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As Virus Cases Rise in Europe, an Economic Toll Returns – The New York Times

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A series of restrictions, including a lockdown in Austria, is expected to put a brake on economic growth.

Europe’s already fragile economic recovery is at risk of being undermined by a fourth wave of coronavirus infections now dousing the continent, as governments impose increasingly stringent health restrictions that could reduce foot traffic in shopping centers, discourage travel and thin crowds in restaurants, bars and ski resorts.

Austria has imposed the strictest measures, mandating vaccinations and imposing a nationwide lockdown that began on Monday. But economic activity will also be dampened by other safety measures — from vaccine passports in France and Switzerland to a requirement to work from home four days a week in Belgium.

“We are expecting a bumpy winter season,” said Stefan Kooths, a research director of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany. “The pandemic now seems to be affecting the economy more negatively than we originally thought.”

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

The tough lockdowns that swept Europe during the early months of the pandemic last year ended up shrinking economic output by nearly 15 percent. Buoyed by a raft of government support to businesses and the unemployed, most of those countries managed to scramble back and recoup their losses after vaccines were introduced, infection rates tumbled and restrictions eased.

In September, economists optimistically declared that Europe had reached a turning point. In recent weeks, the main threats to the economy seemed to stem from a post-lockdown exuberance that was causing supply-chain bottlenecks, energy-price increases and inflation worries. And widespread vaccinations were expected to defang the pandemic’s bite so that people could continue to freely gather to shop, dine out and travel.

What was not expected was a series of tough government restrictions. A highly contagious strain — aided by some resistance to vaccines and flagging support for other anti-infection measures like masks — has enabled the coronavirus to make a comeback in some regions.

“The lower vaccination rates are, the gloomier the economic outlook is for this winter term,” Mr. Kooths said.

Roughly two-thirds of Europe’s population has been vaccinated, but rates vary widely from country to country. Only a quarter of the population in Bulgaria has received a shot, for example, compared with 81 percent in Portugal, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

Patricia De Melo Moreira/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Before they were ordered shut, stores in Austria were already suffering a 25 percent loss in revenue for November compared with the same period in 2019, the country’s retail trade association said on Monday. Although the last shopping Saturday before the lockdown — stores in Austria are closed on Sunday — was stronger than that day two years ago, the group said, it would not be enough to make up for the losses expected in the coming weeks.

Hotels were not faring much better in the week before the start of the lockdown, with one of every two bookings canceled, Austria’s hotel association, Ö.H.V., said.

Still, the overall outlook is not nearly as dire as it was last year. Although several analysts have shaved their forecasts for October, November and December, growth is still expected to be positive, with the yearly increase hovering around the 5 percent mark. Jobless rates have dropped, and, in some areas, businesses are complaining of labor shortages.

Austria’s response, to impose a three-week lockdown — which shuts all stores except those providing basic necessities, allows restaurants to serve only carryout and requires people to stay home except for essential activities — is not necessarily a bellwether of what other governments across Europe will do. Leaders in France and Britain signaled last week that they were not planning new shutdowns.

“We’re not at that point,” Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said on Sunday. While there can’t be complacency, he added, he hoped people could “look forward to Christmas together.”

Claus Vistesen, chief eurozone economist at Pantheon Economics, said that while it was clear that restrictions and lockdowns had a significant and immediate impact on the economy, limited and intermittent closings — like those that already exist in some countries — were less likely to put a huge dent in overall growth.

Rising infection rates will also push concerns over inflation — at least in the near future — “a little bit into the background,” he said.

Much more difficult to assess, though, are the consequences of widespread restrictions on the unvaccinated or vaccine mandates.

For individual businesses and regions, however, even the current limits could prove devastating.

Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

The weeks leading up to Christmas Day are among the most important shopping days in Austria and Germany, where people gather at outdoor markets to eat, drink and buy gifts. The region’s traditional holiday markets, which normally open from late November until Dec. 24, are also an important tourist draw, and generate wider revenue through hotel bookings and other cultural events.

