Most other economists rolled their eyes when Nouriel Roubini warned in a September 2006 speech to the International Monetary Fund that the global bubble was going to burst. They nicknamed him "Dr. Doom"—and then the hard times hit. As finance ministers and central bankers from the world's major economic powers gather in Washington this weekend, they might consider listening to what Roubini has to say now. The New York University professor told NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth why he sees more trouble ahead and what the recovery will look like. Excerpts:
Weymouth: What do you believe is happening to the economy today?
Roubini: The rate of economic contraction you have seen in the last two quarters—6 percent annualized—is going to slow down. The optimists are already talking about the "green shoots" of spring, about economic activity becoming positive. [They say] we will have positive growth in the third quarter, and in the fourth quarter we will grow 2 percent over the previous quarter. They expect that next year, growth will go back to above 2 percent.
Compared with this optimistic consensus, I believe that the rate of economic contraction is going to slow from minus 6 percent in the last two quarters to minus 2 percent by the fourth quarter. Next year, I believe that the growth rate is going to be 0.5 percent for the U.S. average. Even if we are technically out of a recession, we are going to feel like we are in a recession. The bottom of the economy is not going to be in three months, but rather toward the beginning or middle of next year.
So you are still Dr. Doom?
No, I am not Dr. Doom. I am Dr. Realist. I don't believe we are going to end up in a near depression. Six months ago I was more worried about an L-shaped near depression. Today, after the very aggressive policy actions taken by the U.S. and other countries, the risk of that near-depression L has been reduced from 30 percent to 15 or 20 percent. We are instead in the middle of a U.
You think the Obama administration is on the right track?
I have to give credit to the administration. Within 30 days of coming to power, they did an $800 billion stimulus package, a new program to deal with mortgages and foreclosures, and also a bank plan that when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner came with details, made the markets rally sharply. Each one of these three programs has some flaws. The fiscal stimulus could have been more front-loaded. For the mortgages, eventually you are going to need a reduction of the face-value principal of the mortgages. And on the banks, I believe after the stress tests it is going to be obvious that even some of the largest banks are so fundamentally in trouble that you cannot buy their toxic assets. You need to take over these banks on a temporary basis, clean them up and then sell them back to the private sector.
You have to nationalize these banks?
Yes. If you do not like the dirty N word, you can call it a "temporary takeover."
How about the deficit the banks are building up?
In the short term I am supportive of it, because if we didn't have these fiscal deficits, the recession would become a depression. On the other side, I do agree that this is not a free lunch. We are going to add trillions of dollars to our public debt, which is going to go from 40 to 80 percent of the GDP. There are only a few ways in which you can finance that extra public debt. If you rule out default and a capital levy on wealth, you either have the "inflation tax" or you have to painfully cut spending or raise taxes, and either one is not going to be politically palatable.
What is going to fuel the next growth cycle?
That is a difficult question. The periods of high growth in the United States in the last 25 years have been characterized by an asset and credit bubble. Whatever the future growth is going to be, this time around it needs to be sustainable and not bubble-prone because we are running out of bubbles to create. We had the real-estate [bubble], tech bubble, housing bubble, hedge-fund bubble, private-equity bubble, commodities bubble, even the art bubble—and they are all bursting.
What makes you different from the other economists?
We think usually that crowds—on average—can be wiser than individuals. In this case, most people got it wrong because whenever we are in an irrational, exuberant bubble, people fail to think correctly.
Do you believe this is a bear-market rally or do you think it is the market anticipating an economic recovery?
As we reach newer lows, we may be closer to a level of the market that is fundamentally right. A year ago we were not as close to a true bottom. Today we are closer to it. As we become closer to the bottom of the economy, the stock market looks ahead and sees the light at the end of the tunnel and rallies. In spite of these caveats, I would argue that even the latest market rally is a bear-market rally.
Do you worry about China getting tired of holding our bonds?
In the short run, China has no option but to accumulate more reserves and dollar reserves. Why? Because if they stop doing that, their currency would appreciate sharply while their exports are plunging. So in the short run, they are going to keep on accumulating. But I have seen a huge number of new initiatives in the last month that suggest [the Chinese] are pushing for the yuan to become an international currency and a reserve currency. They are doing bilateral deals with countries like Argentina and half a dozen others in yuan, not in dollars.
They are moving away from the dollar?
Yes, slowly they will. First they have to establish their own currency as an international currency. That will take years, but already in a month they have done more than in the last 10 years.