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COVID-19 shook, rattled and rolled the global economy in 2020 – The Journal Pioneer

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By Dan Burns and Mark John

(Reuters) – When 2020 dawned, the global economy had just notched its 10th straight year of uninterrupted growth, a streak most economists and government finance officials expected to persist for years ahead in a 21st Century version of the “Roaring ’20s.”

But within two months, a mysterious new virus first detected in China in December 2019 – the novel coronavirus – was spreading rapidly worldwide, shattering those expectations and triggering the steepest global recession in generations. The International Monetary Fund estimates the global economy to have shrunk by 4.4% this year compared with a contraction of just 0.1% in 2009, when the world last faced a financial crisis.

Graphic: The global coronavirus recession https://graphics.reuters.com/GLOBAL-ECONOMY/YEAREND/xklvyjlxkpg/chart.png

Government-mandated shutdowns of businesses and any non-essential activities in much of the world unleashed a wave of joblessness not seen since the Great Depression. Still, unemployment levels varied dramatically across the globe.

In some countries, like China, COVID-19 infection levels were effectively suppressed through strict but relatively brief lockdowns, allowing unemployment rates to remain low. Others, such as Germany, deployed government-backed schemes to keep workers on company payrolls even as work dried up.

Elsewhere, including in Brazil and the United States, the uncontrolled spread of the virus and patch-work government health and economic responses fueled rampant job losses. Some 22 million people in the United States were thrown out of work in March and April alone and the unemployment rate jumped to near 15%.

Most economists expect it to take a year or more for labor markets to return to something resembling the pre-pandemic era.

Graphic: Global unemployment in the pandemic https://graphics.reuters.com/GLOBAL-ECONOMY/YEAREND/azgvoyljgvd/chart.png

The pandemic delivered a body blow to global trade, with export volumes dropping abruptly to their lowest in nearly a decade in March and April.

The recovery since then has been led largely by China, which stands alone among major economies in seeing year-over-year growth in exports.

Graphic: Global exports have cratered almost everywhere https://graphics.reuters.com/GLOBAL-ECONOMY/YEAREND/xegvbbeqyvq/chart.png

Unprecedented levels of government stimulus prevented even larger damage to many economies but also added to a global mountain of sovereign debt amassed by governments, raising questions about whether a financial crunch is the next crisis the world must deal with.

Graphic: Pandemic stimulus adds to the global debt mountain https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/GLOBAL-ECONOMY/qzjvqdqdlpx/chart.png

However, historically low interest rates hovering around – and sometimes below – zero percent mean that debt servicing costs for the Group of Seven (G7) economies are at their lowest since the 1970s, when the debt burden was only a fraction of what it is now.

“Debt today is sustainable and it will remain so for a few years because as long as economic activity and employment have not recovered momentum, central banks are unlikely to do anything with their interest rates. That allows governments to keep up the fiscal support in the form of retention schemes and support to firms,” said Laurence Boone, the OECD’s chief economist.

Graphic: The cost of countries’ debt burdens has fallen https://graphics.reuters.com/GLOBAL-DEBT/qzjvqorbyvx/chart.png

One offshoot of that largesse has been that consumer spending has held up better than many had expected. While spending on services plunged and remains depressed – at restaurants and for travel and leisure in particular – consumers did lay out for goods, especially big-ticket items such as cars and home improvements that benefited from rock-bottom interest rates.

As a result, retail sales in many economies are up on a year-over-year basis, in some instances by more than they were at the end of 2019.

Graphic: Retail sales have been a mixed bag https://graphics.reuters.com/GLOBAL-ECONOMY/YEAREND/azgpoylzgpd/chart.png

Another direct effect of all that government spending has been a surge in savings among consumers in many parts of the world. Government support payouts in developed economies padded household bank accounts and, with consumers hunkered down in the pandemic’s early days in particular, savings rates soared.

They began returning to earth in the latter part of 2020 but remain well above pre-pandemic levels. Some economists see this as the dry tinder to help fuel an economic rebound in 2021 and beyond when COVID-19 vaccines allow a wider recovery to take hold and consumers to begin moving about – and spending – more freely.

Graphic: Personal savings rates soared during the pandemic https://graphics.reuters.com/GLOBAL-ECONOMY/YEAREND/nmovabodbpa/chart.png

(Reporting by Dan Burns in Newtown, Connecticut, and Mark John in London; Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas in Paris; Editing by Paul Simao)

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Fed stresses its commitment to low rates as economy stumbles – North Shore News

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WASHINGTON — Chair Jerome Powell said Wednesday that the Federal Reserve will keep pursuing its low-interest rate policies until an economic recovery is well underway, acknowledging that the economy has faltered in recent months.

