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China’s coronavirus semi-quarantine will hurt the global economy

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THE YU GARDEN, a 16th-century complex of pavilions and ponds in the heart of Shanghai, is all gussied up for the Chinese new-year holiday. Its walkways are bedecked with colourful lanterns, its stalls laden with dumplings, its entrances flanked by dozens of security guards to handle crowds. Just one thing is missing: people. Fearful of coronavirus, they are staying home. “I’ll be doing well if I make a few sales today,” says Li Xinming, manager of a silk-scarf shop. Last year Yu Garden attracted 700,000 visitors during the holiday week, peak season for it and its merchants. This year, Mr Li says his losses might wipe out his earnings for months to come.

The question for China, and for the many companies and countries around the world linked to its economy, is whether Mr Li’s travails are indicative of a much broader problem. The obvious reference point is China’s battle with SARS, another coronavirus, in 2003. Growth slowed sharply at the height of the epidemic but rebounded swiftly after it was contained. Other recent epidemics have reinforced the impression that economists should not be overly worried, so long as good doctors are on the job. Neither avian flu in 2006 nor swine flu in 2009 dimmed the global outlook.

Yet even flint-hearted investors are wondering whether the new epidemic might be worse. Stocks in Hong Kong have fallen more than 5% as reported infections have steadily increased. Tremors have also rippled through global markets.

The concern is less the severity of the virus, which seems less lethal than SARS, but rather the nature and potential duration of China’s efforts to bring the outbreak under control. And disruption in China, the world’s second-biggest economy, has global consequences. “It’s not the disease, it’s the treatment,” wrote analysts with Gavekal Dragonomics, a consultancy.The World Bank has estimated that as much as 90% of the economic damage from epidemics stems from people’s fear of associating with others, which leads offices and stores to close. In China, this is being magnified by the government’s policy of isolating affected areas and limiting interpersonal contact throughout the country. While public-health experts debate whether this is the right approach, economists will count the costs.

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The most direct impact is being felt in Hubei province. First Wuhan, its capital, was placed under quarantine. Then the rest of the province, home to 59m people, was locked down, too. Apart from food trucks and medical supplies, little can enter its cities and villages, and few are permitted to leave. Such a large-scale isolation is unprecedented as a public-health strategy. Economic activity of just about any kind, short of hospital care and movie streaming, has ground to a halt. Hubei generates 4.5% of China’s GDP, so the closure will leave a hole.

Other cities in China may not be under quarantine but that is what life feels like for their residents. Instead of getting together with family and friends, attending temple fairs and going to restaurants—all, depending on where one lives, staples of the holiday—people have shut themselves in. The government has encouraged them to avoid crowds; many need little prodding.

That will be a drag on consumption. The extent of the damage will depend on how long it takes to stop the virus, but the timing is already rotten. Last year retail sales topped 1trn ($144bn) yuan during the new-year week, a third more than an average week. This year, sales are sure to fall well short of that.

Some industries are being hit especially hard. The holiday accounted for 9% of China’s box-office revenues last year. This year almost all of the country’s 11,000 cinemas are closed. Spending on domestic tourism during the new-year week reached more than 500bn yuan last year, about 8% of the annual total. This year, fearful of the virus, people have cancelled trips.

There are also worries about how the virus will affect factories and offices. Several major economic centres, including Shanghai and Guangdong province, have extended the new-year holiday by a week, telling companies to wait until February 10th to restart. Chinese businesses are always slow to get back up to speed after the holiday. The extra week will make them slower, even if some firms such as Tencent, a tech giant, let employees work from home. Moreover, tens of millions of migrant workers, back in their hometowns for the holiday, may wait for the epidemic to recede before crowding onto trains and buses to return to their jobs.

I feel your pain
One crucial difference compared with SARS is China’s importance for the rest of the world. In 2003 China generated 4% of global GDP. Last year, it was 16%. The slowdown in consumption and the disruption to production will not stop at its borders.

Countries accustomed to big-spending throngs of Chinese tourists face a brutal stretch. China’s government has ordered all tour groups to be suspended until the virus is contained. In Thailand, authorities expect the number of Chinese visitors will fall by 2m to 9m this year, reducing tourism revenue by some $1.5bn. Share prices of airlines have plunged; past epidemics have caused huge, if temporary, drops in passenger traffic, and China is the world’s biggest outbound international travel market.

