MONEY Economy

Fourth-Quarter Numbers Not As Strong As Hoped

On Friday, economists got a fresh read on the U.S. recovery: The federal government reported fourth-quarter gross domestic product growth slowed to 2.6% from the third-quarter’s 5%.

The good news is few economists expected to outstrip the third-quarter’s robust number. The bad news is slower GDP growth wasn’t the only disappointment. In fact, many experts were looking past that headline number at something else: the Employment Cost Index.

The Labor Department index, a measure of overall employment costs, including wages but also benefits like health care, rose 2.2% year over year for the fourth quarter. It had grown 2.3% in the fourth quarter, and economists had been hoping to see it meet or exceed that mark.

That it failed to do so suggests wage growth — largely seen as the last missing piece of the recovery — still hasn’t picked up as much as we would all like. The upshot is, while Americans seem to be able to find work, solid middle class jobs still appear to be scarce. Sluggish wage growth also means the Federal Reserve, which is feeling pressure to raise interest rates, may have extra breathing room, since rising wages a key driver of inflation.

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TIME China

Why China Is Nervous About Its Role in the World

Hong Kong based Vietnamese demonstrators carry Vietnam's flag during a protest against China's territory claim in Hong Kong
TYRONE SIU—REUTERS Hong Kong based Vietnamese demonstrators carry Vietnam's flag during a protest against China's territory claim in Hong Kong May 25, 2014. Around 200 people marched on Sunday to declare Paracel Islands belong to Vietnam. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

China’s fear of closer ties between the U.S. and India may indicate growing economic problems at home

In the wake of President Obama’s historic trip to India, China issued an unsolicited and perplexing statement downplaying the relevance of the visit. As the White House pointed out in response, the only thing significant about China’s statement was the fact that the Asian nation felt the need to make it in the first place.

The rivalry between China and India for economic power and strategic control in Asia is longstanding and is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. But China’s taunt is not necessarily a sign of its hostility towards India but an inadvertent admission of its declining supremacy in the region.

China, once an accepted economic and military juggernaut and the darling of investors the world over, is now facing both economic and strategic challenges which could slow down its progress.

First, China’s economy seems to be shrinking. With industrial activity trending down and interest rate cuts yet to produce results, it’s looking likely that China’s meteoric economic rise may have peaked and, according to a report from the Conference Board, could lead to a 4% GDP growth rate in the future, which is considerably lower than in previous decades. Further problems plaguing China include a debt overhang, a real estate bubble, lack of competition, and an old-world industrial economy instead of a more modern information economy such as that of the U.S.

In addition, India’s economic growth is predicted to outpace China’s by 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund, a fact that doesn’t bode well for China’s dominance of Asia. That’s not to say that China will cease to be an economic power but that it may not be able to exert the same clout on the world stage that it once did.

Another major shift could be in China’s ability to use the specter of its military might to secure favorable trade terms with other nations. That specter, even as it grows, could be undermined by higher defense spending by India and Japan (aided by the U.S.), who are eager to contain China. At the same time, China can’t bank on Russia for support since the latter is facing its own crisis from low oil prices and economic sanctions. This could leave China isolated and weaken its position with trading partners.

Finally, there is the democracy factor. The recent protests in Hong Kong were an indication of the tenuousness of China’s draconian control over its people, and possibly of political upheaval to come.

In economic terms, this means that although China has done a fairly good job of balancing free market principles with state run control, the desire of citizens for democracy could force China to relax regulatory control over businesses, embrace labor reform, and truly open its markets in the not-too-distant future. That’s good news for investors but depends heavily on the reaction of the Chinese government, whose response to pro-democracy forces could be unpredictable and severe. Also, a sudden rise in labor costs due to free market forces could in itself disrupt the economic ecosystem in China, and have a negative impact on both domestic and foreign companies that rely on the labor pool.

Given this context, it becomes easier to understand just why China is nervous about closer ties developing between the world’s two largest democracies, the U.S. and India, and why global investors should be wary of the Chinese economic miracle. For sure, China will continue to be an influential player and has demonstrated resilience in the face of difficulties before, but investors looking to make money from the region should still temper their enthusiasm with a realistic assessment of where the nation is now.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, at hedge fund Ramius Capital, and has an MBA from Columbia Business School.

