The coronavirus pushed China’s economy into its first contraction in decades in the first quarter, with the spread of the disease around the world now leaving the nation reliant on fragile domestic demand to spur a recovery.
Gross domestic product shrank 6.8 per cent from a year ago, the worst performance since at least 1992 when official releases of quarterly GDP started and missing the median forecast of a 6 per cent drop. China’s economy hasn’t contracted on a full-year basis since the end of the Mao era in the 1970s.
Retail sales slid 15.8 per cent in March as consumers remained wary, while investment decreased 16.1 per cent in the first three months of the year. A brighter sign was the smaller-than-expected contraction in March industrial production of 1.1 per cent as factories returned to work amid easing lockdowns.
Both retailing and factory output showed improvement from the nadir in the first two months, suggesting a stabilization in economic activity.
“We expect this recovery to continue,” said Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics Hong Kong Ltd. “However, the upturn will be slowed down by lingering consumption weakness and sliding foreign demand.”
China’s markets held on to gains after the release and ended slightly higher as investors had already anticipated the weak data. The Shanghai Composite Index was up 0.66 per cent at 3 p.m., while the Hang Seng Index climbed 1.56 per cent in Hong Kong.
The economy was forced into a paralysis in late January as the epidemic that first started in Wuhan spread across the country. The economy remained shuttered for much of February with factories and shops closed and workers stranded at home. The process of resuming business has been slow and the return rate only inched up to around 90 per cent at the end of March, Bloomberg Economics estimates.
To cushion the economic blow, China has unveiled a range of support measures and has increased fiscal and monetary support — although not on the scale of other nations.
A meeting of the Communist Party’s Politburo in the coming days may provide further signals as to the direction of policy support.
What Bloomberg’s Economists Say…
“The March activity data suggest the recovery will be a long haul — especially with the pandemic clobbering external demand. A much narrower decline in production points to strong improvement on the supply side, as our back-to-work gauges have flagged. This partly explains the limited drop in GDP, which is production based. But foundering retail sales and investment underline continued weaknesses on the demand side.”
While exports fell less than expected in March as production capacity was gradually restored, economists warn headwinds lie ahead as the rest of the world shuts down and external demand diminishes.
“Most major economies are still in the lockdown stage,” Robin Xing chief China economist at Morgan Stanley Asia, said on Bloomberg TV. “As a result, growth in the second quarter will be shallow, just marginally above zero.”
On the positive side, the surveyed jobless rate actually declined in March, to 5.9% from February’s record 6.2%. That suggests China is so far avoiding the kind of job destruction seen in the U.S., where more than 5 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total in the month since the coronavirus pandemic throttled the U.S. economy to 22 million people.
Much depends now on whether consumers regain a willingness to spend amid nervousness that the virus can stage a comeback as controls are relaxed. Evidence from the epicenter of the virus, Wuhan, suggests progress will be slow.
While factories around Wuhan are working around the clock to get back up to speed, the recovery of consumer-focused businesses won’t be straightforward. People are cautiously taking to the streets again, but they remain subject to curbs on their movements aimed at keeping the virus at bay.
The nation’s per capita disposable income declined by 3.9 per cent in real terms in the first quarter from a year ago, the first contraction since the data was available in 2014.
Consumer caution “continues to restrain demand, and thus activity more broadly,” said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asia economic research at HSBC Holdings Plc in Hong Kong. “This is reminder also for other economies of the arduous path to full recovery even after full lockdowns are removed. All this points to the need for a more determined policy push on both the monetary and fiscal fronts to ‘shock the system’ and get activity back up to its earlier vitality.”–With assistance from Tomoko Sato, Yinan Zhao and Miao Han.
Australia central bank sees glimmer of hope as economy restarts after pandemic shutdown – The Guardian
By Swati Pandey
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s central bank held rates at all-time lows on Tuesday and sounded less gloomy as the economy gradually re-opens during what is likely to be the worst quarter since the Great Depression.
The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left rates at 0.25% at its monthly policy meeting in a widely expected decision, and said the “accommodative approach will be maintained as long as it is required.”
In a short post-meeting statement Governor Philip Lowe said the RBA was prepared to scale up government bond purchases if needed to ensure three-year yields held around 25 basis points.
Australia’s A$2 trillion ($1.4 trillion) economy is experiencing its biggest contraction since the 1930s in the current quarter but “it is possible that the depth of the downturn will be less than earlier expected,” Lowe added.
A significant decline in new infections, earlier-than-expected easing of restrictions and signs that hours worked stabilised in early May auger well for a recovery.
“There has also been a pick-up in some forms of consumer spending,” Lowe added.
States and territories across Australia have been easing social distancing regulations at differing paces in recent weeks, slowly ending a partial lockdown ordered in March, having largely contained the COVID-19 pandemic.
Australia, which has about 7,200 coronavirus cases, has not reported a death from the disease for more than a week.
The country’s success in containing the virus has sent the Aussie dollar soaring to five-month highs. Yet, that is leaning against monetary stimulus and won’t be welcome by the RBA.
The central bank made no mention of the exchange rate in the statement.
