IMF Lowers Growth Outlook Amid Financial System Tremors

WASHINGTON — The world economy faces the increasing risk of a painful slowdown amid worries about the global banking system and concerns that rising interest rates could force banks to curtail lending, the International Monetary Fund said on Tuesday.

The warning follows weeks of turmoil in the global banking sector, which included two bank failures in the United States and UBS’s takeover of Credit Suisse, brokered by the Swiss government. Fears that bank runs would ripple through the financial system have abated in recent weeks, but concerns that additional bank failures and tightening lending standards could slow economic output around the world remain.

In its latest World Economic Outlook report, the I.M.F. made a slight reduction to its growth forecast for 2023, lowering it to 2.8 percent, from 2.9 percent in January. Growth for the year is expected to be much slower than the I.M.F. predicted a year ago, when it projected output of 3.4 percent.

Growth projections for Japan, Germany and India were all lowered since the start of the year, when the I.M.F. said a global recession would most likely be avoided.

The I.M.F. and the World Bank have both raised alarms in recent weeks that the global economy is facing a period of extended stagnation. The I.M.F. expects growth to hover around 3 percent for the next five years, which is its weakest medium-term growth forecast since 1990.

On Tuesday, the I.M.F. expressed optimism that a financial crisis could be averted, but it lamented that inflation was still elevated and that the global economy remained fragile, facing a “rocky” road ahead. It suggested that a so-called hard landing, which could entail economies around the world tipping into recession, was increasingly plausible.

“A hard landing — particularly for advanced economies — has become a much larger risk,” the I.M.F. report said, adding, “The fog around the world economic outlook has thickened.”

The dimmer forecast comes as top economic officials from around the world are convening in Washington this week for the spring meetings of the I.M.F. and World Bank. The gathering is taking place at a moment of high uncertainty, with Russia’s war in Ukraine grinding on, prices around the world remaining stubbornly high and debt burdens in developing countries raising unease about the possibility of defaults.

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen is expected to meet with other international regulators this week to assess the state of the global financial system. On Tuesday, she expressed confidence in the U.S. banking system and the health of the economy, explaining that she continues to believe that the outlook is brighter than what many economists predicted last fall.

“Here at home, the U.S. banking system remains sound, with strong capital and liquidity positions,” Ms. Yellen said during a news conference. “The global financial system also remains resilient due to the significant reforms that nations took after the financial crisis.”

Ms. Yellen said she remained “vigilant” to the risks facing the economy, pointing to recent pressures on banking systems in the United States and Europe and the potential for more fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine. She is not currently seeing evidence that credit is contracting, she added, but acknowledged that it was a possibility.

“I’m not anticipating a downturn in the economy, although, of course, that remains a risk,” Ms. Yellen said.

The I.M.F. made a small upgrade to its projection for U.S. output, which is now expected to be 1.6 percent for 2023.

Economists are still working to assess what effects the bank failures might have on the broader U.S. economy. Analysts at Goldman Sachs wrote in a research note this week that bank stress could reduce lending by as much as six percentage points and that small businesses, which rely heavily on small and midsize banks, could bear the brunt of tighter lending.

The I.M.F. attributed the strain on the financial sector to banks with business models that relied heavily on a continuation of low interest rates and failed to adjust to the rapid pace of increases in the last year. Although it appears that the turbulence in the banking sector might be contained, the I.M.F. noted that investors and depositors remained highly sensitive to developments in the banking sector.

Unrealized losses at banks could lead to a “plausible scenario” of additional shocks that could have a “potentially significant impact on the global economy” if credit conditions tighten further and businesses and households have an even harder time borrowing.

“The risks are again heavily weighted to the downside and in large part because of the financial turmoil of the last month and a half,” Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, the I.M.F.’s chief economist, said at a briefing ahead of the report’s release.

In the most severe scenario, in which global credit conditions tighten sharply, the I.M.F. projected that global growth could slow to 1 percent this year.

Mr. Gourinchas noted that the financial system was not the only cloud hanging over the global economy. Hopes for stronger growth have been hinging on China’s reopening after strict pandemic regulations, and changes to that policy could slow output and disrupt international commerce, he said. At the same time, Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to threaten the reliability of food and energy supply chains.

The I.M.F. has been playing a leading role in trying to stabilize the Ukrainian economy, and last month it approved a $15.6 billion loan package for Ukraine, the first such financing program for a country involved in a major war. But despite the efforts by Western nations to buttress Ukraine and weaken Russia, the I.M.F. raised its outlook for the Russian economy, projecting it will grow 0.7 percent this year and 1.3 percent in 2024.

The I.M.F. noted that Russia’s energy exports continued to be robust, allowing it to support its economy through government spending. The impact of efforts by the United States and Europe to cap the price of Russian oil at $60 a barrel remains unclear because global oil prices have been falling amid recession fears. I.M.F. officials said that because of lower oil prices, Russian oil was no longer trading at as much of a discount and that Russia had been successful at finding ways to circumvent the price cap.

Even as it underscored the risks facing the global economy, the I.M.F. urged central banks to maintain their efforts to contain prices while standing ready to stabilize the financial system, noting that inflation is still too elevated relative to their targets.

Despite the I.M.F.’s warnings about a hard landing, Ms. Yellen sought to open this week’s meetings with a note of optimism. She pointed to signs that inflation is diminishing and the resilience of the financial system as reasons for hope.

“I wouldn’t overdo the negativism about the global economy,” Ms. Yellen said. “I think we should be more positive.”

She added: “I think the outlook is reasonably bright.”

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