TIME Greece

5 Facts About the Greek Elections

Greek Prime Minister and Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras, at the Presidential palace during the swearing in ceremony of the new Greek Government, Athens, Jan. 27, 2015 .
Panayiotis Tzamaros/NurPhoto/Corbis Greek Prime Minister and Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras, at the Presidential palace during the swearing in ceremony of the new Greek Government, Athens, Jan. 27, 2015 .

The results of Sunday's elections in Greece pose major challenges to Europe

On Sunday, Greek elections ushered in a radical left-wing Syriza government in sweeping fashion: the party won 149 seats—two short of an absolute majority—on the back of its anti-establishment, anti-austerity platform. How dissatisfied are Greeks with the status quo? How does that compare with Germany, heading into tense negotiations over the southern European country’s debt? And where can Greece turn for support? Here are five facts that explain the situation.

1. Surging discontent

In 2010, Syriza was polling at 5%. In last weekend’s elections, they captured more than 36% of the vote. Meanwhile, Golden Dawn, an anti-immigration party with neo-Nazi associations, took third place with 6%. Perhaps a different poll best explains this surge in support for anti-establishment parties. In a Pew Research survey measuring economic attitudes, Greece came dead last among all countries polled: just 2% of Greeks think their economic situation is good. (Compare that to the 85% of Germans who are happy with their economy.)

(Eurasia Group, Pew Research)

2. 25%: Greece’s unlucky number

Why so much frustration with the economy? Since the financial crisis struck in 2008, the Greek economy has shrunk by more than 25%. So have wages. The unemployment rate is over 25% too. Youth unemployment is double that, rising to 50.6% in October. (Compare that to 7.4% youth unemployment in Germany.)

(Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the European Magazine, Trading Economics)

3. Under pressure

When Greece inked a historic bailout worth $270 billion dollars, or some $25,000 per Greek citizen from the Troika—the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank—it came with a quid pro quo. The government has undertaken drastic cuts in government spending to try to balance the budget. Education funding has been decimated: over six years of austerity, the Ministry of Education’s budget has been slashed by more than 35%. The pain adds up: the University of Crete endured a budget cut of 75% in 2011, an additional 15% the following year—and a 23% cut is scheduled for this year. Syriza’s argument—that such cuts are a bad bet for Greece’s future and will undermine longer term growth—resonates with the broader Greek population.

(CNBC, European Parliament)

4. Brain drain

With the numbers so bleak, it’s no wonder Greeks are leaving in droves. Migration outflows are up 300% compared to pre-crisis figures; roughly 2% of the population has left, some 200,000 people. Somewhat ironically, over half of these emigrants have headed for Britain—and for Germany. Since 2010, more than 4,000 Greek doctors have left the country for jobs abroad.

(The Guardian, NPR, Deutsche Welle)

5. Pivot to Russia?

Greece has had a little help from a friend outside the EU. In 2013, Russia surpassed Germany to become Greece’s largest trading partner, with trade flows of $12.5 billion. Tourism is a huge part of the Greek economy, contributing over 16% of GDP—and Russia has been the fastest growing source of new visitors. In 2013, tourism revenues from Russia skyrocketed 42%. Of course, recent Western sanctions undermine this budding relationship—a weaker ruble means less tourism, and Russia’s EU food export ban hurts Greek fruit exporters. This could explain why new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met with the Russian ambassador to Greece within hours of taking office—and publicly expressed his disapproval with new EU condemnations of Russia.

(Bloomberg, the OEC, EU Observer)

Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His next book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, will be published in May

TIME energy

Most Americans Are Spending Less Than $2 Per Gallon for Gas

The average household will save $750 on gas this year

The price of gas is plummeting like a bungee jumper without a rope.

A majority of Americans are paying less than $2 per gallon for gas for the first time since 2009, and the ever-cheapening fuel it helping put more money in consumers’ pockets and bolster the economy. About 6 in 10 U.S. gas stations are selling a gallon of gas for under $2, according to AAA. The average gas price has dropped for a record 120 consecutive days to less than $2.04 a gallon. That’s the cheapest average in nearly six years.

American consumers will benefit immensely this year from the drop: The Department of Energy predicted last week that the average American household would spend about $750 less for gasoline in 2015 compared with last year.

“It’s crazy,” Michael Noel, an economics professor at Texas Tech University who studies oil and gasoline prices, told the Associated Press of the fuel price drop. “But for consumers it’s very, very good.”