Last year, many markets were completely shut down, so sellers and buyers were looking forward to this year.

In Vienna, the market on Maria Theresien Platz opened last Wednesday, its wooden stalls decorated with evergreen boughs and fairy lights. But the vendors were forced to shut down after only four days.

Maria Kissova stood amid piles of tablecloths, pillow covers and lace ornaments she had brought in from neighboring Slovakia, where she employs several women to sew the crafts. This year was her first time coming to Vienna, a trip that required months of planning and paperwork. With the lockdown, she faced the prospect of only several days’ worth of shopping, if the market is allowed to reopen as planned in mid-December.

“It was a shock” when the lockdown was announced, she said, adding that it was too early to predict the scale of the losses she could incur. “We just have to accept it.”

For Daniel Zieman, who ran a gift stand across the square between Vienna’s Natural History and Art History Museums, the story was the same. But he worried about the staff at the restaurant serving typical Austrian fare that he runs on the edge of town, many of whom count on the tips coming in from waiting tables in the normally busy season. Lost tips won’t be included in the government subsidies that will help keep people afloat.

“Many of our staff have children, and you count on a certain percent from these tips every month,” he said. “That won’t be there.”

The holiday season is when many restaurants do their biggest business, with companies holding end-of-year events, he said. “That is really good business, with 30 to 40 people who eat and drink and drink again and eat again. It’s a real shame,” he said.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia have also imposed new restrictions. In Germany, some states have introduced partial lockdowns, and starting Wednesday, the unvaccinated will be required to show a negative Covid-19 test before going to work.

By the end of this winter, pretty much everyone in Germany “will be vaccinated, cured or dead,” Jens Spahn, the health minister, said on Monday.

A nationwide closure in Germany, the continent’s largest economy, is unlikely at the moment, but Carl B. Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics, warned that one there would drag down all of Europe. “If Germany locks down, Europe is going to go back into recession,” he said.

In France, Europe’s second-largest economy, President Emmanuel Macron is loath to reverse economic gains when a major election is scheduled in April. Despite warnings by health experts that another wave of the coronavirus is hitting France “with lightning speed,” Mr. Macron said last week that he wouldn’t close parts of the economy again or follow Austria.

Nearly 70 percent of the French population has been double vaccinated, and the country imposed a health pass this year requiring people to show proof of vaccination to travel on trains and planes and enter restaurants, cinemas and large shopping centers.

The government will now require a booster dose for people 65 or older for the pass to remain valid, and France’s Health Defense Council will meet on Wednesday with Mr. Macron to discuss other options to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The government, a spokesman said this week, is bringing “the weight of restrictions to bear on nonvaccinated people rather than vaccinated people.”

Liz Alderman and Eshe Nelson contributed reporting.

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China cuts reserve requirement ratio as economy slows – BNN

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China cut the amount of cash most banks must hold in reserve, acting to counter the economic slowdown in a move that puts the central bank on a different policy path than many of its peers.

The People’s Bank of China will reduce the reserve requirement ratio by 0.5 percentage point for most banks on Dec. 15, releasing 1.2 trillion yuan (US$188 billion) of liquidity, according to a statement published Monday. 

The reduction was signaled by Premier Li Keqiang last week when he said that authorities would cut the RRR at an appropriate time to help smaller companies, and is the second reduction this year. The decision comes after recent data showed the economy and industry stabilizing, although Beijing’s tightening curbs on the property market have led to a slump in construction and worsened a liquidity crisis at developer China Evergrande Group and other real-estate firms. 

The cut is a “regular monetary policy action,” the PBOC said, pre-empting expectations that the decision was the start of of an easing cycle. “Prudent monetary policy direction has not changed,” it said, adding that the bank “will continue with a normal monetary policy, maintaining the stability, consistency and sustainability of policy, and won’t flood the economy with stimulus.”

