Advanced economies stuck in trap of low growth and rising populism

Jake Cordell
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Without bold political action, analysts said, the cycle of low growth and anti-establish feeling will continue
Without bold political action, analysts said, the cycle of low growth and anti-establishment feeling will continue (Source: Getty)

The cycle of weak growth and political instability affecting the developed world was laid bare in a new report into the state of the world's largest economies, published this morning.

Economies are trapped in a spiral of weak growth and growing debt while politicians fail to grasp the problems, leading to a political backlash and a clamour for protectionism, BMI Research, part of Fitch, said today.

"We expect rising developed market populism and demographic pressures to reinforce many of the current trends in the world economy, including slow economic growth, experimental monetary policy and creeping protectionism," said BMI global economist Lisa Lewin.

The number of protectionist measures, defined as any policy shift which is "almost certainly discriminatory towards foreign commercial interests" has jumped from fewer than 100 a year to more than 400 in the US, the EU, Japan, Australia and Canada.

Read more: The UK has a moral duty to lead the world on free trade

As politicians respond to disillusionment with globalisation, the failure to kick-start growth simply reinforces the idea the current system is broken and stokes the rise of populism, BMI said.

"Anti-establishment forces appear set to continue growing in influence for the next five to ten years in the western world. The main driver of populism will remain a combination of weak economic growth and rising inequality."

Breaking out of the cycle - somehow - was seen as crucial to restoring faith in globalisation and liberal market policies.

Read more: Will 2016 be seen as the high water mark for globalisation?

"There are no silver bullets for such huge structural changes," said Philippe Legrain, a former adviser to the EU and founder of the Open Political Economy Network (Open) think tank.

He added: "To keep markets open, the losers from globalisation need to be helped to retrain and find better jobs. Faster economic growth that leads to rising real wages would make a big difference; that requires debt restructuring, shifting the tax burden off labour and onto land, and unleashing innovation and enterprise."

Demographic dangers

One area seen as particularly crucial to bring under control was the rising cost of supporting ageing populations. Economist Vicky Pryce said: "There are two possible solutions. Immigration, but that's problematic, and extending the retirement age. That can actually lead to surprising results. Delaying the retirement age can make a huge difference."

Head of Policy at the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) Ryan Bourne agreed many major economies "need to undertake fundamental reform of entitlements ... More protectionism and regulation of the economy is the exact opposite of what is required."

Political analysts have pointed to the rise of figures like Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the UK and the US, along with the growth of anti-EU and far-right movements across the Europe as a sign of the public's desire to retreat from the era of globalisation.

Pryce and Bourne, however, suggested this may be part of a longer-term political cycle.

"It's easy to get too pessimistic about the future," said Bourne. Pryce added: "The world goes through protectionist cycles every now and again. There are pressures for more measures, but we have seen them periodically come and go."

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