THE GLOBAL ECONOMY: TO TOAST OR NOT TO TOAST?

THE GLOBAL ECONOMY: TO TOAST OR NOT TO TOAST?

Let's toast the world economy. This year and next, International Monetary Fund economists forecast, it will post the strongest back-to-back growth in more than a decade.

Sure, there are potential risks of a serious downturn next year: rising oil and natural gas prices, abrupt foreign currency swings and the big U.S. trade deficit, among them. Still, IMF economists estimate, world growth is likely this year to hit 4.7 percent and close to 4 percent in 2001.And although the United States will pace this expansion - 5.2 percent growth is projected this year, about 3 percent next year - most of the rest of the world is expected to participate in the upswing. Attention U.S. exporters!

Take Mexico, for example. After Canada, the second biggest U.S. trade partner, Mexico may even be growing a bit too fast, suggests Michael Mussa, IMF's chief economist. A 6.5 percent Mexican advance is forecast this year and about 5 percent in 2001.

Further south of the border, Latin America's prospects, after two years of no or slow growth, are generally brightening, say IMF analysts. Consumer confidence and spending there is on the upswing, particularly in Brazil and Chile. Brazil gets a special commendation from the IMF for its recent economic reforms.

Asia, much of it already recovered from the 1997-98 financial crisis, will generally do better this year and next than it did last year, when growth averaged about 6 percent, according to IMF estimates.

Even Indonesia, its recovery from the crisis by far the most difficult, is expected to post 5 percent economic growth in 2001, thanks mainly to higher oil prices.

More big gains are projected for both China, whose growth this year and next is likely again to top 7 percent, and India, expected to expand almost as fast. China's hefty trade surplus may narrow once China joins the World Trade Organization and begins opening its markets, IMF analysts speculate.

There's even hope at the IMF for Japan to post a 'modest' economic advance this year and next (1.4 percent and 1.8 percent), although IMF economists suggest that much of the strong growth Japan reported in January-June was 'transitory.' To help assure a rebound, they are urging the Japanese government to fund yet more public works projects.

Meanwhile, after years of slow growth, Western Europe seems to be picking up, thanks in part to deregulation, privatization and labor reforms. The 15-nation European Union's economy may expand by more than 3 percent both this year and next, according to IMF estimates.

Helping, too, is a decidedly weak euro, which makes EU goods and services more internationally price-competitive.

For U.S. exports to Europe, however, prospects look mixed.

While European demand rises, U.S. products, given the weak euro and hence strong dollar, may be saddled with higher prices.

Perhaps the IMF's economic report's biggest surprise is how IMF officials are suddenly talking up Russia, which, in Mussa's words, is reaping a 'great fiscal bonanza' from higher oil prices. He cites a 'massive improvement' in Russia's finances. And after years of 'dithering and delay,' the Russian government, he says, is finally starting to implement important structural reforms. A 7 percent economic growth is projected for Russia this year, 4 percent next year.

But Canada, by far the biggest U.S. trading partner, may become a slightly less buoyant market for U.S. goods and services. While it is expected to post a nearly 5 percent economic gain this year, its growth in 2001 may fall below 3 percent, as monetary policy tightens, according to an IMF scenario.

The IMF's generally optimistic global outlook is not without caveats, however. 'Significant risks and uncertainties' exist, it acknowledges, among them an overly weak euro vis-a-vis both the dollar and yen, which threatens still larger financial imbalances. Higher oil prices will certainly slow global economic growth and exacerbate inflation. High-valued equity markets may suddenly plunge. And then there's that massive U.S. trade deficit. Likely to top $350 billion this year, it may expand next year, even if the U.S. economy slows, the IMF indicates. It projects the U.S. current account payments deficit in 2001 at a record $438 billion, the great bulk of it trade-related.

The multi-billion dollar question: How long can this deficit keep growing without investors losing faith in the U.S. economy and transferring assets elsewhere, in turn generating a run on the dollar, followed by sharply higher inflation and interest rates that seriously crimp U.S. and even global economic growth?

The IMF's position: the prevailing global 'imbalances' will be resolved 'in an orderly fashion.'

Back in the Spring of 1997, IMF economists made another forecast: a continuing global economic expansion 'into the medium-term.' There are 'few signs of tensions and imbalances that foreshadow downturns in business cycles,' they said, adding that global inflation remains 'subdued,' fiscal imbalances are being 'decisively reduced in many countries' and exchange rates among major currencies 'are consistent with broader policy objectives.' A few months later, the Asian financial crisis ignited.

Meanwhile, the IMF reports, it is making substantial progress in helping avert future international economic crises. But that's another story. Let's put the toast on hold.