Companies that have hitched themselves to China’s fast-growing middle class are also vulnerable. Starbucks has temporarily closed more than half of its 4,292 cafés in China. Footfall in those still open is scarce, with some posting signs that patrons may only enter if they are wearing face masks. Sales of masks are, indeed, a rare bright spot for companies such as 3M. Disney closed its resort in Shanghai for the new-year holiday, one of its busiest weeks of the year (adding insult to injury, China has just entered the Year of the Rat and the Chinese term for rats also refers to mice, a fine marketing opportunity for a brand built around them).

The closure of factories will cascade through the global economy. Wuhan itself is a manufacturing hub, especially for the auto industry. Nissan, Honda and General Motors, among others, have plants there. Bloomberg ranks Wuhan 13th out of 2,000 Chinese cities for its role in supply chains. One local company, Yangtze Optical Fibre and Cable, is the world’s biggest maker of the wires that carry data around the planet.

Even if the work stoppages elsewhere are milder, they, too, will be a risk for a wide range of sectors. Some are vitally important; roughly 80% of active ingredients for all medicines come from China. Others are less so; China supplies nearly 90% of the world’s plastic flowers.

Many companies were already working to reduce their reliance on China’s factories because of its trade war with America. The virus is a powerful reminder that, politics aside, a diversified base of suppliers is a good insurance policy. But the past year provided a lesson in how difficult that is; despite the tension with America, China’s share of global exports actually increased. Companies will struggle to find substitutes for its manufacturing muscle.

Adding it all up, the Chinese economy is in for a grim start to the Year of the Rat, and this will cast a shadow globally. Chen Long of Plenum, a consultancy, thinks China’s growth could slouch to 2% year-on-year in the first quarter, its weakest in decades, down from 6% in the final quarter of 2019. But he expects a strong rebound when the country gets back to normal. People long cooped up will flock to shops and restaurants. Factories will rush to make up for lost time. To give the recovery a push, officials will increase infrastructure spending.
The unknown is when normality might resume. In Yu Gardens, Mr Li could not wait. With business way down, he has told the three assistants in his silk-scarf shop to stay home, unpaid—typical for small businesses in China. The death toll from the coronavirus remains mercifully low. But the whole country is paying a price.

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Mint issues black-ringed toonie in memory of Queen Elizabeth II

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The Royal Canadian Mint is issuing a new black-ringed toonie to honour Queen Elizabeth II.

The mint says the coin’s black outer ring is intended to evoke a “mourning armband” to honour the queen, who died in September after 70 years on the throne.

The mint says it will start to circulate nearly five million of the coins this month, and they will gradually appear as banks restock inventories.

Aside from the black ring, the mint says the coin retains the same design elements of the standard toonie.

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Four different images of the queen have graced Canadian coins since 1953, when she was crowned.

The core of the commemorative toonie will feature the same portrait of the queen that has been in circulation since 2003, with a polar bear design on the other side.

Queen Elizabeth II served as Canada’s head of state for seven decades and for millions of Canadians, she was the only monarch they had ever known,” Marie Lemay, president and CEO of the Royal Canadian Mint, wrote in a statement.

“Our special $2 circulation coin offers Canadians a way to remember her.”

The mint says it may produce more of the coins, depending on what it calls “marketplace needs”.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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Japan’s Economy Shrank Less Over Summer Than First Thought

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(Bloomberg) — Japan’s economy took a smaller hit than first thought during a summer marked by a renewed Covid surge and a plunge in the yen, with a return to growth expected this quarter.

Gross domestic product shrank an annualized 0.8% in the three months to the end of September from the previous period, revised figures from the Cabinet Office showed Thursday. That was smaller than the 1.2% contraction first estimated and a 1% drop forecast by economists.

The revised figures showed that stronger exports reduced the heavy negative impact on trade from the yen drop, and that capital spending by firms held up.

A buildup of inventories also helped narrow the contraction of the economy, though that also suggests there wasn’t enough demand for the output of factories. The data also showed consumption was weaker than first thought during the summer Covid surge and inflation acceleration.

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Overall, the figures didn’t improve enough to eliminate concerns among policymakers over the resilience of the economy. Japan heads toward the end of the year and into 2023 with clouds darkening over the global outlook, and the possibility of recessions in key overseas markets.

