. These states then fall under the IMF’s tutelage, and they must make often-wrenching changes to how their systems are run. States tapping this sort of loan program include Ukraine, Hungary, Iceland, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. These states in essence are on a sort of life support while undergoing economic surgery.

The second kind of program — introduced in March — is a bridge loan for states that have been doing a decent job of economic management but are affected by factors related to the recession that lie utterly beyond their control. This second type of program does not require any meaningful changes to a state’s economic management as (in the IMF’s eyes) they have not done anything wrong, and could perhaps be extended to countries like South Korea, Brazil, Mexico and Poland. It is this second sort of program that will have a deeper effect on the system in the short run as it will allow larger states to maintain economic activity independent of the United States, somewhat blunting the effects of the recession without threatening social stability. It is also going to absorb the lion’s share of the IMF’s funding; the first program negotiated under this system — a $40 billion line of credit to Mexico — is two-thirds as large as the combined total of the more traditional loans granted since the crisis began.

Global trend: The Russian resurgence

In STRATFOR’s 2009 annual forecast, we outlined how a dominant issue for the year would be Russia’s effort to force the United States to make a strategic bargain: Russia would grant U.S. forces a northern supply route into Afghanistan in exchange for an expunging of Western influence from the former Soviet space. At a series of summits in the first week of April, the Obama administration broadly rebuffed Russia’s demands, and the two states are sliding quickly into confrontational stances.

From the U.S. point of view, Russia has overreached and has failed to consolidate its position in the key former Soviet spheres it assumed were under its control. From the Russian point of view, the U.S. refusal to accept Russia’s superior position has forced Moscow to redouble its consolidation efforts in order to erode Washington’s confidence and limit Washington’s future options inside the former Soviet sphere.

Russia will make three major consolidation efforts during the next three months. First and most important, Moscow will try to manipulate Ukraine to remove pro-Western elements such as Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko from power. Second, Moscow will undermine the Georgian government to destabilize pro-Western elements there. Georgia, unlike Ukraine, is solidly pro-Western, so Russia is satisfied simply to destabilize or neutralize it rather than transform it into something useful to Moscow. The deck is stacked in the Kremlin’s favor in both states due to Russia’s overwhelming energy, intelligence, political, economic and cultural influence, as well as geographic proximity.

But it is the third consolidation attempt where things will get tricky: Armenia.

Turkey and Russia’s spheres of influence overlap in many regions, including the Caucasus. Not only is Russia very active in Georgia, but Turkey — as part of its efforts to relaunch long-dormant geopolitical ambitions — is trying to normalize relations with Armenia. Turkey ended relations with Armenia in 1993 after Armenia began its war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the secessionist Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh located inside Azerbaijan — and the Turkish-Azerbaijani relationship has only strengthened (especially against Armenia) since then.

However, the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia would open the Caucasus to a flood of Turkish political and economic influence. Until now, Moscow has actually facilitated this process, thinking that a grateful Turkey would not side with Europe and particularly the United States in containing Russian influence. Now that U.S. President Barack Obama has personally forged a partnership with the Turks, the Kremlin is not so sure.

The restoration of ties between Turkey and Armenia was rumored to occur in the first week of April, though now dates for the event range from May to October. Russia has many levers, including energy, which it can use to counter Turkey’s orientation toward the Americans, including Moscow’s power to decide whether its protectorate of Armenia will go forward with any deal with Ankara.

The wild card in talks between Turkey and Armenia is Azerbaijan. Baku — which considers Yerevan its worst enemy — feels that its close ally Turkey has abandoned it and wants to ensure its interests are not overlooked in any deal between Turkey and Armenia. Baku is considering two means of scuttling the talks, both with the intent of severing growing Turkish-Armenian ties: appealing to Russia (the logic being that Turkey does not wish to simply trade energy-rich Azerbaijan for energy-poor Armenia), or directly attacking Armenian-held territory (triggering a war in which Turkey would feel forced to take sides).

Global trend: The U.S.-jihadist war

While STRATFOR maintains that the overall strategic threat posed by the transnational jihadist movement continues to wane, the U.S.-jihadist war, which stretches from Iraq to the Indian subcontinent, remains a dominant theme for 2009.

The United States has no choice but to wrap up the war in Iraq so that it can devote more resources to the war in Afghanistan, but the transition from the Middle East to South Asia will not be easy. A fragile power-sharing deal among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish power groups remains intact, and violence levels are still low. Yet, as STRATFOR expected, the United States is facing difficulties ensuring that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is integrating into the security apparatus members of the Sunni militia forces that split off from al Qaeda and allied with the United States. Shiite-Sunni tensions will continue to simmer. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), while a much-weakened force, may still appeal to dissident Sunnis — which may allow AQI to regain space and carry out more attacks.

Kurdish-Arab tensions are also likely to escalate over the next several months. Kurdish claims to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and constant political maneuvering among Sunnis, Kurds and Shia (most notably involving the Iraqi prime minister) could ignite the dispute over Kirkuk’s future for political gain. In addition, political infighting within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is likely to worsen as PUK leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani prepares for his succession.

