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The Global Economy: on Track for Strong but Uneven Growth as COVID-19 Still Weighs

Global Economic Prospects - June 2021

A year and a half since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global economy is poised to stage its most robust post-recession recovery in 80 years in 2021. But the rebound is expected to be uneven across countries, as major economies look set to register strong growth even as many developing economies lag.

Global growth is expected to accelerate to 5.6% this year, largely on the strength in major economies such as the United States and China. And while growth for almost every region of the world has been revised upward for 2021, many continue to grapple with COVID-19 and what is likely to be its long shadow. Despite this year’s pickup, the level of global GDP in 2021 is expected to be 3.2% below pre-pandemic projections, and per capita GDP among many emerging market and developing economies is anticipated to remain below pre-COVID-19 peaks for an extended period. As the pandemic continues to flare, it will shape the path of global economic activity.

The United States and China are each expected to contribute about one quarter of global growth in 2021. The U.S. economy has been bolstered by massive fiscal support, vaccination is expected to become widespread by mid-2021, and growth is expected to reach 6.8% this year, the fastest pace since 1984. China’s economy – which did not contract last year – is expected to grow a solid 8.5% and moderate as the country’s focus shifts to reducing financial stability risks.

Lasting Legacies

Growth among emerging market and developing economies is expected to accelerate to 6% this year, helped by increased external demand and higher commodity prices. However, the recovery of many countries is constrained by resurgences of COVID-19, uneven vaccination, and a partial withdrawal of government economic support measures. Excluding China, growth is anticipated to unfold at a more modest 4.4% pace. In the longer term, the outlook for emerging market and developing economies will likely be dampened by the lasting legacies of the pandemic – erosion of skills from lost work and schooling; a sharp drop in investment; higher debt burdens; and greater financial vulnerabilities. Growth among this group of economies is forecast to moderate to 4.7% in 2022 as governments gradually withdraw policy support.

Among low-income economies, where vaccination has lagged, growth has been revised lower to 2.9%. Setting aside the contraction last year, this would be the slowest pace of expansion in two decades. The group’s output level in 2022 is projected to be 4.9% lower than pre-pandemic projections. Fragile and conflict-affected low-income economies have been the hardest hit by the pandemic, and per capita income gains have been set back by at least a decade.  

Regionally, the recovery is expected to be strongest in East Asia and the Pacific, largely due to the strength of China’s recovery. In South Asia, recovery has been hampered by serious renewed outbreaks of the virus in India and Nepal. The Middle East and North Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean are expected to post growth too shallow to offset the contraction of 2020. Sub-Saharan Africa’s recovery, while helped by spillovers from the global recovery, is expected to remain fragile given the slow pace of vaccination and delays to major investments in infrastructure and the extractives sector.  

Uncertain Outlook

The June forecast assumes that advanced economies will achieve widespread vaccination of their populations and effectively contain the pandemic by the end of the year. Major emerging market and developing economies are anticipated to substantially reduce new cases. However, the outlook is subject to considerable uncertainty. A more persistent pandemic, a wave of corporate bankruptcies, financial stress, or even social unrest could derail the recovery. At the same time, more rapid success in stamping out COVID-19 and greater spillovers from advanced economy growth could generate more vigorous global growth.

Even so, the pandemic is expected to have caused serious setbacks to development gains. Although per capita income growth is projected to be 4.9% among emerging market and developing economies this year, it is forecast to be essentially flat in low-income countries. Per capita income lost in 2020 will not be fully recouped by 2022 in about two-thirds of emerging market and developing economies, including three-quarters of fragile and conflict-affected low-income countries. By the end of this year, about 100 million people are expected to have fallen back into extreme poverty. These adverse impacts have been felt hardest by the most vulnerable groups – women, children, and unskilled and informal workers.

Global inflation, which has increased along with the economic recovery, is anticipated to continue to rise over the rest of the year; however, it is expected to remain within the target range for most countries. In those emerging market and developing economies in which inflation rises above target, this trend may not warrant a monetary policy response provided it is temporary and inflation expectations remain well-anchored.

Climbing Food Costs

Rising food prices and accelerating aggregate inflation may compound rising food insecurity in low-income countries. Policymakers should ensure that rising inflation rates do not lead to a de-anchoring of inflation expectations and resist using subsidies or price controls to reduce the burden of rising food prices, as these risk adding to high debt and creating further upward pressure on global agricultural prices.

A recovery in global trade after the recession last year offers an opportunity for emerging market and developing economies to bolster economic growth. Trade costs are on average one-half higher among emerging market and developing economies than advanced economies and lowering them could boost trade and stimulate investment and growth.

With relief from the pandemic tantalizingly close in many places but far from reach in others, policy actions will be critical. Securing equitable vaccine distribution will be essential to ending the pandemic. Far-reaching debt relief will be important to many low-income countries. Policymakers will need to nurture the economic recovery with fiscal and monetary measures while keeping a close eye on safeguarding financial stability. Policies should take the long view, reinvigorating human capital, expanding access to digital connectivity, and investing in green infrastructure to bolster growth along a green, resilient, and inclusive path.  

It will take global coordination to end the pandemic through widespread vaccination and careful macroeconomic stewardship to avoid crises until we get there.  


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