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China is on a construction binge and that's good news for the global economy – Economic Times

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By Matt Phillips

The coronavirus pandemic forced China to bring industrial activity to a halt earlier this year, but the country is revving its engines again — and global prices of metals are reflecting that renewed appetite for growth.

China consumes roughly half of the world’s industrial metals, according to analysts. As the country emerged from the worst of the pandemic in March, the Chinese government unleashed a program of enormous fiscal stimulus aimed at building bridges, roads, utilities, broadband and railroads across the country. As a result, the prices of iron ore, nickel, copper, zinc and other metals used to build infrastructure have surged in recent months.

Since late March, prices of iron ore — the key ingredient in steel — have risen more than 40%. Nickel, needed for stainless steel, and zinc, used to galvanize metal, are up more than 25%. Copper, which is used in wiring for power transmission, construction and car manufacturing, and has long been seen as a barometer for the world’s industrial economy, is also up around 35%.

“China, as usual, went the investment route and is massively investing in metals-intensive infrastructure,” said Caroline Bain, a commodities market analyst with Capital Economics in London. “So there’s been a very strong pick up in China’s demand for metals.”

Last month, China’s state railway operator announced plans to double the size of its high-speed rail network over the next 15 years. In July, investment from China’s state-owned enterprises, including giants such as China National Offshore Oil Corporation and China Mobile, surged by 14% compared with the prior year, according to Standard & Poor’s analysts. (Private companies, by comparison, bolstered investment by just 3%.)

In Guangdong, the country’s most populous province, regional officials plan to spend some 700 billion yuan — about $100 billion — this year on public medical facilities, 5G networking and transportation infrastructure.

In February, the coronavirus outbreak prompted a lockdown of much of the country’s economy, the second largest in the world after that of the United States. From January to March, China’s economy contracted by 6.8%, the first decline the country has acknowledged in roughly half a century. Industrial activity stopped, causing metal prices to plunge. Copper and aluminum prices all dove roughly 20% in that period, while iron ore fell about 15%. The sudden pause in demand from such a big buyer immediately strained several countries that have built large parts of their economy around digging ore out of the ground and shipping it to China.

Australia’s exports to China — mostly iron ore and coal — tumbled roughly 20%, as the country fell into its first recession in nearly 30 years. Metal exports from Brazil, Chile and Peru also slumped, driven by cratering demand from China and declines in mining production, but also because miners were forced to halt operations as the coronavirus spread locally. The share prices of global mining giants, which get large portions of their revenue from China, cratered. In local currency terms, Vale in Brazil and the Anglo-Australian giant Rio Tinto both tumbled roughly 40% from January to March.

But the response of the authoritarian government in China — its state-led model that gives Beijing significant influence over the direction of the economy — was enormous, helping China post one of the fastest recoveries of any of the world’s largest economies in recent months.

Goldman Sachs’s estimates of Chinese budget deficits — a measure that includes both official budget deficit numbers and a variety of off-balance sheet government support that is common in China — ballooned to 20% of gross domestic product in the first half of 2020 from about 10% at the end of 2019, as the country pumped money into the economy.

Recent economic reports from China show where that government money has flowed. August data on industrial production revealed 5.6% growth over the same month last year, firmly establishing a V-shaped recovery for the sector. Industrial production in sectors tied to infrastructure, such as cement, steel and iron, all posted strong gains. Other official data on investment showed growth in utilities, road and rail construction.

Economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development expect that China’s GDP will actually grow by 1.8% this year, making it the only member of the Group of 20 nations that will not suffer a recession this year. That’s the best expected performance of any of the countries the organization tracked in its latest economic update.

“The recovery in GDP is much faster and stronger than elsewhere,” said Bain of Capital Economics.

That’s good news not only for metals markets, but could also herald better times for the global economy. Analysts have studied the prices of some metals as a leading indicator of global economic growth, even referring to copper as “Dr. Copper” because of its supposed ability to predict the direction of the economy as well as any economist with a doctorate.

“People’s perception of the economy is how weakened it is, yet all the industrial metals are telling you a very different story,” said Chris Verrone, an analyst and partner at Strategas Research in New York. “We think copper is the market trying to tell us that the economy is stronger than we expect.”