Highlighting the depth of the pandemic-driven global economic downturn and the fallout on Australia, many economists expect interest rates to remain at record lows for at least two more years.
Some are even predicting negative interest rates, though Lowe has ruled it out.
“While we have also become more optimistic about the outlook for the economy in recent weeks, we still expect the unemployment rate to jump to nearly 9% by Q3,” said Capital Economics analyst Marcel Thieliant.
He expects the central bank to announce an expansion of its government bond buying programme at its August policy meeting.
“And we only expect the unemployment rate to fall below 7% by 2022. That would leave it far above the RBA’s estimate of the natural rate of 4.5%, underlining that the RBA will miss its full employment mandate for years to come.”
Q1 GDP MAY DODGE CONTRACTION
Official data out earlier showed Australia boasted a record current account surplus last quarter as firm export prices and a fall in imports provided a timely boost to growth.
Other data out on Tuesday showed government spending also added to growth in the March quarter, while companies reported better sales and profits than many expected.
The figures led analysts to upgrade their forecast for first-quarter gross domestic product due Wednesday with some saying the economy might not have shrunk in the quarter as previously feared.
GDP had been forecast to show output contracted 0.3%, the first fall since early 2011.
“A small positive print cannot be ruled out,” said Su-Lin Ong, chief economist at RBC Capital Markets.
“But the likely collapse in activity in the current quarter and accompanying impact on the labour market…is a sharp and deep shock through the whole economy with likely lasting ramifications.”
(Reporting by Swati Pandey; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)
Saskatchewan's economy was already shrinking before COVID – Regina Leader-Post
New data from Statistics Canada suggests Saskatchewan was already in a “mild recession” last year, even before COVID-19 and the latest oil shock began pummelling the province.
Saskatchewan’s gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of total economic output, shrunk from $82.2 billion in 2018 to $81.5 billion 2019 after factoring in inflation. That’s a decrease of 0.8 per cent, the worst number of all the provinces. The only other province to see its economy shrink last year was Alberta, which faced a contraction of 0.6 per cent.
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Joel Bruneau, head of the economics department at the University of Saskatchewan, said the new data shows the province wasn’t even managing to tread water before COVID hit.
“We’ve averaged negative growth over four quarters, so I would call it a mild recession,” he said.
The data shows that most of the hit to Saskatchewan in 2019 came from goods-producing industries, rather than the service sector. Industrial production was down, as was mining and quarrying, while the energy sector was basically flat.
Lockdown or no lockdown, study shows COVID-19's economic destruction followed a similar path either way – National Post
A group of economists studying how South Korea fought the COVID-19 outbreak without stay-at-home orders found that the country still experienced significant job losses in a pattern similar to that of countries that imposed lockdowns.
The study, from economists at Seoul’s Myongji University, Queen Mary University of London and St. Louis’s Washington University, also suggests that Canada’s slowly reopening economy may not go back entirely to normal as long as the virus is still prevalent.
“At most, half the job losses in the United States and the United Kingdom can be attributed to lockdowns,” the economists argue. Most job losses came from reduced hiring by businesses and a significant amount of non-participation in the labour market, rather than unemployment.
The same types of workers are feeling the effects, whether their country implemented a lockdown or not, the study claims. Less-educated workers, young people, workers in low-wage occupations and the self-employed lost were hardest hit, even when researchers controlled for industry effects that might over-represent these people.
“Lifting of lockdowns may lead to only modest recoveries in employment absent larger reductions in COVID-19 rates,” the paper warns.
The economists looked at labour-market effects in South Korea, where no lockdown was imposed, and compared the economic impact across different areas. One particularly bad local outbreak allowed the researchers to estimate that one additional infection for every thousand people causes a two to three per cent drop in local employment.
“The best way to revive the labour market is to eradicate the virus,” reads the paper by economists Sangmin Aum from the Myongji University in Seoul, Sang Yon Lee from Queen Mary University of London and Yongseok Shin from Washington University in St. Louis.
The study manages to untangle the many different factors in unemployment by concentrating on a localized outbreak in South Korea caused by a notorious event that spiked the transmission rate in the country.
In mid-February, the country had only 30 infections, but “Patient 31” attended a religious gathering in the city of Daegu. Ten days later, the country had more than 3,000 infections almost entirely clustered around Daegu. More than 60 per cent of them were traced back to that single gathering.
South Korea managed to quash the outbreak and maintains one of the lowest death rates in the world, mainly due to widespread testing, a robust contact-tracing regime and comparatively intrusive tracking measures, including monitoring quarantine-breakers with electronic wristbands.
The study is a working paper released for discussion by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States before peer review. Although working papers haven’t gone through the rigorous publication process, they are a timely way to compare the results of the COVID-19 outbreak around the world.
Countries that didn’t implement a lockdown have also suffered economic damage from the pandemic due to the disruptions in global travel and trade.
Sweden, which kept most schools, businesses and restaurants open after experiencing its own COVID-19 outbreak, is still expecting its economy to contract by seven per cent this year. Sweden’s exports depend heavily on demand from other countries, many of which went into full lockdowns.
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