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How Much of a Threat Is the Omicron Variant to the Economy? – The New Yorker

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How Much of a Threat Is the Omicron Variant to the Economy?

President Joe Biden stands at a podium wearing a black suit and blue tie. There are holiday decorations and a painting...

Biden urged Americans to get fully vaccinated and wear masks indoors, adding, “The variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”Photograph by Anna Moneymaker / Getty

What a difference a few days makes. This time last week, retail analysts were looking forward to a bumper holiday-shopping season, the stock market was making new highs seemingly by the day, and economists were predicting that annualized G.D.P. growth could top eight per cent in the final quarter of the year. The Delta-variant surge in COVID-19 cases, which had been rapid during the summer, seemed to be behind us. Speaking at a White House event where President Joe Biden announced that he was nominating Jerome Powell for a second term as the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Powell said, “Today, the economy is expanding at its fastest pace in many years, carrying the promise of a return to maximum employment.”

Then came the news of the Omicron variant, which prompted the worst Black Friday sell-off on Wall Street since 1931 and a distinct change in tone from Powell. “The recent rise in COVID-19 cases and the emergence of the Omicron variant pose downside risks to employment and economic activity and increased uncertainty for inflation,” he said, in prepared congressional testimony that the Fed posted on its Web site on Monday afternoon. “Greater concerns about the virus could reduce people’s willingness to work in person, which would slow progress in the labor market and intensify supply-chain disruptions.”

Before the release of Powell’s testimony, the financial markets had rebounded somewhat from Friday’s drop. The Dow rose by more than two hundred points, and the S. & P. 500 also closed up. The price of U.S. Treasury bonds, which are widely regarded as a haven during times of market stress, fell back after posting big gains before the weekend. Crude oil, which on Friday plunged by about ten dollars a barrel, owing to worries of a slowing global economy, rose by about three dollars.

For once, the market reaction was reasonably rational. The discovery of a new variant, possibly a more contagious one, and the immediate imposition by many governments of new travel restrictions, created a lot of uncertainty about the global economy. Because investors had been pricing in a “new normal” in which COVID-19 didn’t go away but did become manageable, a wave of precautionary selling and profit-taking was inevitable. Similarly, given how little we really know about Omicron, Monday’s pause to assess things also made sense. There were reports from South Africa that some of the new cases are mild ones, but scientists warned that it’s too early to reach any judgment about the lethality of the new variant. Anthony Fauci, the President’s chief medical adviser, informed him at a meeting of the White House COVID-19 response team that it would take about two weeks to “have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant.” Afterward, Biden urged Americans to get fully vaccinated and wear masks indoors, but he said that further lockdowns were “off the table” for now. “The variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” he added.

At this stage, that judgment applies to the economy as well as the public-health situation. In a circular to clients over the weekend, economists at Goldman Sachs outlined four ways in which this new variant could play out: a “false alarm” scenario, in which Omicron actually spreads less quickly than Delta and has little economic impact; a “downside” scenario, in which Omicron spreads more rapidly than Delta but isn’t significantly deadlier, and has only a modest economic impact; a “severe downside” scenario, in which Omicron turns out to be more contagious and deadly than Delta, prompting another wave of lockdowns and a significant economic downturn; and an “upside” scenario, in which Omicron spreads faster than Delta but proves much less deadly. In this upbeat outcome, a “net reduction in disease burden leaves global growth higher than in our baseline . . . the recovery in goods and labor supply accelerate.”

Even if that final scenario smacks of wishful thinking, it is true that the range of possible outcomes is broad. It is also important to note that the situation is very different from the start of the pandemic, when the original strain of the coronavirus had free rein. For an extremely bad economic outcome to materialize, there would have to be another wave of widespread and lengthy lockdowns—either compulsory ones imposed by governments or voluntary ones caused by people retreating to their homes out of fear. Such a set of events is conceivable, but it would likely have to be preceded by a big wave of hospitalizations and deaths in areas where Omicron is circulating, not merely more cases. As long as the vaccines continue to offer protection against the most serious illnesses, countries with high rates of vaccination will hopefully be able to escape such a tragedy. (As experts have long argued, to protect the residents of developing countries, which generally have lower rates of vaccination, it is imperative to make vaccines more widely available.)