The United States will try to improve its chances of holding Iraq together internally by laying the groundwork for a more constructive relationship with Iraq’s Persian neighbors. On the surface, the U.S.-Iranian relationship is improving: Obama has made clear his intent to engage Iran; his administration has agreed to direct, multilateral talks with the Iranians on the nuclear issue; and Iran is participating in U.S.-led summits on Afghanistan. But beyond the rhetoric, little has changed between Tehran and Washington. Iran is more likely to ratchet up ambiguity and Western anxiety over its nuclear program than make concessions to Washington. Like AQI, Iran’s influence may have slipped, but it has not evaporated: Iran’s influence with Shiite militants remains strong enough to upset the delicate Sunni-Shiite balance the Americans are counting on holding.

Iran is also unhappy with the developing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that calls for engaging with “moderate” members of the Taliban — a radical Sunni force that Tehran regards as a strategic threat. Tehran will keep up appearances in the diplomatic sphere but will continue to keep its distance from Washington on any issues of substance in the near term. Iranian presidential elections will be held in June, but regardless of which camp the winner comes from — hard-line, moderate or reformist — Iran’s foreign policy goals and concerns are unlikely to shift significantly.

Meanwhile, Washington will shift its focus to South Asia even though there are evidently many loose ends to tie up in the Middle East. The developing U.S. strategy for this region will focus on bolstering the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, negotiating with moderate Taliban and diversifying supply routes to deny Pakistan some of the leverage it holds in this war. However, this plan suffers from a number of strategic flaws.

The second quarter will be a trying one for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The initial surge of 21,000 troops into Afghanistan will not be in place until summer’s end. Though European NATO members have contributed additional forces to help secure the country for elections in August, most are temporary commitments and do little to alter the overall U.S. and NATO force structure being directed at a native guerrilla force with superior local knowledge and intelligence. This puts NATO on its heels in combating Taliban and al Qaeda forces, which will use this spring fighting season to shape the battlefield, carrying out operations in the countryside that aim to expand their territorial control and launching complex attacks in urban centers that aim to degrade the confidence of Afghan civilians and security forces.

American attempts to elicit cooperation from Pakistan through aid packages are unlikely to affect Pakistani behavior significantly in the near term. Though Pakistan is threatened by a separate Taliban insurgency at home, it prefers negotiations over force on its side of the border. This gap between U.S. and Pakistani policy in managing the insurgency will become more evident in the coming weeks and months as Pakistan fends off U.S. attempts to overhaul the Pakistani intelligence apparatus and makes agreements that undermine the writ of the Pakistani state in its northwest periphery. Pakistan’s preference to avoid combat will allow Taliban forces to concentrate their attacks on the U.S. and NATO supply routes that originate in the port of Karachi.

The United States had attempted to diversify its supply lines by opening up a northern route that enters Afghanistan through Russian-dominated Central Asia, but talks have frozen as U.S.-Russian relations deteriorate. The United States is now almost completely dependent on Pakistan; the logistical burden is rising with support for the troop surge, and the militants feel emboldened as Pakistan feels it can use a lighter touch in combating them.

India’s concerns will rise as little progress is made in the war.

As STRATFOR forecasted in the 2009 annual, New Delhi has refrained from taking overt military action against Pakistan after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks for fear of destabilizing Pakistan further and giving regional jihadists an excuse to focus their attention on India. Yet the gradual unraveling of command and control within the Pakistani military establishment has enabled many more of Islamabad’s Islamist militant proxies operating in Pakistan and India to team up with transnational jihadists to carry out deadlier and more strategically targeted attacks. Though the timing is uncertain, India is likely to witness another large-scale Islamist militant attack on its soil that will once again escalate cross-border tensions on the subcontinent.

India has thus far stayed on the sidelines of U.S. dealings with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Its involvement is largely limited to two items: first, making clear to Washington that Kashmir is not up for debate as Washington attempts to rehabilitate Pakistan, and second, increasing its presence in Afghanistan, devoting effort to reconstruction projects and perhaps providing covert support to anti-Taliban groups in the north (in part to counter a U.S. strategy to engage “pragmatic” Taliban). Much like the Iranians and the Russians, India has no interest in engaging Taliban forces who share a Pashtun link with the Pakistanis.

India is currently in the midst of a general election that will conclude in mid-May. No party is likely to win a clear majority, and it will be up to the incumbent Congress party and the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to cobble together a ruling coalition of smaller regional parties. STRATFOR will not attempt to predict the outcome of this uncertain election, which will largely be based on the populist votes of India’s lower classes, but should the BJP manage to overcome its setbacks and take the lead, Indian restraint against Pakistan would not be assured in the event of another large-scale militant attack.

Part Two: Second Quarter Forecast 2009: Regional Breakouts

 


Disclaimer

John Mauldin is president of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC, a registered investment advisor. All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Investment recommendations may change and readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions.

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Posted 04-23-2009 8:31 AM by John Mauldin