The United States will lead a rich-world recovery characterized by unspectacular growth this year and next, according to a Reuters poll of economists who view oil prices as the biggest risk to that outlook.
The monthly survey of more than 250 economists from all over the world again showed the United States leading the way in terms of economic growth, with the euro zone, Britain and Japan floundering by comparison.
While there was no expectation that any of these economies would return to recession soon, respondents answering an extra question said the rising price of oil was the most obvious factor that could derail the consensus.
Oil, which rose past $114 a barrel on Wednesday, has soared in value since the start of the year as political and civil unrest spread across several major oil producers in the Middle East and Africa.
Inflation pressures have already risen steadily in most major economies as a direct result, and the poll showed a modest but broad-based upgrade to the outlook for consumer price growth.
The key question is whether to focus on the actual data reports that confirm that the global expansion is well under way, or the odds that the combination of high oil prices and unsteady growth in some countries will derail the economy's momentum, said RBC economist Dawn Desjardins, in a research note.
To date, the risks have only had a limited effect on investors' risk appetite, causing a hiccup in the world stock market performance and tempering the rise in global government bond yields.
Of 86 economists answering the extra question, 66 said oil prices were the biggest risk to global growth, while 15 economists picked the euro zone debt crisis and 12 cited rising food prices. Some picked more than one option.
The poll predicted the United States economy will grow 3.1 percent year-on-year in both 2011 and 2012 -- almost twice the rates of growth forecast for the euro zone and Japan.
INFLATION AT WORK
In Japan's case, growth will struggle to top 0.5 percent per quarter for the foreseeable future, although the poll suggested the rise in oil prices will prompt a sooner exit from deflation than seen even last month.
While escaping deflation is a long-held goal among Japanese policymakers, the fact it will be achieved through rising commodity prices when domestic demand remains weak offers no cause for celebration.
If prices of daily necessities rise when wages aren't increasing, that tends to hurt spending on other goods, said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.
Higher commodity prices could also squeeze corporate profits, especially among companies that depend on domestic demand, he said.
By contrast, European policymakers are concerned inflation has risen above target levels -- especially in Britain, where price growth is running at double the Bank of England's two percent goal.
Many European Union citizens face an unhappy combination of high inflation and widespread austerity measures -- especially on the euro zone periphery -- that will curb domestic demand.
Consequently, quarter-on-quarter economic growth beyond the first quarter of this year will struggle to top 0.5 percent at least until the end of next year in Britain and the euro zone, the poll showed.
With the growth outlook generally meager in rich-world countries, monetary policy will remain accommodative in the United States and Japan for a long time, despite rising price pressures.
By contrast, euro zone interest rates will likely rise in April for the first time since recession, the poll showed.
Last Thursday, European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet flayed the earlier consensus for a fourth quarter hike by saying rates could be hiked as early as April.
(Polling by Bangalore Polling Unit, additional reporting by Leah Schnurr in New York, Kaori Kaneko in Tokyo and Jonathan Cable in London; Editing by John Stonestreet)