For now, the Biden Administration and other governments are extremely reluctant to impose more lockdowns, which would be politically controversial and economically damaging. Their medical advisers are busy pointing out that the vaccines have provided significant protection against the previous variants. There is “reason to be optimistic,” Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told MSNBC on Monday. However, the World Health Organization released a technical note that described Omicron as “a highly divergent variant,” and it said that the over-all global risk from Omicron is “very high.”

Powell’s warning about downside economic risks means that an appearance he’ll make before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday will be closely watched. It comes as the Fed is set to decide whether to tighten monetary policy more rapidly to head off higher inflation. The emergence of Omicron further complicates this decision, because, as Powell indicated in his prepared testimony, it could affect the economy in several different ways. If a severe fourth wave does materialize, hiring could appreciably slow again, but short-term inflationary pressures could also conceivably increase as disruptions to the supply chain intensify. The year-end meeting of the Fed will be held in a couple weeks. Between now and then, Powell and his colleagues will be watching the news anxiously. Just like the rest of us.


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China's economy grows 8.1% in 2021, slows in second half – Yahoo Canada Finance

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BEIJING (AP) — Chinese leaders are under pressure to boost slumping economic growth while they try to contain coronavirus outbreaks ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.

The world’s second-largest economy grew by 8.1% last year, but activity fell abruptly in the second half as the ruling Communist Party forced China’s vast real estate industry to cut surging debt, official data showed Monday.

Growth sank to 4% over a year earlier in the final three months of the year, fueling expectations Beijing may need to cut interest rates or stimulate the economy with more spending on public works construction.

That slump is likely to worsen, leading to “more aggressive measures to boost growth,” Ting Lu and Jing Wang of Nomura said in a report.

On Monday, the Chinese central bank cut its interest rate for medium-term lending to commercial banks to the lowest level since early 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Asian stock markets ended the day mixed following the dual announcements. China’s benchmark Shanghai Composite Index gained 0.6% while the Hang Seng in Hong Kong lost 0.7%. The Nikkei 2225 in Tokyo rose 0.7%.

Lingering Chinese economic weakness has potential global repercussions, depressing demand for steel, consumer goods and other imports.

China rebounded quickly from the pandemic, but activity weakened last year as Beijing tightened controls on borrowing by real estate developers, triggering a slump in construction that supports millions of jobs. That made consumers nervous about spending and investors anxious about possible defaults by developers.

Consumer spending has suffered after authorities responded to virus outbreaks by blocking most access to cities including Tianjin, a port and manufacturing center near Beijing, and imposed travel controls in other areas.

Their “zero-COVID strategy” aims to keep the virus out of China by finding and isolating every infected person. That has helped to keep case numbers low but is depressing consumer activity and causing congestion in some ports.

The ruling party has stepped up enforcement ahead of the Feb. 4 start of the Winter Games, a prestige project. Athletes, reporters and officials at the Games are required to stay in sealed areas and avoid contact with outsiders.

Growth in consumer spending, the biggest driver of economic growth, fell to 1.7% over a year earlier in December from the previous month’s 3.9%.

“The prospect this year for consumer spending to rebound back to pre-pandemic levels has certainly dimmed,” David Chao of Invesco said in a report. “All eyes are on whether policymakers will evolve their zero-COVID pandemic policies.”

Officials have urged the public to stay where they are during the Lunar New Year holiday instead of visiting their hometowns. That will cut spending on travel, gifts and banquets during the country’s most important family holiday.

Forecasters have cut this year’s growth outlook to as low as 5% due to the debt crackdown and coronavirus.

“Downward pressure on growth will persist in 2022,” Tommy Wu of Oxford Economics said in a report.

Compared with the previous quarter, the way other major economies are measured, the Chinese economy grew 1.4% in the final three months of 2021. That was up from the previous quarter’s 0.2%.

Chinese exports, reported Friday, surged 29.9% in 2021 over the previous year despite a global shortage of semiconductors needed to make smartphones and other goods and power rationing imposed in major manufacturing areas.

Exporters benefited from reviving global demand while their foreign competitors were hampered by anti-virus controls. But economists say this year’s trade growth is likely to be weak and export volumes might shrink due to congestion at ports.

“With supply chains already stretched to capacity, last year’s boost from surging exports can’t be repeated,” Julian Evans-Pritchard of Capital Economics said in a report.

Auto sales fell for a seventh month in November, declining 9.1% from a year earlier, reflecting consumer reluctance to commit to big purchases.

Chinese leaders are trying to steer the economy to more sustainable growth based on domestic consumption instead of exports and investment and to reduce financial risk.