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Japan raises view on demand, but says economy in severe situation – SaltWire Network

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By Daniel Leussink

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s government upgraded its view on consumption in a monthly report in October on stronger demand for electronics and higher travel spending, but cautioned broader economic conditions remained severe due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Authorities maintained their assessment that the world’s third-largest economy was showing signs of picking up from the fallout of COVID-19, which included a hit to Japan’s exports from a slump in global demand.

“The Japanese economy remains in a severe situation due to the novel coronavirus, but it is showing signs of picking up,” the government said in its October economic report.

The economy suffered its worst postwar contraction in the second quarter and analysts expect any rebound to be modest.

The government already has announced $2.2 trillion in economic stimulus in response to the virus crisis, and analysts polled by Reuters said it should compile a third extra budget for the current fiscal year.

The government said the impact from policy measures at home and improvement in economic activity overseas supported hopes for a continued rebound in the economy.

But it also flagged the risk that coronavirus infections could further weigh on domestic and overseas economies.

While many countries eased coronavirus restrictions earlier this year, some have had to resume curbs as they face a second wave of infections.

Japan’s government upgraded its view on private consumption for the first time in seven months due to more robust domestic demand for household electronics and higher nationwide hotel occupancy rates, especially in Hokkaido in northern Japan.

“It’s very encouraging that consumption is picking up,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said at a news conference after the cabinet approved the report.

“While capital spending, exports, production and employment are improving, it of course can’t be said (economic conditions) have completely recovered so the overall assessment was left unchanged,” he said.

The government stuck to its assessment that exports are picking up, according to the report.

But it downgraded its view on imports for the first time in seven months due to relatively weak shipments from the United States and the Asian region, a Cabinet Office official said.

The government’s assessment of the remaining components in the report remained unchanged.

(Reporting by Daniel Leussink; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Kim Coghill)

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Japan raises view on demand, but says economy in severe situation – The Journal Pioneer

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By Daniel Leussink

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s government upgraded its view on consumption in a monthly report in October on stronger demand for electronics and higher travel spending, but cautioned broader economic conditions remained severe due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Authorities maintained their assessment that the world’s third-largest economy was showing signs of picking up from the fallout of COVID-19, which included a hit to Japan’s exports from a slump in global demand.

“The Japanese economy remains in a severe situation due to the novel coronavirus, but it is showing signs of picking up,” the government said in its October economic report.

The economy suffered its worst postwar contraction in the second quarter and analysts expect any rebound to be modest.

The government already has announced $2.2 trillion in economic stimulus in response to the virus crisis, and analysts polled by Reuters said it should compile a third extra budget for the current fiscal year.

The government said the impact from policy measures at home and improvement in economic activity overseas supported hopes for a continued rebound in the economy.

But it also flagged the risk that coronavirus infections could further weigh on domestic and overseas economies.

While many countries eased coronavirus restrictions earlier this year, some have had to resume curbs as they face a second wave of infections.

Japan’s government upgraded its view on private consumption for the first time in seven months due to more robust domestic demand for household electronics and higher nationwide hotel occupancy rates, especially in Hokkaido in northern Japan.

“It’s very encouraging that consumption is picking up,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said at a news conference after the cabinet approved the report.

“While capital spending, exports, production and employment are improving, it of course can’t be said (economic conditions) have completely recovered so the overall assessment was left unchanged,” he said.

The government stuck to its assessment that exports are picking up, according to the report.

But it downgraded its view on imports for the first time in seven months due to relatively weak shipments from the United States and the Asian region, a Cabinet Office official said.

The government’s assessment of the remaining components in the report remained unchanged.

(Reporting by Daniel Leussink; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Kim Coghill)

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Four ways to rescue the economy from the pandemic – The Conversation US

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In many western countries, COVID-19 infection rates are rising again. For some like the UK, France and Spain, it appears that the second wave of the pandemic is already here. The science also tells us that we may see a further upsurge in 2021. We do not know how effective early vaccines will be, and the rollout of vaccination programmes will be gradual.

