The United States will experience moderate to strong growth in 2011. Unlike in other major economies, consumer activity comprises the bulk of the U.S. system — some $10 trillion of the $14 trillion total. That $10 trillion is approximately half of the global consumer market. (The combined BRIC states — Brazil, Russia, India and China — account for less than one-third of that amount). As the U.S. consumer goes, so goes the world.

When measuring what the U.S. consumer is going to do, STRATFOR consults three sets of data: first-time unemployment claims (our preferred method for evaluating current employment trends), retail sales (the actual consumer’s track record), and inventory builds (an indicator of whether or not wholesalers and retailers will be placing new orders, which in turn would require more hires). As 2011 begins, the first two figures look favorable to economic growth, while the last indicates employment may be slow to recover.

STRATFOR pays close attention to two other measures on the economy: The S&P 500 Index indicates investors’ risk appetite, and total bank credit as made available by the U.S. Federal Reserve indicates how functional the financial system is. Because the 2008-2009 recession was financial in origin, STRATFOR pays particular attention to what investors and banks are doing and thinking. Both measures are strongly positive as 2011 begins.

But while the United States may be gearing up for a strong performance, the same is not true elsewhere in the world.

Europe faces a structural problem. The euro was designed for and by the Germans, who want a strong currency and high interest rates to keep inflation in check and to attract the capital required to maximize their high value-added system of first-rate education and infrastructure. The Southern Europeans, in contrast, have economies that do not add nearly as much value. They must remain price competitive to generate growth, and the only reliable means they have of doing that is to sport a weak currency. Put simply, people will pay more for a German car, but they will only pay so much for a Spanish apple.

Yet these economies (and others) are enmeshed into the eurozone. The financial crisis is depressing the euro, which would normally help the southern European states, but Germany’s presence in the eurozone is acting as a sort of life preserver, limiting how far the common currency can sink. The result is a midground currency, prevented from falling to levels that would actually stimulate the south while holding at weaker levels that make the already competitive Germans hypercompetitive. The result will be growth bifurcation, with the Germans experiencing their fastest growth in a generation, and Southern Europe — the region that needs growth the most to emerge from the debt maelstrom — mired in recession.

Consequently, the financial crisis that started sweeping Europe in 2010 is far from over, and STRATFOR forecasts that more states will join Greece and Ireland in the bailout line in 2011. In one bit of good news for the Europeans, STRATFOR projects that the systems the Europeans built in 2010 to handle the financial crisis will prove sufficient to manage Portugal, Belgium, Spain and Austria, the four states facing the highest likelihood of bailouts, respectively.

In Asia the picture is more familiar. Japan has largely removed itself from the scene. Japan’s population has aged to such a degree that consumption is expected to shrink every year from now on, while its national budget is now majority funded by deficit spending. Luckily for the rest of the world, Japan’s debt is held almost entirely at home, and its economy is the least exposed to the international system of any advanced nation. Japan will rot, but it will rot in seclusion.

In China, nearly every government throughout its history has at some point been brought down by social unrest of some kind. Recently, Beijing was concerned that rolling back stimulus policies enacted in late 2008 would put economic growth at risk, and with it employment. STRATFOR has learned that, given these circumstances, Beijing has decided to keep that stimulus intact. This will solve the employment problem, but it comes at the certain price of higher inflation. China’s challenge in 2011 will be to maintain sufficient services and subsidies to keep social forces in check at a time when the country’s economic model will exacerbate inflationary problems.

Excerpt from Stratfor Forecast 2011

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