In mid-September, factories in some provinces were ordered to shut down to meet official targets for reducing energy use and energy intensity, or the amount used per unit of output.

One of the country’s biggest developers, Evergrande Group, is struggling to avoid defaulting on $310 billion owed to banks and bondholders. Smaller developers have collapsed or defaulted on debts after Beijing reduced the amount of borrowed money they can use.

Chinese officials have tried to reassure investors over the risks of wider problems, saying any impact on lending markets can be contained. Economists say a potential Evergrande default should have little effect on global markets.

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National Bureau of Statistics (in Chinese): www.stats.gov.cn

Joe Mcdonald, The Associated Press

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Omicron no match for US economy: Moody's – Investment Executive

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“The backdrop of elevated inflation and a tight labour market strengthens the case for an earlier and faster normalization of monetary policy,” Moody’s said. “Indeed, notwithstanding the risks to growth posed by the Omicron surge, the Fed is well placed to move to a neutral monetary stance starting in March 2022, and we now expect three U.S. interest rate hikes this year, compared with our November expectation of none until 2023.”

Additionally, a recent shift in signals out of the Fed indicate “broad support” for both a rate hike in March and a normalization of its balance sheet soon after the rate increase cycle begins, Moody’s noted.

While Covid-19 infections have risen quickly in the U.S., creating added uncertainty, “the economy is on a solid expansionary path that the current virus surge is unlikely to derail,” the report noted.

Moody’s continues to expect that GDP will grow by 4.4% this year after rising by 5.4% in 2021.

“The surge in virus cases will no doubt dampen economic activity in pandemic-sensitive services industries in January but, as previous virus surges have shown, activity will rebound once the omicron wave begins to subside,” Moody’s said.

The report noted that latest epidemiological forecasts point to a peak in case counts by the end of the month, with hospitalizations and fatalities peaking in mid-February.

Inflation is expected to moderate this year, but Moody’s said there remains a good deal of uncertainty in inflation forecasts.

“We expect that the Fed will provide more concrete guidance at its next January meeting as to when and at what pace it will begin to raise the federal funds rate and reduce the size of its balance sheet,” it said.

The rating agency noted that it expects the Fed to take a “measured approach” to withdrawing stimulus and normalizing its balance sheet, given the elevated uncertainty in forecasts and a likely reluctance to move too quickly.

Ultimately though, the prospect of rate hikes and balance sheet normalization “will likely push both short-term rates and long-term yields upward,” Moody’s said.

“The effect of rising rates is likely to be transmitted to the real sector by curbing new lending for consumer goods, autos and homes. Small and mid-size firms, which tend to have shorter debt maturity profiles, will also be affected,” it said. “Lastly, higher interest rates will weigh on the valuations of risky assets.”

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Firms see increasing labor shortages and wage pressures – Bank of Canada survey

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Canadian firms see labor shortages intensifying and wage pressure increasing, with strong demand growth and supply chain constraints putting upward pressure on prices, a regular Bank of Canada survey said on Monday.

The central bank’s Business Outlook Survey Indicator reached its highest level on record in the fourth quarter, which was conducted before the Omicron coronavirus variant began spreading widely.

The data will play into the Bank of Canada’s calculations as it ponders when to raise rates. The bank, which has said it is paying close attention to wage inflation, is scheduled to make its next announcement on Jan 26.

Last October it said it could start raising rates as soon as April 2022, but some investors expect a hike this month. [BOCWATCH]

“The combination of strong demand and bottlenecks in supply is expected to put upward pressure on prices over the next year,” said the survey.

“In response to capacity pressures, most businesses across sectors and regions are set to increase investment and plan to raise wages to compete for workers and retain staff.”

Last month the central bank said slack in Canada’s economy has been substantially diminished.

Inflation expectations for the next two years continued to increase, with two-thirds of firms now expecting inflation to be above the central bank’s 1-3% control range over the next two years.

Most firms, in response to a special question, said they expected the currently elevated inflationary pressures to dissipate over time, with inflation returning to the 2% target over 1-3 years.

Canada’s annual inflation rate was at an 18-year high of 4.7% in November. The December data will be released on Wednesday, with analysts surveyed by Reuters expecting it to hit 4.8%.

The Canadian dollar was trading 0.4% higher at 1.2504 to the greenback, or 79.97 U.S. cents.

(Additional reporting by Fergal Smith in Toronto; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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