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Inflation hits new record in Europe, slowing economy

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FRANKFURT, Germany –

Inflation hit a new record in the 19 countries that use the euro currency, fuelled by out-of-control prices for natural gas and electricity due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Economic growth also slowed ahead of what economists fear is a looming recession, largely as a result of those higher prices sapping Europeans’ ability to spend.

Annual inflation reached 10.7% in October, the European Union’s statistics agency, Eurostat, reported Monday. That is up from 9.9% in September and the highest since statistics began to be compiled for the eurozone in 1997.

Natural gas prices skyrocketed in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine as Russia throttled back pipeline supplies to a trickle of what they were before the war. Europe has had to resort to expensive shipments of liquefied gas that come by ship from the U.S. and Qatar to keep generating electricity and heating homes.

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While liquid gas succeeded in filling Europe’s storage for the winter, the higher prices have made some industrial products such as steel or fertilizer expensive or simply unprofitable to make. Consumer spending power has been drained at shops and elsewhere as more income goes to pay for fuel and utility bills and as basics such as food become more expensive.

Natural gas prices for short-term purchases have eased recently but remain high on markets for coming months, suggesting that costly energy may be a persistent drag on the economy. A survey of professional forecasts last week by the European Central Bank showed expectations for inflation next year rose to 5.8% from 3.6% predicted three months ago.

The inflation outbreak has been an international phenomenon, sending price increases to near 40-year highs in the U.S. as well.

Eurostat figures showed prices for food, alcohol and tobacco have increasingly joined energy prices as a major contributor, rising 13.1%, while energy prices rose an astronomical 41.9% from a year earlier.

Inflation figures varied widely by country, from 7.1% in France to 16.8% in the Netherlands among the biggest member economies, while the highest were in the three Baltic countries: Estonia at 22.4%, Latvia at 21.8%, and Lithuania at 22%.

The economy, which had been rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic, showed growth of 0.2% in the July-September period, slowing from 0.8% in the second quarter. Economists say a major reason is higher prices, and many are predicting the economy will shrink over the last months of this year and the first part of next year.

The growth in gross domestic product was higher than expected because of extensive government support that softened the blow to people’s incomes from inflation as well as pent-up savings that consumers had left over from the worst of the pandemic restrictions, said Joerg Zeuner, chief economist at Union Investment.

“However, there’s no cause for celebration,” he said. “The GDP numbers, along with many other indicators, show that the economy has clearly lost steam over the summer.”

With more recent data weakening, “it is a matter of how deep the recession will be and not if there will be one,” wrote economists at Oxford Economics.

Higher inflation has sent a chain of tremors through the economy and financial markets.

It has led the European Central Bank to raise interest rates at the fastest pace in its history with back-to-back three-quarter point increases at its Oct. 27 and Sept. 8 meetings. That has sent market borrowing costs higher for companies and governments and raised concerns that the war on inflation will hurt growth.

Higher rates by the ECB and the U.S. Federal Reserve also have roiled markets for stocks and bonds, which had been supported by years of low central bank benchmarks and money-printing stimulus.

Meanwhile, higher bond market costs for governments remain a concern for heavily indebted eurozone countries such as Italy.

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China to Sell 750 Billion Yuan in Special Bonds to Boost Economy – BNN Bloomberg

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(Bloomberg) — China will sell 750 billion yuan ($108 billion) worth of special sovereign bonds next week, in a move economists said was likely to be a rollover of existing debt rather than representing new stimulus.

The notes will be sold on Dec. 12, and issued to designated domestic banks in the interbank bond market, according to the statement posted on the Ministry of Finance website late Friday. The People’s Bank of China will carry out open market operations with relevant banks, it added. That implies the central bank will likely provide liquidity support for the banks to buy the bonds.

The MOF didn’t specify whether the bonds are new or to refinance notes coming due. China has special bonds worth 750 billion yuan maturing on Dec. 11, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The notes were part of the debt sold in 2007 to capitalize China Investment Corp., the country’s sovereign wealth fund. 