However, with the U.S. Federal Reserve and other global central banks looking to tighten policy, the move to add stimulus by the PBOC makes the divergence between China and much of the rest of the world even clearer. 

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What Bloomberg’s Economists Say

“We think the reduction would help offset the headwinds facing the economy, particularly in the first quarter of 2022. We maintain our view that an additional 50-100 basis points of RRR cut would come next year.”

– David Qu, economist

Separately, the Communist Party’s Politburo said China will continue to implement a proactive fiscal policy in 2022, and prudent monetary policy will be flexible and appropriate, and maintain reasonably ample liquidity, the official Xinhua News Agency. The Monday meeting of the Politburo will be followed by the Central Economic Work Conference sometime this month, which will flesh out economic policy plans for the next year. 

The cut will be applied to all banks except those that are already on the lowest level of 5 per cent, which are mostly small rural banks, according to the statement. The weighted average ratio for financial institutions will be 8.4 per cent after the cut, down from 8.9 per cent previously, the PBOC said in a separate statement.

Some of the money released by the RRR cut will be used by banks to repay maturing loans from the PBOC’s medium-term lending facility, and some of it will be used to replenish financial institutions’ long-term capital, the central bank said. There are almost 1 trillion yuan worth of the 1-year loans maturing on Dec. 15, the day the cut takes effect. 

Even with the deepening housing market slump, authorities had been restrained in adding new support policies, holding monetary policy steady and maintaining a measured pace of fiscal spending. However, the PBOC signaled an easing bias in the latest monetary policy report last month, while the State Council urged local governments to speed up spending. 

“The aim of the RRR cut is to strengthen cross-cyclical adjustment, enhance the capital structure of financial institutions, raise financial services capabilities to better support the real economy,” the PBOC said. The cut will effectively increase long-term capital for banks to serve the real economy, and the PBOC will guide banks to step up their support for small businesses, it said. 

A cut in the reserve ratio doesn’t directly lower borrowing costs, but quickly frees up cheap funds for banks to lend. The reduction will lower the capital cost for financial institutions by about 15 billion yuan each year, which will lower the overall financing cost of the economy, the PBOC said.

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China think-tank warns of economic slowdown – Aljazeera.com

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Advisers to Beijing will recommend a 2022 growth target that’s lower than the target that had been set for 2021.

Ongoing stress in China’s property sector is likely to slow down the country’s economic growth next year, a government think-tank has warned.

The world’s second-largest economy is expected to have expanded by about 8 percent this year, according to the annual blue book on the economy from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a top government think-tank. It warned that the property downturn was likely to persist and weigh on the expenditures of local governments next year.

China’s economy is expected to grow about 5.3 percent in 2022, bringing the average annual growth rate forecast for 2020-2022 to 5.2 percent, CASS said on Monday.

Advisers to the government will recommend that authorities set a 2022 economic growth target lower than the target set for 2021 – or “above 6 percent” – Reuters reported, amid growing headwinds from a property downturn, weakening exports and strict COVID-19 curbs that have impeded consumption.

It urged the central government to proactively engineer a soft landing for the property sector, to avoid failed land auctions in big cities and to fend off risks of quickly falling property prices in smaller cities, the report said.

China’s move to wean property developers away from rampant borrowing has translated into loan losses for banks and pain in credit markets, as cash-strapped builders fall into distress, increasing risks across the economy.

Property behemoth China Evergrande is facing one of the country’s largest defaults, prompting the authorities to step in and oversee risk management at the company.

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Canadian employers, facing labor shortage, accommodate the unvaccinated

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Canada’s tight labor market is forcing many companies to offer regular COVID-19 testing over vaccine mandates, while others are reversing previously announced inoculation requirements even as Omicron variant cases rise.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government adopted one of the strictest inoculation policies in the world for civil servants and has already put more than 1,000 workers on unpaid leave, with thousands more at risk.

