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Germany’s pandemic recovery raises age-old questions about European economy – DW (English)

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Germany’s economy was starting to struggle before the pandemic but the country’s response means it is powering ahead of the rest again. This raises questions about a two-speed European economy.

In 1947, two years after the end of World War II, the European economy was in severe trouble. “We are threatened with total economic and financial catastrophe,” said then-French Economy Minister Andre Philip in April that year.

There were many problems but the biggest was Germany. Two years after the Nazis were defeated, Germany’s recovery had in many ways already been remarkable — but economically it remained a basket case and Europe realized it needed its engine back. In part, the Marshall Plan’s purpose was to restore the German economy to the heart of Europe.

By the start of the 1950s, the European economy was in miracle territory but Germany’s miracle burned brightest. The next two decades were among the most prosperous in history.

Here in 2020, the European economy also finds itself at a pivotal and potentially perilous historical moment. The pandemic is ongoing and the economic recovery — if we can even call it that — from the dire lockdown-hit first six months of the year is patchy.

Yet it is already clear that Germany’s economy is faring much better than its closest European equivalents France, Britain, Italy and Spain. Its GDP fall for the lockdown quarters was substantially less than those countries while its recovery for the third quarter of the year is projected to be much better.

Why is Germany’s economy faring better than its European neighbors and will that be a help or a hindrance to the European economy going forward?

No lockdown, Bazooka used instantly

According to Lars Feld, chairman of the German Council of Economic Experts, Germany’s reasonably positive economic situation is driven by the fact that its lockdown was never as strict as elsewhere in Europe.

“Despite lockdown measures, an interruption of value chains or lower private consumption due to considerable uncertainty, the German economy continued a considerable part of its activity. For example, the construction industry had very low restrictions,” he told DW.

Another major help is the massive financial support the German government has provided to businesses and citizens, something it was able to do after years of frugality in terms of its budget.

The “bazooka,” as German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz called it back in March, amounted to close to €1 trillion ($1.16 trillion) in aid when everything from state-backed loans to the country’s much-admired Kurzarbeit scheme is included.

“The German economy has had more reserves than other European economies, be it with respect to fiscal space due to successful consolidation of public finances in the past or with respect to private firms which have a sound equity base in general,” says Feld.

German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier wearing a face mask presents the government’s updated 2020 economic outlook

V for Victory

That helps explain why the German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier was so bullish back on September 1 when, wielding graphs showing Germany’s “v-shaped recovery” (a sharp drop followed by an equally sharp rise), he said: “The recession in the first half of the year was not as bad as we feared, and the recovery since the high point of the shutdown is happening faster and more dynamically than we had dared hope.”

But it’s not all plain sailing. Before the pandemic hit, Germany’s economy was slowing down anyway. Longstanding vulnerabilities in terms of exports and the car sector were being exposed by a slowdown in global trade and by the technological changes sweeping the auto industry.

One key sector which feels such headwinds keenly is that of the country’s machine builders, a vital cog in Germany’s export machine. For them, the pandemic has had a severe impact. Even though factories weren’t really forced to close in March and April, without foreign demand, orders fall.

That’s why Germany’s Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA) forecasts a drop in production of 17% for its thousands of members in 2020, with a tiny rise of 2% foreseen for next year.

“There are not so many orders in the books now,” the VDMA’s director of foreign trade Ulrich Ackermann, told DW.

A close-up picture showing Ulrich Ackermann

Ulrich Ackermann from the German Mechanical Engineering Association

Yet the factors mentioned earlier, namely the fact that production was never shut down and that workers have been retained through government intervention, means that Germany’s machine builders are in a stronger position than those in other countries.

“In general we are maybe in better shape than other countries, they had real lockdowns and that meant they could not produce any longer,” says Ackermann. “Our companies could always produce when they wanted.”

Healthy man of Europe

If and when demand picks up in Germany’s overseas markets, it appears likely that German companies will be readier than most to step in and meet that demand.

That brings us back to the central question of Europe’s two-speed economic recovery. If the forecasts bear out and Germany’s economic contraction this year is less than its French and southern counterparts, what will that mean?

Arguments between German and southern interests have dominated EU discussions on fiscal policy for the last decade. The recently agreed €750 billion Post Pandemic Recovery Fund was historic in that Germany agreed, for the first time, for a form of shared European debt.

A picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, during a joint news conference via video conference to mark Germany's taking over the EU's rotating presidency from July 1.

The EU’s pandemic recovery fund saw Germany agree to a historic policy shift in terms of European debt

With its economy growing faster than Spain and Italy’s, there remains the possibility that tensions over funding and reforms associated with struggling countries receiving such funding, could bring familiar debates about debt and austerity back to Brussels again.

But there is another, equally familiar view about the benefits of Germany’s engine purring a little better than the rest.

“A strong German economy could serve as an economic engine for other EU member countries, in particular regarding the strongly developed value chains in Europe,” says Feld.

“The quick takeoff of the German economy triggers demand in other EU countries. It should also be kept in mind, that the high credit-worthiness of Germany is a strong backup for the EU budget and the ECB balance sheet, both allowing other countries in Europe to restart their economies without further turbulences, e.g., on financial markets.”

Much like it was after World War II, it appears that it is much better for Europe to have a German economy that is too strong, than one that is too weak.

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U.S. economy notches record growth in 3rd quarter – CBC.ca

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The U.S. economy grew at an unrivalled pace in the third quarter as the government poured out more than $3 trillion US worth of pandemic relief that fuelled consumer spending, but the deep scars from the COVID-19 recession could take a year or more to heal.

Gross domestic product rebounded at a 33.1 per cent annualized rate last quarter, the Commerce Department said in its advance estimate on Thursday. That was the fastest pace since the government started keeping records in 1947 and followed a historic shrinkage rate of 31.4 per cent in the second quarter.

The GDP report — one of the last major economic scorecards before next week’s presidential election — will do little to mitigate the human tragedy inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, with tens of millions Americans still unemployed and more than 222,000 dead.

With five days remaining to Election Day, President Donald Trump, trailing in most national opinion polls, will probably seize on the stunning rebound in GDP as a sign of recovery. But U.S. output remains below its level in the fourth quarter of 2019, a fact Trump’s Democratic challenger Joe Biden is almost certain to highlight along with signs that the growth spurt is fast petering out.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the economy expanding at a 31 per cent rate in the July-September quarter. The economy slipped into recession in February.

“We expect minimal growth in [the fourth quarter] as consumer and business anxiety can only increase amid rising virus infections,” BMO senior economist Sal Guatieri said in a commentary.

With no further U.S. government aid in sight this year, Goldman Sachs has slashed its growth forecast for the current fourth quarter to a three per cent annual rate from six per cent.

Unemployment benefits claims down

The government’s rescue package provided a lifeline for many businesses and the unemployed, juicing up consumer spending, which on its own powered the surge in GDP. But government funding has been depleted with no deal in sight for another round of relief. New COVID-19 cases are spiralling across the country, forcing restrictions on businesses like restaurants and bars.

Slightly more than half of the 22.2 million jobs lost during the pandemic have been recouped, and layoffs persist.

A separate report from the Labour Department on Thursday showed 751,000 people filed for state unemployment benefits in the week ending Oct. 24, compared to 791,000 in the previous period. Though claims have dropped from a record 6.867 million in March, they remain above their 665,000 peak seen during the 2007-09 recession.

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Bank of Canada says economy will likely be scarred by COVID-19 until 2023

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Maybe it’s his job to prepare us for the worst, but Canada’s chief central banker, Tiff Macklem, has warned of a long, slow recovery as successive rounds of COVID-19 lead to a “scarring” of the domestic and world economy.

After what some see as a false dawn this summer as the economy resurged, Macklem, governor of the Bank of Canada, and his senior deputy, Carolyn Wilkins, offered a gloomy outlook for an economy that they say is unlikely to get back on track until 2023.

Not only that, but jobs — hit harder in this recession than the last one — are disproportionately affecting Canadians with the lowest wages. While 425,000 jobs disappeared following the 2008 credit crisis, this time around, employment has been cut by 700,000.

And Macklem said some of those jobs may never come back.

“We’re going to get through this, but it’s going to be a long slog,” he said at a virtual meeting with financial reporters on Wednesday.

Good news? Lower for longer

The good news, if you could call it that, was that the central bankers have committed to keeping interest rates at current extraordinarily low levels until inflation climbs back to between two and three per cent, which they don’t foresee as likely for three years.

Forecasting the economy is always something of a guessing game, but Macklem and Wilkins said that this time there was added uncertainty because of not knowing what the novel coronavirus is going to do next.