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The bonds, a rarely used financing tool that was deployed during the 2020 pandemic slump, will help to “support economic and social” development, the Ministry said Friday. Such “special” sovereign bonds differ from regular sovereign bonds as they are used for specific purposes.

The newly announced issuance will likely be a rollover of the existing bond maturing Dec. 11 and so will not impact the central government’s deficit, Bloomberg Economics said in a note.

In the past, new special bond issuance has first been announced by China’s State Council which oversees the Ministry of Finance and PBOC, before being officially approved by the National People’s Congress, a legislative body. Neither body has mentioned new special bond issuance in recent months.

“We maintain our forecast that China’s 2023 total government deficit — the combination of general budget balance and increase in local government special bonds — will likely be 7.3 trillion yuan, or 5.6% of GDP,” economist David Qu said in a note

Economists have been calling for Beijing to issue special sovereign bonds to support the economy, which has been hammered by coronavirus measures and a property slump. China’s Politburo, a top decision-making body, has pledged to seek an “overall improvement” in the economy next year as Beijing moves away from its Covid Zero strategy. As a result, economists said it could not be ruled out that the bonds will represent stimulus.

“If these mean additional funds, it suggests a highly proactive economic policy for 2023, confirming the stance alluded to at the Politburo conference,” said Becky Liu, head of China macro strategy at Standard Chartered Bank. “Just the size and dates are making it very confusing — he maturing special bond is widely expected to be rolled over.”

(Updates with analyst comment)

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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French Economy Clings On to Growth as Energy Concerns Mount

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(Bloomberg) — The French economy looks set to make it through the end of the year without a decline in output, even as business leaders are concerned about the increasing impact of surging energy prices on their activity.

A monthly survey of 8,500 companies by the Bank of France published on Thursday indicated a 0.1% expansion in the fourth quarter after activity improved more than anticipated in all sectors in November. Services are expected to grow again this month, while industry stabilizes and construction declines.

“Despite a very uncertain environment marked by a convergence of large-scale external shocks, activity is still resisting overall,” the central bank said. Its longer-term projections published in September assumed no growth in the final three months of 2022.

Read more: Bank of France’s Gloomy Outlook Casts Doubt on Macron’s Plans

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The assessment is relatively upbeat compared with an average forecast from analysts for France to finish the year with a 0.2% quarterly contraction. S&P Global’s purchasing managers’ index for November indicates a recession is already underway in the 19-nation euro area.

The Bank of France’s survey also showed supply difficulties eased last month, reaching the lowest level in industry and construction since it started gauging frictions in May 2021.

Still, the central bank’s measure of the impact of surging energy prices points to greater headwinds early next year. Of the business leaders surveyed, 24% said the energy crisis is already having a significant impact on activity, while 35% see a hit in the next three months.

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China’s Economy Is In for a Bumpy Ride as Covid Zero Comes to an End

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(Bloomberg) — Three years after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Wuhan, Chinese policymakers must now grapple with how to live with the virus while keeping the economy growing fast enough to stave off public anger.

With the Covid Zero policy being rapidly dismantled, the threat of economic disruption remains high. Infections are likely to surge, forcing workers to stay home, businesses may run out of supplies, restaurants could be emptied of customers and hospitals will fill up. Even though there’s optimism the economy will recover as China opens up to the rest of the world, the next six months could be particularly volatile.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. expects below-consensus economic growth in the first half of next year, saying the initial stages of reopening will be negative for the economy, as was the experience in other East Asian economies. Morgan Stanley predicts China’s economy to remain “subpar” through the first half of next year. Standard Chartered Plc said growth in urban consumer spending will still lag pre-pandemic rates next year given the hit to household incomes during the pandemic.

The economy was already in bad shape this year because of the Covid outbreaks and a property market crisis. While China’s zero tolerance approach to combating infections has kept infections and deaths relatively low for most of the pandemic, the rapid spread of the highly infectious omicron variant exposed the challenges of maintaining strict controls. From snap city-wide lockdowns to almost-daily Covid tests, the restrictions have taken a heavy toll on people’s lives and the economy.