MORE: The Cost of Cheap Gas

Lower fuel prices will also likely help the U.S. economy grow significantly this year. The World Bank expects the American economy to grow 3.2% this year, compared with 2.4% in 2014, and some forecasts are even higher.

The downside? Oil drillers and refineries in states like Texas and North Dakota are likely to suffer from lower gas prices. Layoffs of thousands of workers have begun in recent weeks.

TIME Economy

Europe’s Economic Band-Aid Won’t Cure What Really Ails It

Prime Minister David Cameron Tries To Take A Harder Line with Europe
Carl Court—Getty Images E.U. flags are pictured outside the European Commission building in Brussels on Oct. 24, 2014

Quantitative easing is a good start, but it won't fix the Continent's underlying wounds

Markets always love a money dump, which is why European stocks are now rallying on news that the European Central Bank will purchase 1.1 trillion worth of euro-denominated bonds between now and September 2016. Bond yields are dropping, implying less risk in the European debt markets. And the value of the euro itself is falling, which should make European exports more competitive, which could in turn bolster the European economy over all.

All good, right? For now, yes, it is all good.

But let’s remember that central bank quantitative easing (QE) of the kind that Europe is now embarking on is always just a Band-Aid on economic troubles, not a solution to underlying structural issues in a country (or in this case, a region). Just as the Fed’s $4 trillion QE money dump bolstered the markets but didn’t fix the core problems in our economy—growing inequality, a high/low job market without enough work in the middle, flat wages, historically low workforce participation—so the ECB QE will excite markets for a while, but it won’t mend the problems that led Europe to need this program to begin with.

Those consist primarily of a debt crisis stemming from the lack of real political integration within the EU. Right now, Europe has a currency and an economic union that exists in a kind of fantasy land, with no underlying political unity. Until the Germans start acting more European (meaning creating a consumption society and realizing that they’ll have to do some fiscal transfers to struggling peripheral nations in exchange for the huge export benefits they get from the euro), and countries like Spain, Italy, Portugal and France start making the changes they really need (all the usual stuff—labor market reforms, cutting red tape, fighting corruption, opening up service markets), the debt crisis won’t go away.

Indeed, the challenge now is for countries is to use the breathing room that the ECB has given them to really come together over the next 18 months and make those reforms happen while committing to a truly integrated Europe. Germany should say it will unequivocally back peripheral nations financially in exchange for a promise of real reforms in those nations. (There should also be tough penalties for failure on both sides of the bargain.)

That will be tough for sure, but Europe will find itself in an even worse place come September 2016 if it doesn’t take action now. Post QE, without any real structural reform, the EU will simply have an even more bloated balance sheet, and the market will exact punishment for it. For a historical lesson on this, look to the many emerging market crises of the past where countries tried to spend themselves out of their problems without doing underlying reforms; it always ends in a stock market crash, a financial crisis, and plenty of tears.

The buck has stopped for Europe. The ECB has called policy makers’ bluff. It’s time to create a real United States of Europe to match the common currency.

TIME Davos

The Coming Crisis Making the World’s Most Powerful People Blanch

TIME.com stock photos Money Dollar Bills
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

If global growth slows, as some predict it will, the globe is in for a lot of very big problems

The past 50 years have been the most exceptional period of growth in global history. The world economy expanded sixfold, average per capita income tripled, and hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty. That’s the good news. But according to a new McKinsey report on the next 50 years of global growth revealed today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, it’s very unlikely that we’ll be able to equal that in the future. There are two main reasons for this gloomy conclusion: the global birthrate is falling dramatically and productivity is slowing. Economic growth is basically productivity plus demographics. The result? McKinsey is forecasting that if current trends continue, global growth will fall by 40% over the next half century, to around 2.1% year.

A while back, I wrote a column about what a 2% economy would mean for the U.S. Imagine if the whole world, including emerging markets that need much higher rates just to keep social unrest under control, were growing that slowly too. Not good.