The central bankers made it very clear that the current outlook depends on a number of assumptions about the path of the pandemic that may turn out to be better or worse than they currently foresee.

Among those assumptions is that the virus will return in succeeding waves, each less damaging than the last. Another is that a vaccine will not become widely available until 2022, a sobering estimate from sober central bankers that may be disheartening for those who had hoped U.S. President Donald Trump’s optimistic outlook of an October vaccine launch was more than just electioneering.

 

In the past, U.S. President Donald Trump — shown during a tour of the Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies’ Innovation Center in Morrrisville, N.C., in July — has suggested a vaccine would be available before the Nov. 3 election, but Canada’s sober central bankers are more pessimistic. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

 

By promising that interest rates will stay low until 2023 — something central bankers call “forward guidance” — Macklem said he hopes businesses and consumers can confidently borrow for the medium term without fear that interest rates, and therefore loan repayments, will suddenly shoot up.

That’s good if you are buying a new stove but not for a home, or for a longer-term business investment. To influence those longer-term rates, the central bank has shifted the way it buys bonds as part of its quantitative easing plan that it initiated for the first time following the COVID-19 market disruption.

When the market crisis hit in early spring, the bank bought short-term bonds to help increase the amount of money in circulation, reassuring investors, Macklem said. But now that markets are working more normally, the Bank of Canada has reduced its monthly bond purchases from $5 billion to $4 billion and is switching to buying bonds that don’t mature for up to 30 years, in theory making longer-term loans cheaper.

Economy scarred by COVID-19

But while making borrowing cheap will help, the central bank worries that it won’t be enough to prevent the economy from being scarred by large employment losses as some people’s jobs never come back.

“We’ve assumed that a fraction of these people are permanent,” Wilkins said. “That’s because with COVID, not only is the recovery going to take longer so that there is more chance there’ll be scarring, it’s also the types of jobs created.”

As the economy rebounds, she said, the new jobs available will not match the skills of those who became unemployed. Among those worst hit will be women and young people.

“The effects of this pandemic have been extremely uneven,” Macklem said, directing reporters to a “particularly stunning” chart in the Monetary Policy Report, reproduced below, showing low-income workers have suffered more and their jobs have uniquely failed to recover.

 

 

Just as we saw during the long climb out of the last recession, replacing those jobs will require new private investment, some of it in entirely new sectors. But with so much uncertainty — and so much permanent structural change — Macklem said many companies will be hesitant to invest until things begin to stabilize.

“Clearly we are seeing a resurgence of the virus — it’s happening in Canada and it’s happening elsewhere,” he said.

Macklem’s current economic outlook is only a best guess based on so many unknowns. It may be that the virus gets even worse, he said, and it may be that a vaccine does not arrive until later than the bank has estimated or that it is ineffective.

But while the central bank is compelled to consider the bleakest case in its economic planning, Macklem does not exclude the possibility of a far less gloomy outcome, which he said would be “wonderful.”

“There’s certainly scenarios where a vaccine is available early next year and it proves effective, and we can deploy it at scale so that by the end of the year, we don’t need to physically distance anymore.”

And from a central banker, that is a positive ray of sunshine.

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter: @don_pittis

Source: – CBC.ca

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Building a stakeholder economy – Brookings Institution

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Norms and expectations of what corporations should do are changing rapidly. In August 2019, the Business Roundtable, an influential club of the chief executives of major U.S. corporations, announced a new statement on the “Purpose of a Corporation”. Signed by 181 CEOs, the statement of purpose called for a departure from “shareholder primacy” to “stakeholderism” as a core principle of corporate governance, with the CEOs committing to “lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders”.

This change of heart in corporate America is a belated response to the decades-old critique and activism against shareholder-primacy. Preoccupation with quarterly profits is blamed for making corporations short-sighted, leading to environmental pollution, income inequalities, weakening workers’ rights, and lower capital investments—all of which are believed to undermine social cohesion and long-term competitiveness. Stakeholderism, also called stakeholder economy/capitalism by the World Economic Forum, is expected to encourage a long-term orientation by rebalancing the asymmetric power of shareholders vis-à-vis other stakeholders, and revitalize the legitimacy of business.