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That discontent manifested in mass unrest at the end of last month. People in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere started to reject demands for quarantines or lockdowns of their housing estates, and between Nov. 25 and Dec. 5, at least 70 mass protests occurred across 30 cities, according to data compiled by think-tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Authorities have moved to quell public anger by relaxing some Covid requirements around testing and quarantine — although the sudden and confusing changes to the rules over the past few weeks have injected more uncertainty about the economy’s outlook.

Here’s a deeper look at the economy’s downturn and the challenges it faces as China exits Covid Zero.

People have been cooped up in their homesChina’s cities have been hit hard by Covid restrictions, with mobility across the country’s 15 largest cities plummeting in recent months, according to congestion data released by Baidu Inc.

Major hubs are showing strain, including the capital Beijing, as well as Chongqing and Guangzhou. Trips there have plunged in recent months below levels in previous years, according to subway data compiled by Bloomberg.

Few have borne the brunt of China’s Covid Zero policy more than the financial hub of Shanghai, a major epicenter for recent protests. After a two-month lockdown this year to tackle a major outbreak, China’s richest city is still struggling to get back up off its knees.

Malls have seen a surge in vacancies, consumer spending has plunged, and spending in areas like food and beverages has been depressed, mirroring the national trend.

Lack of spending has hit the economy hardCovid restrictions have battered the economy, with consumers pulling back on spending and business output plunging. Retail sales unexpectedly contracted 0.5% in October from a year earlier, with economists surveyed by Bloomberg predicting an even worse outcome of a decline of 3.9% in November.

The government is expected to miss its economic growth target of around 5.5% by a significant margin this year. The consensus among economists is for growth of just 3.2%, which would be the weakest pace since the 1970s barring the pandemic slump in 2020.

With onerous testing rules, flare ups in holiday spots, and official advice discouraging travel, holidaymakers have stayed home, adding a further drag on retail spending. Tourism revenue declined 26% to 287 billion yuan ($40.3 billion) over the week-long National Day holiday in October compared to the same period last year. Flight travel also dropped to its lowest levels since at least 2018.

Youth unemployment is near a record high

That’s all combined to drive growing economic malaise among the country’s youth, with the unemployment rate among 16-24 year-olds soaring to a record high of about 20% earlier this year. Joblessness among young people is more than triple the national rate, with many graduates struggling to find work in the downturn, especially in the technology and property-related industries.

Unemployment will likely get worse next year, when a new crop of 11.6 million university and college students are expected to graduate, adding to pressure in the labor market. Factories are still struggling to cope with Covid outbreaks

So far during the pandemic, the industrial sector has held up better than consumer spending since factories were protected from Covid outbreaks and global demand for Chinese-made goods was strong. That’s changing now.

Export demand is plummeting as consumers around the world grapple with soaring inflation and rising interest rates.

The disruption at a major assembly plant in Zhengzhou for Apple Inc.’s iPhones and violent protests there last month also show the damage that outbreaks can have on production.

The housing market crisis continues to simmer

China’s ongoing real estate slump has also been a source of unhappiness for homebuyers.  The property market, which has long been a major driver of the country’s economy, is in its worst downturn in modern history, with sales and prices plummeting. Cash-strapped property developers struggled to finish building homes, prompting mortgage boycotts by thousands of buyers in the summer.

Despite authorities introducing a spate of measures recently to help make borrowing easier and ease tight cash flows for developers, the economy’s downturn and lack of confidence mean the housing market continues to be depressed. The slump is not expected to end soon, with Bloomberg Economics expecting a 25% drop in property investment in the coming decade.Local governments are struggling to fund their spending

Government finances have come under severe pressure as the economy slumped. Land revenues have plummeted and local governments have had to boost spending on Covid control measures. The broad measure of the fiscal deficit in the first 10 months of the year is nearly triple the amount it was in the same period last year.

Relaxing testing and quarantine rules will help ease pressure on local government finances. However, it remains to be seen how far and fast authorities will go in dismantling Covid Zero if a surge in Covid cases puts strain on the healthcare system, a likely outcome given that a significant portion of the country’s elderly and vulnerable population are still unvaccinated or lacking booster shots.

–With assistance from Kevin Varley, Jin Wu, Danny Lee and Fran Wang.

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