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Last Updated: Sunday, 31 October, 2004, 22:13 GMT
US economy: The challenges ahead
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter

George W Bush
President Bush insists the US economy is healthy

The dead heat between the two US presidential candidates has pushed economic arguments ever higher on the agenda.

President George W Bush is keen to pull employment statistics out of his sleeve. Almost two million jobs have been created during the last year, he points out.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry is keen to rip Mr Bush's arguments apart by pointing out that the overall number of jobs in the US has fallen by more than 800,000 since early 2001.

And so the two men continue their ping-pong match. Selective statistics are used for political gain, point scoring is the name of the game.

Threat

But there is one thing neither candidate is happy to concede: that unless drastic action is taken, the US could slide into a painful and lengthy recession.

US GDP growth

Current economic growth is strong at about 3-4%, with the economy having bounced back from the mini-recession in 2001, and neither candidate is prepared to accept that the growth rate could slip back anytime soon.

"Unfortunately, while the debate has also involved competing claims over qualifications for economic stewardship, neither candidate has clearly articulated the long-term challenges we now face, much less a comprehensive and credible vision for meeting them," insists Morgan Stanley economist Richard Berner.

It is a controversial view since it suggests that, in economic terms, it does not really matter who wins the race, as neither have faced up to the real economic issues. But is it true?

Debt mountain

The view may not represent that of the majority - doomsayers rarely do - but the gloomy arguments are well worth exploring nevertheless.

John Kerry
Mr Kerry believes he can do a better job managing the economy
A major part of the problem is this: The US is living beyond its means, and this is true both for the American people and the government.

At the grass-roots level, personal savings for retirement or for rainy days has fallen out of vogue. Spending, meanwhile, has reached frantic levels.

Shoppers have been spurred on by tax cuts and by policy-makers who see them as the main drivers behind economic growth. Indeed, consumer spending accounts for 70% of economic activity in the US.

The growth has also been based on easy access to cheap credit. The private debt burden has ballooned to $9.7 trillion, equivalent to almost 85% of the country's economic output, or gross domestic product (GDP).

Demand

Some economists say such reliance on the consumer makes America's economic prosperity fragile, especially given that the government's finances are in disarray as well.

US government debts have soared to $7.4 trillion. The country's pensions system is in crisis. And America desperately needs to push through very expensive health care reform.

"Each candidate claims to acknowledge these challenges, but in my opinion neither has adequately addressed them," says Mr Berner.

At consumer level, policy-makers are left with a tough choice: encourage consumers to start repaying debts, and spending is hit.

Trying to influence which way consumer demand is heading may be futile anyway, of course.

During Spring, consumer spending slipped back as confidence was hit by global insecurity and rising oil prices.

And although demand has since bounced back, the Spring weakness sparked fears that the consumer might give up the ghost.

Historically high oil prices, coupled with the weak US dollar, remains problematic, not least due to America's fast growing reliance on oil imports.

In 1985, the US imported fewer than five million barrels per day. This year the figure will be closer to 12 million barrels per day.

Optimistic projections

All this has led the doomsayers to warn that the US could slide into a painful and lengthy recession.

If they are right, the US electorate should expect little in the way of economic remedies promised by both candidates during the election campaign.

The health care system would not be fixed as promised. Taxes might have to rise. The country's deficit would not, as promised by both Mr Bush and Mr Kerry, be halved by 2009.

The reasons for this are simple. Both men have based their promises on the assumption that the US economy will continue to grow by more than 3% per year throughout the next term.

A recession, or even just slower growth, would make it difficult for them to keep their promises.

Moreover, however good the presidential candidates' intentions, they may not be able to push change through Congress where, due to the close election race, neither party is likely to have a solid majority.

"I share the view of most financial market observers that neither candidate would have a sweeping mandate to govern, much less enact changes in economic policy," warns Mr Berner.

Whatever is said in the election campaign by either candidate relies heavily on their ability to deliver in the face of a recession.

The American voters must try to predict which one of the candidates would stand the best chance.




SEE ALSO:
Paper sorry for 'kill Bush' line
25 Oct 04  |  Americas


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