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MIDDLE EAST-On Tuesday, as the financial markets see-sawed, Global Insight Inc.’s experts forewarned the US recession, no longer an “if” in their world, is preordained to impact all corners of the world except the Middle East and North Africa. The webcast included emerging markets in Greater China, Asia and Latin America.

“Clearly, a global economic slowdown is under way, and it’s exacerbated by the financial market turbulence,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist and webcast moderator for Waltham, MA-based Global Insight. “The US clearly is in a recession. The only question is how deep and how long.”

Behravesh predicts the US recession will be “mild” and have ripple effects throughout the world, but not enough to trigger a global recession. His odds are that there’s a 30% chance of a worldwide recession due to the US recession and a softening of China’s fast-paced growth. “I do not think the chances of a global recession is that high, but they have risen,” he said.

Wall Street’s volatility has bred such uncertainty in economic circles that experts like Behravesh are wary about making predictions. What he does believe is Congress and the Bush administration will be forced to enact “a rescue package” to right the economy that goes much further than the stimulus checks that will start going out in May.

Todd Lee, managing director of the Greater China Division, said that country’s economy is being squeezed internally and externally. Its internal battle is with inflation on all fronts due to quarter after quarter of 11% or more growth in all sectors. Realistically, China could be in store for a “hard landing,” he said, particularly as food prices spiral to new highs. He pointed out that food accounts for one-third of the country’s consumer price index basket.

“The US already is having an impact on China’s exports,” Lee added. The country’s cushion is increased exports to other markets. Asia is China’s largest export market, taking 46.6% of its goods. The US accounts for 19.1%; Europe, 23.6%; and the rest of the world, 10.6%.

Simona Mocuta, senior economist for the Asia-Pacific Group, reported that investment and private consumption “have finally recovered in most of the region.” Asia-Pacific’s economic growth was a record-setting 8% in 2007. The region’s problem, she assessed, is a continued dependence on exports. Vietnam imports 70% of its goods while Thailand brings in 60% and Korea, 40%.

Because the region has been “de-coupling” from the US, Mocuta concluded it is less prone to a hard fall due to the US recession. That doesn’t mean it’s home-free. “I must conclude the region remains very vulnerable to a G3 slowdown and a China hard landing,” she said. Inflation is a problem, and currency appreciation is just a partial solution, she added.

Paula Diosquez, economist for Latin America, said “it’s a region with two stories.” Mexico, Central America and Colombia have the US as their main trading partner. The rest of South America, friends and foes alike, are caught up in a commodities story for products like wheat, soybeans and corn. “The region as a whole is better prepared for crisis contagion. But though it’s better prepared, it’s by no means immune,” she concluded.

Farid Abolfathi, managing director of global macroeconomics and country risk, is focused on the Middle East and North Africa. The current economic boom will “go on at lest for the next year due to oil prices,” he said. “The region’s never had it so good.”

Construction cranes and labor are in short supply in a region that’s overheated with accelerated inflation and mega-projects and continued problems from a socialist legacy, corruption, Islamic extremism and terrorists’ threats. “Nothing beyond oil functions properly,” he said.

The well-greased oil machine, though, has allowed the various countries to reduce or wipe out their debts and build asset reserves, according to Abolfathi. “It’s a considerable cushion for any negative oil shocks,” he concluded. And, his no-shock prediction is good for at least one year.

“There are limits on how much real growth these countries can achieve,” Abolfathi said. “A bust is coming sooner or later. The only issue is when and how severe.”

In summary, Behravesh said commodities, not just oil and gold, are being used as a hedge against inflation and a weakening dollar. “We are in bubble territory. How long the speculative bubble will last could be difficult to pick when the bubble will burst,” he said.

Behravesh said 20% of the global economy relies on US consumer spending so a trickle-down effect is inevitable. A US recession not only affects the profits of countries like Japan and Germany, but it causes a pullback of investments in their own lands, he forewarned.

“The latest run-up [of commodity prices] is not justified by fundamentals,” Behravesh said. “It’s a fairly large speculative component. We think we will see the peak in late spring or early summer. This is a commodity story, not just an oil story or a gold story.”

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