The Fed said in a statement after its latest policy meeting that hiring and economic growth had slowed, particularly in industries affected by the raging pandemic, notably restaurants, bars, hotels and others involving face-to-face public contact. The officials kept their benchmark short-term rate pegged near zero and said they would keep buying Treasury and mortgage bonds to restrain longer-term borrowing rates and support the economy.

Speaking at a news conference, Powell made clear his belief that the economy will struggle in the coming weeks and months, until widespread vaccinations and government rescue aid eventually fuel a sustained rebound.

“We’re a long way from full recovery,” he said. “Something like 9 million people remain unemployed as a consequence of the pandemic. That’s as many people as lost their jobs at the peak of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession.”

The Fed statement warned that the virus is posing risks to the economy. But the officials removed phrases from their previous statement in December that had said the pandemic was pressuring the economy in the “near term” and posed risks “over the medium term.”

Powell said that language was removed because the Fed policymakers see the pandemic increasingly as a short-term risk that will likely fade as vaccines are distributed more widely. But he also cautioned that the threat remains a serious one, particularly because of the potential harm from new strains of the virus.

“We have not won this yet,” Powell said. “There’s nothing more important to the economy now than people getting vaccinated.”

As Powell spoke, a broad sell-off on Wall Street knocked more than 600 points off the Dow Jones Industrial Average, handing the stock market its worst day in nearly three months. The drop, which followed a recent record-setting run, came as investors focused on the uncertain outlook for the economy and corporate profits amid a still-raging coronavirus pandemic. Traders were also focused on the eye-popping surge in shares of GameStop, a money-losing video game seller that became the focus of a battle between small investors bidding it higher and big hedge funds betting it would fall.

For now, the job market is faltering, with 9.8 million jobs still lost to the pandemic, which erupted 10 months ago. Hiring has slowed for six straight months, and employers shed jobs in December for the first time since April. The job market has sputtered as the pandemic and colder weather have discouraged Americans from travelling, shopping, dining out or visiting entertainment venues. Retail sales have declined for three straight months.

Yet the Fed still envisions a sharp rebound in the second half of the year as the virus is brought under control by vaccines and government-enacted rescue money spreads through the economy. Americans fortunate enough to have kept their jobs have stockpiled massive savings that suggest pent-up demand that could be unleashed, with a big lift to the economy, once consumers increasingly feel safe about resuming their old spending patterns.

Powell was pressed during the news conference on whether the Fed should respond to the recent speculative surge in the prices of some individual stocks, notably shares of GameStop, and whether that buying frenzy suggested a dangerous bubble in overall stock prices. Powell deflected the questions by saying the Fed’s interest rate policies aren’t well-suited to address speculation in the stock market.

In addition, he said, “if you look at what’s really been driving asset prices in the last couple of months, it isn’t monetary policy. It’s expectations about vaccines and also fiscal policy. Those are the news items that have been driving asset values in recent months.”

Powell also noted that the Fed is keeping rates low and buying bonds to support economic growth. Reversing those policies to offset potential bubbles in the stock market, he said, could harm the economy.

“We don’t actually understand the trade-off,” he said. “Will it actually cause more damage, or will it help? I think that’s unresolved.”

The Fed has signalled that it expects to keep its key short-term rate at a record low between zero and 0.25% through at least 2023. Earlier this month, Vice Chair Richard Clarida said he expects the Fed’s bond purchases to extend through the end of this year, which would mean continued downward pressure on long-term loan rates.

The central bank said it will continue its bond purchases until it makes “substantial further progress” toward its goals of maximum employment and stable 2% inflation. Powell said “it is likely to take some time” for that progress to be achieved.

The Fed’s drive to keep long-term rates low have helped hold down mortgage rates and fueled home sales and price increases. Home prices, for example, surged 9% in November compared with a year earlier, its fastest increase in more than six years.

The prospect of significant more government rescue aid and ongoing vaccinations has raised some concern that as Americans eventually release pent-up demand for airline tickets, hotel rooms, new clothes and other goods and services, the economy might accelerate and annual inflation could surge above the Fed’s 2% target.

If many companies don’t initially have the capacity to meet that demand, prices would pick up. Powell, however, dismissed those concerns, pointing to several long-run factors that have restrained inflation for more than a decade, such as an aging population that tends to spend less and save more, technological developments that improve efficiency, and overseas competition.

