December 31, 2023

How Geopolitical Tensions, New Technologies, and Environmental Threats Could Upset the Economic Outlook for 2024

Though the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) expects modest global growth in 2024, continued monetary tightening, supply chain disruptions and geopolitical conflict could weigh heavily on the global economy next year. In a report that explores how geopolitical tensions, the advent of new technologies and persistent environmental threats could upset the outlook in the coming year, the EIU explains that its "operational risk scenarios evaluate the events that could have a severe impact on its core economic and geopolitical forecasts, challenging the operations of businesses worldwide." For example, "In 2023 resilience among consumers and a gradual fall in inflation reassured uneasy investors and supported modest global growth." The EIU expects "stable, but unspectacular, global growth to continue into 2024 as economic uncertainty recedes and major central banks begin to lower policy rates in the second half of the year. The UK-based organization's report "explores how geopolitical tensions, the advent of new technologies and persistent environmental threats could upset the outlook for 2024."

Below are ten risk scenarios that could reshape the global economy in 2024:
  1. Monetary policy tightening extends deep into 2024, leading to a global recession and financial volatility (moderate probability; high impact)
  2. A green technology subsidy race becomes a global trade war (moderate probability; high impact)
  3. Extreme weather events caused by climate change disrupt global supply chains (high probability; moderate impact)
  4. Industrial action spreads, disrupting global productivity (high probability; moderate impact)
  5. China moves to annex Taiwan, forcing a sudden global decoupling (low probability; very high impact)
  6. A change in the US administration leads to abrupt foreign policy shifts, straining alliances (moderate probability; moderate impact)
  7. Stimulus policy failures in China lead to increased state controls and diminished growth prospects (low probability; high impact)
  8. The Israel-Hamas war escalates into a regional conflict (very low probability; high impact)
  9. Artificial intelligence disrupts elections and undermines trust in political institutions (moderate probability; low impact)
  10. The Ukraine-Russia war spirals into a global conflict (very low probability; very high impact)

While business leaders should be mindful of the ten risk scenarios, there are three that I am watching closely. As someone who follows the green technology sector, I have concerns about how a subsidy race could turn into a global trade war. As the EIU explains: "Western economies are rolling out generous incentives for businesses to invest in clean energy technologies by boosting domestic industrial capacity and enabling greater competition with China, which is the leader in the production of many green technologies. These initiatives also aim to accelerate countries’ transition towards achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, but most incentives include strict sourcing requirements for components (notably in the US). These requirements have already spurred tensions between the EU and the US, and will probably raise the cost of inputs and subsequently the green technologies themselves."

The report importantly adds that should "relations with China experience a severe downturn (including in relation to strengthening China-Russia ties or deepening concerns over China's state-driven industrial policy), Western economies could increase existing tariffs on Chinese imports or accelerate decisions on pending investigations into anti-dumping and state subsidy charges, further fueling price growth. China would retaliate, possibly by blocking exports of raw materials that are critical to the green transition agenda such as rare earths, making decarbonization efforts more expensive for developed markets. These costs would force economies to consider returning to carbon-based technologies, limit support from Western countries to fund emerging markets' energy transition and delay timelines for achieving net-zero emissions."

Regarding the spread of industrial action that will lead to the disruption of global productivity, the EIU says: "High global commodity prices, continued supply-chain disruptions, high food prices and continued currency weakness against the US dollar for some countries will continue to fuel discontent in 2024-25." What is more, "Wages have not risen as quickly as inflation in most countries, making it harder for poorer households to purchase basic staples. This could spark social unrest, expanding the small-scale protests and industrial action already seen in Europe, the US, South Korea and Argentina. In an extreme scenario, protests could push workers in major economies and who are employed by large manufacturers to co-ordinate large-scale strikes demanding salary increases that match inflation. Such movements, like those that have affected the automotive industry in the US and key services in the UK (healthcare, ports and railways), could paralyze entire industries or public services for an extended period and spill over to other sectors or countries, weighing on global growth."

As for artificial intelligence disrupting elections and undermining trust in political institutions, the EIU points out that "Global firms and governments have rapidly begun to test and integrate generative artificial intelligence (AI) into existing platforms and processes." Furthermore, the EIU believes "AI will augment (rather than replace) human capabilities, presenting an opportunity for firms to improve productivity. However, the widespread adoption of AI and its use in social media will raise the risk of a spread in disinformation campaigns via text, imagery, audio and video in the coming years. Regulation across different geographies is coming, but malicious actors will still look to implement wide-ranging programs aimed at fueling existing skepticism of some citizens towards governments." The report crucially notes that "This could potentially shift the result of major elections scheduled for 2024—including for the EU parliament, and in the US, the UK, India and Taiwan—and more broadly erode voters' trust in political systems."

The world is facing geopolitical tensions, the advent of new technologies, and persistent environmental threats that could upset the economic outlook for the coming year. Which of the global risk scenarios will you be watching?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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