A major issue for governments is the extent to which they have the fiscal firepower to protect jobs and economic activity. In the UK, the government’s spring and summer measures to protect businesses and jobs were expected to add £192 billion to the budget deficit, increasing the debt-to-GDP ratio from 85.4% in 2019 to 106.4% by March 2021.

These are the highest levels of debt since the early 1960s, and record budget deficit levels for peacetime. And yet the second wave of COVID-19 is going to strain the fiscal response much further. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s newly revamped job support scheme and other measures to help businesses suffering under the latest restrictions will cost further billions.

To get a possible sense of where this might be heading, the Institute for Fiscal Studies in June modelled for a scenario in which there was a second wave of COVID-19 in the fourth quarter of 2020 and targeted regional lockdowns in the first half of 2021. It predicted that this would produce a budget deficit of over 20% of GDP this year – equivalent to second world war levels – and a debt-to-GDP ratio of nearly 120% by 2024-25.

If this is the kind of situation that many countries are now facing, what options are open to governments, and what key indicators should they focus on?

1. Growth first, sound money second

Governments must prioritise resuming economic growth from 2021 onwards. Put simply, this will require them to go easy on raising taxes or cutting spending quickly to stabilise the debt-to-GDP level. The fiscal correction which would be required to stabilise public finances will be less if a faster recovery can be engineered.

Governments must focus on public investments, particularly those aimed at boosting research and development spending and productivity growth. Many observers have recommended that governments put money into greening the economy. Not only will this stimulate growth in sectors for the future, it will also help address the climate crisis.

2. Build confidence

There needs to be a clear strategy to restore economic confidence, which is inextricably linked to people’s confidence in how the pandemic and its economic fallout is being managed. Even before the second wave took hold, it was clear that the economic recovery was slowing during the summer in many advanced economies.

The OECD reported in September that Google data on people’s shopping and recreational activity (as a proxy for what they are consuming from social businesses) had not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Order books in most advanced economies (except China) did not fully recover either.

Retail is still a hard sell (unless you’re Amazon).
EPA

It’s clear that consumer and business confidence cannot fully bounce back until uncertainty on the duration of the pandemic begins to subside. This is one reason why a number of economists have urged countries like the UK, where the economic hit has been worse, to focus on protecting employment. The furlough scheme in the UK should probably have been extended into this second wave, and the chancellor’s latest expansion of the job support scheme looks like a partial U-turn.

3. Test and trace still vital

Linked to this need to reduce uncertainty, there is no trade-off between health and the economy. Countries which have done better at keeping infection rates low have also done well at reducing the economic slump.

Some of that success with infections may have been good fortune, or early action in closing travel down quickly in early 2020. But countries such as Finland and Germany also had a strong capacity for testing and tracing and very quickly built it up further. Even at this stage, countries like the UK need to look at whether test and trace can be quickly improved, even at the cost of increased investment.

4. More targeted support

As the recovery begins to strengthen during 2021, a key conundrum for policymakers will be whether to prioritise stimulating aggregate demand in the economy, such as using tax cuts, or more targeted support measures for particular sectors or parts of the workforce.

It has recently been said that the recovery after a second wave might be more W-shaped as a whole, but K-shaped for individual sectors. In other words, while sectors like online retail and technology/software are booming, others like conventional retail, travel and hospitality will take a long time to recover.

Business support may need to switch to a more sectoral approach. The UK has done a little here with the “eat out to help out” scheme and now small monthly grants for firms in sectors like hospitality and leisure.

Hotel concierge talking to a taxi driver
Sectors like hospitality need more help than others.
EPA

Similarly, governments will have to focus their support on those in the labour market for whom the “scarring effects” of unemployment will be most serious. For instance, the crisis will particularly affect the job prospects of young people whose transition from education to work is being disrupted. At the recovery stage, support will therefore need to be switched to job creation – for example, by lowering employer national insurance contributions for employers creating new jobs.

We are entering a pivotal period in our fight against COVID-19. While there is no denying the challenges ahead, we are also better prepared and more knowledgeable than in March. Policymakers must use this to their advantage and craft an economic response which is comprehensive and nimble in equal measure.

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