“Frankly, we welcome somewhat higher inflation,” Powell said. The Fed believes that inflation sustainably at 2% guards against deflation, a drop in prices and wages. And since interest rates include expected levels of inflation, that gives the Fed more room to cut interest rates. “The kind of troubling inflation that people like me grew up with seems far away and unlikely.”

The Fed adopted a framework last year that calls for inflation to average 2% over time. Given that inflation has mostly languished below that level since the Fed adopted it as a target in 2012, policymakers would have to let inflation run above 2% for some time to make up for the years of below-target price increases.

Christopher Rugaber And Martin Crutsinger, The Associated Press

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Fed stresses its commitment to low rates as economy stumbles – The Tri-City News

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WASHINGTON — Chair Jerome Powell said Wednesday that the Federal Reserve will keep pursuing its low-interest rate policies until an economic recovery is well underway, acknowledging that the economy has faltered in recent months.

The Fed said in a statement after its latest policy meeting that hiring and economic growth had slowed, particularly in industries affected by the raging pandemic, notably restaurants, bars, hotels and others involving face-to-face public contact. The officials kept their benchmark short-term rate pegged near zero and said they would keep buying Treasury and mortgage bonds to restrain longer-term borrowing rates and support the economy.

Speaking at a news conference, Powell made clear his belief that the economy will struggle in the coming weeks and months, until widespread vaccinations and government rescue aid eventually fuel a sustained rebound.

“We’re a long way from full recovery,” he said. “Something like 9 million people remain unemployed as a consequence of the pandemic. That’s as many people as lost their jobs at the peak of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession.”

The Fed statement warned that the virus is posing risks to the economy. But the officials removed phrases from their previous statement in December that had said the pandemic was pressuring the economy in the “near term” and posed risks “over the medium term.”

Powell said that language was removed because the Fed policymakers see the pandemic increasingly as a short-term risk that will likely fade as vaccines are distributed more widely. But he also cautioned that the threat remains a serious one, particularly because of the potential harm from new strains of the virus.

“We have not won this yet,” Powell said. “There’s nothing more important to the economy now than people getting vaccinated.”

For now, the job market, in particular, is faltering, with 9.8 million jobs still lost to the pandemic, which erupted 10 months ago. Hiring has slowed for six straight months, and employers shed jobs in December for the first time since April. The job market has sputtered as the pandemic and colder weather have discouraged Americans from travelling, shopping, dining out or visiting entertainment venues. Retail sales have declined for three straight months.

Yet the Fed still envisions a sharp rebound in the second half of the year as the virus is brought under control by vaccines and government-enacted rescue money spreads through the economy. Americans fortunate enough to have kept their jobs have stockpiled massive savings that suggest pent-up demand that could be unleashed, with a big lift to the economy, once consumers increasingly feel safe about resuming their old spending patterns.

Powell was pressed during the news conference on whether the Fed should respond to the recent speculative surge in the prices of some individual stocks, notably shares of GameStop, and whether that buying frenzy suggested a dangerous bubble in overall stock prices. Powell deflected the questions by saying the Fed’s interest rate policies aren’t well-suited to address speculation in the stock market.

In addition, he said, “if you look at what’s really been driving asset prices in the last couple of months, it isn’t monetary policy. It’s expectations about vaccines and also fiscal policy. Those are the news items that have been driving asset values in recent months.”

Powell also noted that the Fed is keeping rates low and buying bonds to support economic growth. Reversing those policies to offset potential bubbles in the stock market, he said, could harm the economy.

“We don’t actually understand the trade-off,” he said. “Will it actually cause more damage, or will it help? I think that’s unresolved.”

The Fed has signalled that it expects to keep its key short-term rate at a record low between zero and 0.25% through at least 2023. Earlier this month, Vice Chair Richard Clarida said he expects the Fed’s bond purchases to extend through the end of this year, which would mean continued downward pressure on long-term loan rates.

The central bank said it will continue its bond purchases until it makes “substantial further progress” toward its goals of maximum employment and stable 2% inflation. Powell said “it is likely to take some time” for that progress to be achieved.

The Fed’s drive to keep long-term rates low have helped hold down mortgage rates and fueled home sales and price increases. Home prices, for example, surged 9% in November compared with a year earlier, its fastest increase in more than six years.

