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Fine line between slowdown and stall

A girl protests about her mother being laid off during a rally against education budget cuts in Los Angeles
A girl protests about her mother being laid off during a rally against education budget cuts in Los Angeles

By Emily Kaiser

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The world economy appears headed for several months of sub-par growth, and there is no clear source of strength to lead it back to health.

After a week filled with disappointing economic data, the debate is no longer over whether the economy has hit a soft patch but how long it will last.

Friday's poor U.S. employment figures suggest demand will remain subdued in the world's biggest economy. Europe is still struggling to put an end to its sovereign debt troubles.

As for the big emerging economies, their inflation-fighting efforts appear to have succeeded in cooling growth. Although that was the intended result, it means they are not in a position to grow as fast as they did last year.

Ironically, the country with the brightest near-term prospects may be Japan as it recovers from the March earthquake and tsunami. Still, even a strong rebound there may not be enough to lift the global economic clouds.

Lena Komileva, a strategist with Brown Brothers Harriman in London, said the weak U.S. jobs data meant the Federal Reserve would not "close the door" on purchasing more assets once its $600 billion bond-buying program wraps up later this month. Talk of another Fed buying spree intensified last week.

"I expect these noises will only get louder as the summer progresses," Komileva said.

Figures due this week will probably provide even more evidence that demand world-wide has faded.

China reports its May trade figures on Friday, and the only real question is how sharply the pace of growth slowed. Economists polled by Reuters expect the report to show exports rose 21 percent from a year earlier, still solid but a big step down from April's torrid 29.9 percent pace.

Even in April, there were signs that demand was cooling.

U.S. retail sales were lackluster, and figures due on Tuesday are expected to show euro zone April sales were tepid as well. That means businesses may be stuck with more inventory than they would like, and orders may stay weak.

Taiwan's May export figures, scheduled for release on Wednesday, are expected to show an even sharper decline than in China. Economists are looking for just 8.7 percent growth in exports, down from 24.6 percent in the prior month's report.

The United States and Germany are also due to release their trade figures this week, although the data covers April, not May, making it less valuable as a guide to what is happening to the economy now.

For central bankers, the cool-down takes away some of the rate-hiking impetus. The European Central Bank and Bank of England both hold policy-setting meetings on Thursday, and both are widely expected to keep short-term borrowing costs steady.

HOW LONG?

Underneath all the doom and gloom, there are a couple of reasons to feel more upbeat about the second half of the year. Commodity prices have come down in recent weeks, which will eventually ease pressure on household budgets.

In addition, the Institute for Supply Management said on Friday that the pace of growth in the U.S. services sector picked up modestly in May, with its measures of new orders and employment higher. The services sector accounts for about 70 percent of the economy.

"It is a little ray of hope in an area of gray data," said Rudy Narvas, senior economist at Societe Generale in New York. "We still view this soft patch of data as temporary."

While Japan's recovery will provide at least a modest boost, Friday's U.S. employment report does not bode well for consumption, and therefore global trade.

"With households worried about high gas and grocery prices, and the slow pace of wage gains, spending could even slow a little more this summer," said Kathy Bostjancic, director for macroeconomic analysis at the Conference Board in New York.

She said businesses spent the past couple of years cutting costs and won't be keen to boost spending -- or hiring -- unless they are certain that the economy is perking up.

"This degree of caution could remain in evidence right through Labor Day" in September, Bostjancic said.

If there is good news in all the bad economic news, it's that it won't take much to pleasantly surprised investors.

Barclays Capital economists said the recent wave of "growth panic" was overdone and emerging markets in particular stood to benefit once those worries fade.

"Forecasting surprises sounds like an oxymoron. However, when expectations are sufficiently negative, it is not difficult to envision positive surprises in the making," said Barclays economist Donato Guarino.

(Editing by Dan Grebler)

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