By Mohamed A. El-Erian
The opinions expressed are his own.
With its high unemployment and stretched balance sheets, today’s US economy can ill-afford a negative shock from abroad. Yet, this is what it is experiencing. And it explains why markets go through bouts of nervousness about the debt crisis in Europe, and why American policymakers are worried about a foreign financial situation that is getting worse by the day.
Europe’s debt problem is indeed a headwind for what remains a disappointing US economic recovery. It dampens America’s export prospects, can raise the cost of borrowing for some American companies and diminishes an already low enthusiasm among banks to lend to households and small companies.
Having said that, it is unlikely, though not inconceivable, that Europe’s debt crisis would constitute a “Lehman Moment” — a situation that totally paralyzes American economic activity, puts the country on the verge of a depression and triggers yet another round of extreme crisis management measures.
There is now broad-based recognition of America’s persistent economic weakness. Most recently, the Federal Reserve has been forced again to revise downwards its growth projections for both 2011 and 2012. Moreover, with refreshing candor that speaks well to the uncertainties felt by the average American, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke acknowledged in his second ever press conference on June 22 that only part of the economic weakness is due to transitory factors such as higher oil prices and supply disruptions associated with the Japanese tragedies.
As Bernanke hinted, and as PIMCO’s analyses have demonstrated for a while, the US unfortunately faces four structural headwinds that are yet to be addressed properly by policymakers.