“The weaker consumption worries me,” said Harumi Taguchi, principal economist at S&P Global Market Intelligence. “Spending hasn’t picked up much in the current quarter, either, probably because of inflation and another rise in Covid infections.”

What Bloomberg Economics Says…

“Details under the hood of Japan’s narrower third-quarter GDP contraction aren’t encouraging. A buildup in inventory that contributed to the upward revision will limit catch-up production in 4Q.”

— Yuki Masujima, economist

For the full report, click here

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has already put together an economic stimulus package to cushion the impact of strengthening inflation that should offer more support for growth early next year. Analysts also expect the economy to have returned to expansion this quarter.

The Bank of Japan, meanwhile, is expected to keep interest rates unchanged at ultra-low levels during the last months of Governor Haruhiko Kuroda’s tenure.

Still, analysts are concerned about how the economy will weather a global slowdown prompted by tighter central bank police elsewhere in the world. Cautious moves by China to relax its virus restrictions offer one of the few points of optimism over the coming months.

“External demand is also be on the wane, as we saw in industrial production,” Taguchi said. “The situation may change if China lifts its zero Covid policy, but for now Europe and the US are bracing for the impact of an economic slowdown in the wake of interest rate hikes.”

Economists expect private sector spending and services consumption to support the economy this quarter. Pent-up demand held over from the summer Covid wave has already fueled consumer outlays, though the recent resurgence of infections will likely start to limit those gains. The government is widely expected to keep the country free of virus-related restrictions to maintain economic activities.

Inflation is growing as another concern for consumption and the recovery path. Japan’s price increases hit their fastest clip in 40 years in October, and the pace likely sped up further in November based on last month’s Tokyo data, a leading indicator for nationwide trends.

Kishida’s support package offers further relief from soaring energy costs with electricity bills set to get hefty subsidies from early next year.

Business spending didn’t get revised up as expected but still showed resilience in corporate sentiment despite a yen slide that prompted government intervention in currency markets. The plunge in the yen over the summer may give companies second thoughts about their business plans.

Still, the yen’s recent pullback may reassure businesses going ahead and should also have a favorable impact on net trade this quarter.

“Personally, I don’t think the capital investment will decrease that much,” said Toru Suehiro, chief economist at Daiwa Securities. “I think that capital investment will continue throughout next year due to pent-up demands.”

Another positive development is that Japan fully reopened its borders to tourists in October. That offers the prospect of renewed inbound spending by visitors attracted by cheaper travel expenses thanks to their relatively stronger currencies.

(Adds economist comment, more details)

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Key White House economic advisor says U.S. economy is slowing but resilient

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The U.S. economy is showing “continued resilience” despite a predictable slowdown, a top White House economic advisor said Wednesday.

National Economic Council Director Brian Deese said low rates of credit card delinquency and mortgage concerns point to resiliency in household balance sheets, while the labor market and the savings rate also indicate steadier growth. What’s more, he pointed to slowing inflation as a positive sign for healthier economic growth.

Markets are bracing for a 'Powell recession' that could be coming soon

“We need to see a transition to a more stable growth trajectory, but I think if you look at the key elements that you need as part of that, some easing on the inflation side … we’re starting to see some evidence in that direction,” Deese said Wednesday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

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The November labor market report released Friday showed job growth was better than expected, as nonfarm payrolls increased by 263,000. The unemployment rate was 3.7%.

White House economic adviser Brian Deese speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, March 31, 2022.

The Federal Reserve has steadily raised interest rates in an effort to bring down the highest inflation in 40 years, contributing to concerns about a coming recession. The improving labor market, combined with a 0.6% increase in average hourly earnings last month, also has put pressure on the central bank to continue raising rates.

The Fed’s benchmark overnight borrowing rate reached a target range of 3.75%-4% after six consecutive hikes this year. Major U.S. stock indexes have struggled this week, in part due to concerns of a slowing economy and expectations of more rate increases ahead.

The Fed is expected to hike rates again at its meeting next week.

Despite the concerns felt by investors, economic resilience will position the U.S. to become a center of “investment, productivity and innovation” over the next few years, Deese said.

“We were out in (Phoenix) yesterday with a set of CEOs who all underscored this, that even as we’re looking at this transition and navigating through this historically unique transition, the United States looks better as a prospect to invest, and that’s going to be a driver,” Deese said. “That’s going be where we get our innovation and our productive capacity, beyond the next month or two.”

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