The prospect of significant more government rescue aid and ongoing vaccinations has raised some concern that as Americans eventually release pent-up demand for airline tickets, hotel rooms, new clothes and other goods and services, the economy might accelerate and annual inflation could surge above the Fed’s 2% target.

If many companies don’t initially have the capacity to meet that demand, prices would pick up. Powell, however, dismissed those concerns, pointing to several long-run factors that have restrained inflation for more than a decade, such as an aging population that tends to spend less and save more, technological developments that improve efficiency, and overseas competition.

“Frankly, we welcome somewhat higher inflation,” Powell said. The Fed believes that inflation sustainably at 2% guards against deflation, a drop in prices and wages. And since interest rates include expected levels of inflation, that gives the Fed more room to cut interest rates. “The kind of troubling inflation that people like me grew up with seems far away and unlikely.”

The Fed adopted a framework last year that calls for inflation to average 2% over time. Given that inflation has mostly languished below that level since the Fed adopted it as a target in 2012, policymakers would have to let inflation run above 2% for some time to make up for the years of below-target price increases.

Christopher Rugaber And Martin Crutsinger, The Associated Press

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Down But Not Out: Pandemic Likely Dealt Blow To Economy But There's Room For Hope – NPR

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A sign noting a retail space is available for lease appears in San Francisco in December. A resurgence in the pandemic likely dealt a major blow to the U.S. economy in the fourth quarter.

Jeff Chiu/AP

Jeff Chiu/AP

The resurgence in the pandemic likely dealt a major blow to the U.S. economy in the last three months of the year, though it is not expected to have delivered a knockout punch.

Most economists expect fourth-quarter gross domestic product data on Thursday will show a significant slowdown from July to September, when the economy staged a sharp recovery from the early days of the pandemic.

Key sectors such as leisure and hospitality have been hit hard by the pandemic’s resurgence, and had it not been for the $900 billion rescue package that Congress passed in the final weeks of December, the economy might have started 2021 with a double-dip recession.

But other companies, including in manufacturing and online retail, are doing better and seeing business return to pre-pandemic levels.

Ben Herzon, a senior economist with IHS Markit, expects Thursday’s report from the Commerce Department will show GDP grew less than 1% in October, November and December.

That’s a significant slowdown from the previous three months when the economy grew by 7.4% as businesses reopened from pandemic lockdowns in March and April.

(The Commerce Department typically reports quarterly GDP changes at annualized rates, but that exaggerates swings both up and down. Measured by that rate, third-quarter GDP grew 33.4% after a drastic 31.4% contraction in the second quarter.)

“We got a really strong third quarter, and then things started to fizzle out a little bit,” Herzon said.

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Hurt most in the last three months of the year were restaurants and in-person entertainment businesses such as movie theaters as a winter wave of coronavirus infections and deaths made consumers nervous about going out. The leisure and hospitality segment of the economy lost nearly 500,000 jobs in December.

Other segments of the economy have fared better. Manufacturing and homebuilding continue to bounce back from their pandemic slump, and consumption of goods is higher now than it was before the coronavirus struck.

“There are some strengths,” Herzon said. “It’s just that services, which is a very large part of the economy, is really struggling to get back to where it was.”

While the U.S. has made up much of the ground it lost early last year, the economy likely ended 2020 about 3% smaller than when it began.

With COVID-19 still killing around 4,000 Americans every day, economic activity is likely to remain subdued for the next several months. But if new vaccines are successful in stopping the pandemic, the economy is poised for a strong recovery in the second half of this year.

The International Monetary Fund expects the U.S. economy to grow 5.1% in 2021 and match its pre-pandemic level sometime in the second half of the year.

Any forecast, however, comes with a number of question marks: How smoothly will the vaccine rollout go? What is the impact of new coronavirus variants? And how much more money will consumers spend once the pandemic is under control?

Americans who have kept working during the pandemic have socked away about $1.3 trillion in extra savings during the last year, according to Pantheon Macroeconomics. That could provide a significant boost to the economy, if and when they decide to spend it.

“You probably won’t get more haircuts than you otherwise would have,” Herzon said. “But maybe people are really tired of staying home, and they will go out to eat more than they would have otherwise.”

Additional fuel could come from the federal government if Congress approves another round of $1,400 relief checks, or other parts of President Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion package to rescue the economy.

A surge in demand for airline tickets and restaurant reservations that suddenly outstrips supply could trigger a jump in prices.

But Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said any such increase is likely to be temporary and would not spark concerns at the central bank of runaway inflation.

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