A sizable share of corporations already practice some form of stakeholderism in response to pressure from value-conscious investors, consumers, and others. More than 80 percent of large corporations, for example, claim to explicitly contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. Environment, social, and governance (ESG) investing—a class of value-based investments that target corporations that meet minimum ESG criteria—has been growing rapidly, with an estimated total value of $45 trillion in assets under management.

Ambiguous definitions, mixed results

But stakeholderism has had mixed success. While some companies have managed to create environmental and social value, many engage in “greenwashing” or “impact washing” to mask their unsustainable performances. This is in part due to a mismatch between a renewed corporate purpose that emphasizes stakeholder value, and corporate governance principles and incentive structures that are primarily designed to maximize shareholder returns. Even as corporations make commitments to take greater societal and environmental roles, they often fail to change their governance guidelines and board structures to reflect these intentions. This has resulted in a dissonance between what they aspire to achieve and what they can show for it—a process that can also undo the legitimacy of the emerging stakeholder economy.

This is due to a lack of consensus on how corporate governance should adapt to help build a stakeholder economy, due in part to a lack of clarity on who qualifies as a stakeholder as well as what stakeholder value entails. Think of Facebook, with almost 3 billion users, or Boeing, with thousands of customer airlines and hundreds of millions of passenger users, all of whom would qualify as stakeholders. Without specificity on what value a company creates, for which stakeholder and how, a generic commitment to advance stakeholder interests has little practical meaning.

It is also feared that the ambiguity of stakeholderism could enable corporate leaders to amass too much discretionary power that would enable them to dodge shareholder oversight. A vague commitment to all stakeholders could also undermine long-term competitiveness if managers set out to meet multiple goals that are incompatible with one another. Further, implausibly high expectations can end up making managers risk-averse, forcing them to settle for a minimum acceptable performance for all stakeholders rather than excelling in specific issues where they have greater competitiveness. A vague and broad focus on stakeholder value could thus make shareholders and other societal stakeholders worse off.

Needed: Institutional Reform

These critiques, however, do not warrant the conclusion that building a stakeholder economy is an impossible agenda. A growing body of scholarly work, including a recent British Academy report, has documented that building a stakeholder economy requires extensive reforms of market institutions to incentive the creation of long-term corporate and social value. At a minimum, such a reform would include three ingredients.

  • Renewed corporate purpose. This is best defined by the directors of individual businesses, who should specify the stakeholders to whom the businesses will create value, and how this will be achieved. This facilitates effective corporate governance by providing clearly defined goals, and the mechanism for aligning them with corporate strategy. A study by professors Oliver Hart and Luigi Zingales suggests that organizational purpose anchored in maximizing shareholder welfare can help link corporate strategy with stakeholder value. To the extent that shareholders care about certain non-financial outcomes, such as environmental sustainability, the purpose of the corporation should be geared towards producing these outcomes. Corporations can then communicate their performance via third-party verified reports to demonstrate if and how they have created the desired outcomes to their stakeholders.
  • Corporate law reform. Corporate law needs to incentivize directors to take responsibility for the company’s long-term interests, including its social and environmental impacts. Corporate law in many countries is anchored on the principle of shareholder primacy, creating legal challenges for firms that adopt a broader conception of purpose. A recent study commissioned by the European Union underscored the need to modify corporate law to foster the pursuit of long-term corporate goals and environmental sustainability by corporate directors. Another positive development is the emergence of legal innovations for new corporate entities with governance structures designed for addressing long-term societal issues. More than 30 states in the U.S. have introduced legal mechanisms for “benefit corporations” that pursue a hybrid mission of creating financial and social/environmental value. Similar innovations could facilitate investments into corporate innovations for addressing social and environmental problems.
  • Complementary regulations.  Stakeholderism should not be expected to substitute for the regulation of negative environmental and social externalities. Many of the issues that currently fall within ESG domain are in fact negative societal and environmental externalities that are not suited for self-regulation by markets. Effective regulation of externalities, such as CO2 emissions, can also level out the playing field by penalizing the distorting effects of non-compliance. In a positive development, the European Commission has recently started to develop a legal framework for mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence, which is expected to outline corporate directors’ duties “not to do harm”.

Building a stakeholder economy requires breaking the artificial boundaries that isolate purpose from performance and creating incentive structures that make corporations drivers of sustainable prosperity. This will entail systematic effort to rewire market and regulatory institutions to ensure that they serve the long-term interests of society.

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