McKinsey got a bunch of big brains—Larry Summers, Martin Sorrel, Martin Wolf, Laura Tyson, Michael Spence, and others—together to discuss all this and figure out some possible solutions. A few interesting points that came out: while we are in the middle of a digital revolution that seems to be disrupting nearly every aspect of business and the economy, not to mention our personal lives and culture, the revolution isn’t showing up in productivity numbers yet. Part of that could be that the way we measure productivity isn’t capturing everything that individuals are doing on their smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets. (It’s also worth noting that a lot of what is being created by individuals on those devices is free, which is an economic problem all its own, in the sense that only a few big companies like Facebook and Google and Twitter capture those creative gains, and they don’t create enough jobs to sustain what’s being lost in the economy.) There’s also the possibility that this “revolution,” simply isn’t as transformative, at least in terms of broadly shared economic growth, as those of the past—the Industrial Revolution or even the 1970s computer revolution. (For more on this, check out research by Northwestern University academic Robert Gordon, who is all over this topic.)

There are things we can do to boost productivity, like getting the private sector more involved in areas like education (for more, see The School That Will Get You a Job), and by allowing the gains from the internet of things (meaning the connection of all digital devices to each other) to filter through over the next few years. It’s not yet clear that will create more jobs though. Indeed, it may create jobless productivity which is a whole new challenge to cope with, one that might require bigger wealth transfers from the small number of wealthy people who do have jobs to the larger number of people who don’t. (Paging Thomas Piketty!)

There are some other ideas on the demographic side. Women are still dramatically underrepresented in the workforce in many countries. (One WEF study estimates it will take 81 more years for global gender parity at the current rate of change—argh!) Putting more of them to work could help a lot with growth; indeed, Warren Buffet once suggested to be that the federal government should provide inexpensive, partly federally funded child care to allow other women to take jobs higher up the food chain, this boosting economic growth. A win win.

Of course, this requires governments to take the lead on what can be politically contentious policy decisions, not easy when most politicians spend much of their terms trying to get reelected. Unfortunately short-termism is rife in the private sector too. CEO tenures are now five years on average and CFOs only last 3. All of which tends to lead to decision-making that benefits corporate compensation more than real economic growth.

Depressing, I know. But I saw one ray of hope when I ran into an emerging market CEO outside the panel, one who runs a family business that does planning in 10- to 20-year cycles rather than quarterly, investing quite a lot in areas like training and education. McKinsey research shows these types of firms will make up the biggest chunk of new global multinationals. Perhaps they can take the long view and come up with some better ideas about how to ensure global growth for the future.

TIME cities

Maybe Millennials Don’t Want to Live in Cities After All

Suburban street
Barbara Fischer—Getty Images

Two-thirds want to own a home in the suburbs, study says

The accepted wisdom about millennials is that they shun the suburbs for the cities. They want to be in urban cores next to easily accessible public transportation options that allow them to seamlessly hit up bars, restaurants and any space with wi-fi.

But any blanket statement about a group that’s roughly 80 million strong will have holes, and a new survey appears to run against that common perception. The poll, released Wednesday by the National Association of Home Builders, shows that Americans in their 20s and mid-30s actually would rather settle down in the suburbs than in city centers.

(MORE: Millennials Will Overtake Baby Boomers to Become Biggest Generation)

According to NAHB’s study, 66% of respondents who were born in 1977 or later said they would prefer to buy a home in an outlying suburb or close to a suburb, while only 24% preferred buying a house in a rural area and 10% would rather have a home in the center of a city.

(MORE: Turns Out Millennials Do Want to Own Cars)

Those numbers seem to show that while millennials may love living in urban cores while they’re young and largely childless, they realize that it may be too expensive in the long-term to buy. It also may signal that apartment living is taking its toll as millennials get older. More than 80% said they wanted to live in a home with three or more bedrooms.

TIME cities

The 5 U.S. Cities Bouncing Back Strongest From the Recession

Houston, Texas
Murat Taner—Getty Images Houston, Texas

Metro areas in the South and the West are flourishing

U.S. cities in the South and West are more likely to have recovered from the recession while metropolitan areas in the Midwest and Northeast have largely struggled, according to a new report.

The Brookings Institution report finds that Austin, Houston and Raleigh, N.C., have outpaced other U.S. cities in terms of GDP growth per capita and rising employment since 2007, with Fresno, Calif., and Dallas rounding out the top five.

(MORE: Oklahoma Shakes—Is Fracking to Blame?)

The report, released Thursday, tracks how cities around the world have fared since the recession. Globally, the main metropolitan drivers are found in developing countries, especially China and Turkey.