Airlines, police forces, school boards and even Canada’s Big Five banks https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/canadas-major-banks-require-employees-entering-premises-be-vaccinated-2021-08-20 have also pledged strict mandatory vaccine policies. But following through has proven less straightforward, especially as employers grapple with staffing shortages and workers demand exemptions.

Job vacancies in Canada have doubled so far this year, official data shows, and vaccine mandates can make filling those jobs harder, potentially putting upward pressure on wages. That could fuel inflation https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/canadas-annual-inflation-rate-hits-47-oct-highest-since-feb-2003-2021-11-17, already running at a near two-decade high.

“It’s already difficult to find staff, let alone putting in a vaccine mandate. You’d cut out potentially another 20%” of potential workers, said Dan Kelly, chief executive of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

There are pitfalls to employing the unvaccinated. Companies run a higher risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and many vaccinated employees are uncomfortable working with those who have not had the jab, said industry groups and marketing experts.

At Luda Foods, a Montreal-based soup and sauce maker, president Robert Eiser said he has 14 open jobs, no vaccine mandate and no plans to restrict new hires to the vaccinated.

“I don’t know that I want to reduce the (labor) pool, which is already quite low,” said Eiser. “We need to attract people to meet the demand. If we don’t, our competitors will.”

Data released on Friday underpinned Canada’s tight labor market, with a hefty 153,700 jobs https://www.reuters.com/markets/us/canada-posts-hefty-job-gains-outlook-clouded-by-omicron-variant-2021-12-03 added in November. It also showed a growing mismatch between available workers and unfilled jobs. And job postings are far above pre-pandemic levels. (Graphic: Canada job postings surge above pre-pandemic level Canada job postings surge above pre-pandemic level, https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/CANADA2/klvyknzklvg/chart.png)

WALKING BACK

The province of Quebec backtracked on a vaccine mandates for healthcare workers last month, saying they could not afford to lose thousands of unvaccinated staff. Ontario, which was also eyeing a mandate, said it would not go ahead.

Toronto-Dominion Bank and Bank of Montreal have both softened their vaccine policy to allow regular testing for workers who missed their Oct. 31 inoculation deadline.

In Canada, 86% of adults are fully inoculated, though that drops under 80% among 18-40 year olds. At least 15 cases of the new Omicron https://www.reuters.com/markets/rates-bonds/canada-has-reported-total-11-cases-omicron-variant-health-official-2021-12-03 variant in Canada have been reported in the past week.

John Cappelli, vice president of onsite managed services in Canada for global recruitment firm Adecco, said half of his clients are mandating vaccines with the other half allowing regular testing for the unvaccinated.

But he expects the Omicron variant will prompt more workplaces to get strict on vaccination, even as they grapple with the tightest job market he’s seen in his 25-year career.

“We are now starting to see our first workplace (COVID-19) cases in five months,” he said.

The number of Canadian job postings on search website Indeed mentioning vaccine requirements has quadrupled since August. (Graphic: Canada job postings and vaccine mandates, https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/CANADA3/byvrjqrlmve/chart.png)

In the hard-hit manufacturing sector, where 77% of firms say their top concern is attracting and retaining workers, vaccine mandates are more rare.

Dennis Darby, CEO of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said most of Canada’s factories have operated safely throughout the pandemic. While CME encourages vaccination, “some companies are still using rapid testing if somebody doesn’t want to get vaccinated,” he added.

But companies risk a hit to their reputation if they are overt in efforts to tap into the unvaccinated as a labor pool, said Wojtek Dabrowski, managing partner at Provident Communications.

“If you go out and say, ‘We are intentionally seeking to hire unvaccinated people,’ many customers are equating that with you being anti-science and anti-safety,” said Dabrowski.

 

(Reporting by Julie Gordon and Steve Scherer in Ottawa, additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Nichola Saminather in Toronto; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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