NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Global stock markets Wednesday cheered recent advances in Iraq by U.S.-led forces, as hopes rose for a quick end to the war. Will the global economy also jump for joy if the war ends soon?
Don't count on it.
Many economists think that a messy post-war clean-up in Iraq, the lingering hangover from the 1990s market bubble, other geopolitical tensions, and the SARS virus in Asia will prove to be a cocktail poisonous for global growth.
"It's a bit too cute to assume that, when the war's over, everything will be fine again," said Russell Jones, chief international economist at Lehman Brothers in London.
For one thing, Iraq, a country ruined by decades of war, economic sanctions and the neglectful rule of Saddam Hussein, will have to be rebuilt and stabilized, a task some experts have estimated could cost $100 billion.
Putting Saddam's head on a stake in the center of Baghdad is not going to magically transform Iraq into a Jeffersonian democracy, and it's not going to abruptly raise the dismal standard of living of the country's 24 million people, who have suffered a 90 percent drop in gross domestic product (GDP) and a doubling of the infant mortality rate in the past 20 years.
Though an end to the war will probably send stock prices higher and oil prices lower, the continuing risk of terror attacks and fighting between the various factions in Iraq during the years-long rebuilding effort will keep pressure on the global economy, Jones and other economists believe.
"Winning the war will prove to be the easy part. Winning the peace and paying for the peace will be the tough part," Jones said.
And many analysts say there are serious problems plaguing the world economy that existed even before the Iraq problem started dominating the radar screen.
Though the World Bank expects global gross domestic product (GDP) to grow 2.5 percent in 2003, compared with 1.7 percent in 2002, "the chances of the world economy sliding toward recession are real," the World Bank said in its latest Global Economic Prospects report.
Expecting global rate cuts
Some economists think the investment bubble of the late 1990s left companies with such a glut of equipment and debt that it will be a long time before they have the appetite for new investment, no matter what happens in Iraq.
"Concerns about the economic outlook reflect not only the Iraq situation, but also the underlying fragility that is a consequence of the lingering imbalances and excesses accumulated during the bubble years," Charles Dallara, managing director of the Institute of International Finance Inc., said Tuesday in a letter to people who'll attend an upcoming International Monetary Fund committee meeting in Washington, D.C.
The IIF, a lobbying group for global financial institutions such as banks and insurance companies, recommended a synchronized effort by policy-makers around the world to help fuel growth in the global economy.
They might get their wish. Even as hopes soar for a quick end to the war in Iraq, there's also a growing expectation that central banks around the world will cut interest rates -- even after the war ends.
"For the moment, the European Central Bank will hold rates because they don't know what weakness is related to uncertainties about the Iraqi conflict and what is due to underlying forces," said Raymond van der Putten, euro zone economist at BNP Paribas in Paris. "But beyond the war, we think these underlying forces will require the ECB to move."
Sounds an awful lot like the dilemma facing the Federal Reserve. In its latest move, the U.S. central bank left interest rates alone, but promised vigilant, hand-wringing oversight of the economy, even as it expressed some optimism that things would get better when the war was over.
But recent economic news, including Tuesday's decline in a key manufacturing index, has led many economists to think plenty of damage has already been done to the U.S. economy -- which is, for better or for worse, the world's economic locomotive -- and that the Fed will need to act, possibly even before its policy-makers next meet on May 6.
Geopolitical uncertainty, part deux
Japan, the world's second-largest economy, also had plenty of problems that existed long before the Iraq crisis, including stubborn deflation -- a state in which falling prices cut corporate profits, leading to layoffs and more economic weakness -- and a banking sector in dire need of some "shock and awe" reform.
“ If you want to frighten people in Hong Kong, just sneeze. ”
Morgan Stanley economist
Though some analysts hope new Bank of Japan governor Toshihiko Fukui and his associates will make the hard choices necessary to finally right Japan's ship, nobody's building victory floats just yet -- plenty of Japanese policy-makers have already come and gone without making much of a dent.
And if "geopolitical uncertainties" are bad for the economy, as Alan Greenspan and other economists are fond of telling us, there's a whopper of an uncertainty right in Japan's back yard -- North Korea.
North Korea reacted with typical fury when Japan launched a spy satellite Friday, and some economists worry that its reprisals -- such as firing missiles into the Sea of Japan, as North Korea occasionally does when it needs attention -- could add to growing tension in the region.
"If North Korea started going on the offensive, it could cause uncertainty in the region and could lead to deterioration in the economy and further fright in the stock market," said Wachovia Securities economist Matthew Ellis.
The potential damage of SARS
Another Asian crisis, the recent spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which has infected more than 1,800 people worldwide, killing about 70, could also impact Japan's economy if it continues to spread. It's already wreaking havoc on some of the country's key Asian trading partners.
The World Health Organization (WHO) took the unusual step this week of advising travelers to steer clear of Hong Kong and the area around Guangzhou, China, where the disease may have originated. Guangzhou may not be a tourist hot spot like Hong Kong, but China's economy -- one of the world's biggest -- could suffer if SARS outbreaks spread to other regions.
Meanwhile, tourism makes up 5 percent of Hong Kong's economy, and the disease has left a pall in the region that's just as stifling as the face masks most people there are wearing.
"I experienced the effect firsthand on my return flight from London to Hong Kong last weekend," Morgan Stanley economist Andy Xie wrote in a recent research note. "There were three passengers in my cabin -- a 10 percent occupancy rate at best. Hong Kong's restaurants are mostly empty. It is difficult to enjoy a meal with masked waiters tiptoeing around in silence. If you want to frighten people in Hong Kong, just sneeze."
Though the disease hasn't yet spread too far outside of Asia and its economic impact is still unknown, another Morgan Stanley economist, noted bear Stephen Roach, intends to tell his clients Friday that SARS will be enough to cause a global recession.
"[This] is just another nail in the coffin for the world economy," Roach told CNNfn.