In the U.S., the cities with the strongest GDP growth and employment levels since the Great Recession are generally found in the south and west, largely due to the growth of the energy sector.

“Those places are the epicenter of what has been the shale energy boom that’s been occurring in the U.S.,” says Joseph Parilla, a Brookings research analyst and lead author of the Global MetroMonitor report.

(MORE: The Rise of Suburban Poverty in America)

Cities in Texas and Oklahoma have especially benefited from the expanded production in oil and gas thanks to an increase in fracking, a process that extracts natural gas from shale.

The cities that have seen the least progress are largely clustered in the Midwest and Northeast in areas that are historically industrial and manufacturing hubs. Most of those cities—like Kansas City, Mo., Allentown, Pa., and Dayton, Ohio—have only partially recovered or not recovered at all, according to Brookings.

As the U.S. continues to see good economic numbers, many of which were touted by President Obama in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, most cities are still struggling to rebound from the recession. More than half of U.S. metropolitan areas either have not recovered from 2007 GDP per capita levels or have not fully seen a rebound in employment.

TIME Economy

See the State With the Cheapest Gas in the U.S.

Gas prices in Missouri plummeted to $1.58 in January

At first look, the collapse in oil prices over the past year, from $107 per barrel in June to below $50 a barrel today, seems like the proverbial free lunch for American consumers. The decline in prices is the equivalent of a $125 billion tax cut. And it’s effectively a progressive one, since the biggest beneficiaries will be working- and middle-class people who spend a disproportionate amount of their income on gas for their cars and heating fuel for their homes. American households with oil heat could save $767 each this winter. That cash can now be spent on a new car—or a washing machine, an electronic gadget, clothes or a few dinners out.

That should boost spending, and …

Read the full story, which appears in the Feb. 2, 2015 issue of TIME, here.

TIME Davos

How Technology Is Making All of Us Less Trusting

A technician checks the light in the Congress Hall before the start of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2014 in Davos Jan. 21, 2014
Denis Balibouse / Reuters

The world's major tech companies better pay attention to the growing backlash — before it's too late

Davos Man, take note: the technology that has enriched you is moving too fast for the average Joe.

That’s the takeaway from the 2015 Trust Barometer survey, released by public relations firm Edelman every year at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This year’s survey, which came out Wednesday, looks at thousands of consumers in 27 countries to get a sense of public trust in business, government, NGOs and media. This year, it’s falling across the board, with two-thirds of nations’ citizens being more distrustful than ever of all institutions, perhaps no surprise given that neither the private nor the public sector seems to have answers to the big questions of the day — geopolitical conflict, rising inequality, flat wages, market volatility, etc.

What’s interesting is how much people blame technology and the speed of technological change for the feeling of unease in the world today. Two to one, consumers in all the countries surveyed felt that technology was moving too quickly for them to cope with, and that governments and business weren’t doing enough to assess the long-term impact of shifts like GMO foods, fracking, disruptors like Uber or Apple Pay, or any of the myriad other digital services that affect privacy and security of people and companies.

That belies the conventional wisdom among tech gurus like, say, Jeff Bezos, who once said that, “New inventions and things that customers like are usually good for society.” Maybe, but increasingly people aren’t feeling that way. And it could have an impact on the regulatory environment facing tech companies. Expect more pushback on sharing-economy companies that skirt local regulation, a greater focus on the monopoly power of mammoth tech companies, and closer scrutiny of the personal wealth of tech titans themselves.

Two of the most interesting pieces of journalism I have read in recent years look at how the speed of digital change is affecting culture and public sentiment. Kurt Andersen’s wonderful Vanity Fair story from January 2012, posited the idea that culture is stuck in retro mode — think fashion’s obsession with past decades, and the nostalgia that’s rife in TV and film — because technology and globalization are moving so fast that people simply can’t take any more change, cognitively at least. Likewise, Leon Wieseltier’s sharp essay on the cover of the New York Times book review this past Sunday lamented how the fetishization of all things Big Tech has led us to focus on the speed, brevity and monetization of everything, to the detriment of “deep thought” and a broader understanding of the human experience.

I agree on both counts. And I hope that some of the tech luminaries here at Davos, like Marissa Mayer, Eric Schmidt and Sheryl Sandberg, are paying attention to this potential growing backlash, which I expect will heat up in the coming year.

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