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The new fault lines on which the world economy rests – The Economist

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THE PANDEMIC caused a fearsome economic slump, but now a weird, exhilarating boom is in full swing. The oil price has soared, while restaurants and haulage firms are having to fight and flatter to recruit staff. As listed firms signal that profits will hit an all-time high this year, stockmarkets are on a tear. An index produced by JPMorgan Chase and IHS Markit suggests that global growth is at its highest since the exuberant days of 2006.

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Any escape from covid-19 is a cause for celebration. But today’s booming economy is also a source of anxiety, because three fault lines lie beneath the surface. Together, they will determine who prospers, and whether the most unusual recovery in living memory can be sustained.

The first fault line divides the jabs from the jab-nots. Only those countries getting vaccinations into arms will be able to tame covid-19. That is the condition for shops, bars and offices to reopen permanently, and customers and workers to have the confidence to leave their homes. But only one in four people around the world has had a first dose of vaccine and only one in eight is fully protected. Even in America some under-vaccinated states are vulnerable to the infectious Delta variant of the virus.

The second fault line runs between supply and demand. Shortages of microchips have disrupted the manufacture of electronics and cars just when consumers want to binge on them. The cost of shipping goods from China to ports on America’s west coast has quadrupled from its pre-pandemic level. Even as these bottlenecks are unblocked, newly open economies will create fresh imbalances. In some countries people seem keener to go for a drink than they do to work behind the bar, causing a structural labour shortage in the service sector. House prices have surged, suggesting that rents will soon start to rise, too. That could sustain inflation and deepen the sense that housing is unaffordable.

The final fault line is over the withdrawal of stimulus. At some point, the state interventions that began last year must be reversed. Rich-world central banks have bought assets worth over $10trn since the pandemic began and are nervously considering how to extricate themselves without causing a flap in capital markets by tightening too fast. China, whose economy did not shrink in 2020, offers a sign of what is to come: it has tightened credit policy this year, slowing its growth.

Meanwhile, emergency government-aid schemes, such as unemployment-insurance top-ups and eviction moratoriums, are beginning to expire. Households are unlikely to get a fresh infusion of “stimmies” in 2022. Deficits will contract rather than expand, dragging down growth. So far, economies have largely avoided a wave of damaging bankruptcies but nobody knows how well firms will cope once emergency loans come due and workers can no longer be furloughed at taxpayers’ expense.

You might think that an event as extreme as a pandemic, combined with the unprecedented government response to it, would eventually trigger an equally extreme global economic reaction. Pessimists worry about a return to 1970s-style inflation, or a financial crash, or that capitalism’s underlying energy will be drained by state handouts. Such apocalyptic outcomes are possible, but they are not likely. Instead a better way to think about the unusual outlook is to examine how the three fault lines interact differently in different economies.

Start with America. With abundant vaccines and enormous stimulus, it is at the biggest risk of overheating. In recent months inflation has reached levels not seen since the early 1980s. Its labour market is coming under strain as economic activity shifts. Even after a rise of 850,000 in the number of jobs in June and accounting for abundant vacancies, the number of people working in leisure and hospitality is 12% lower than before the pandemic. Workers are reluctant to return to the industry, which has pushed up wages. Hourly pay is almost 8% higher than in February 2020. Perhaps they will come back when emergency unemployment benefits expire in September. But countries without such a scheme, like Australia, are also seeing a labour shortage. Attitudes to work may be changing at the bottom of the income spectrum, among waiters and cleaners, not just among well-heeled professionals who dream of yachts and sabbaticals. All this suggests that America’s economy will run hot, with continual pressure on the Federal Reserve to tighten policy.

Elsewhere in the rich world the picture is less exuberant. It includes some jab-nots, like Japan, which has fully vaccinated less than 15% of its population. Europe is catching up on vaccines, but its smaller stimulus means that inflation has not reached American levels. In Britain, France and Switzerland 8-13% of employees remained on furlough schemes at the end of May. In all these economies the risk is that policymakers overreact to temporary, imported inflation, withdrawing support too quickly. If so, their economies will suffer, just as the euro area suffered after the financial crisis of 2007-09.

Low- and middle-income countries are in a bind. They should be benefiting from surging global demand for commodities and factory goods, but they are struggling. Indonesia, battling another covid-19 wave, is redeploying oxygen from industry to hospitals. In 2021 the poorest countries, which are desperately short of vaccines, are forecast to grow more slowly than rich countries for only the third time in 25 years.

Even as covid-19 weakens their recoveries, emerging markets face the prospect of higher interest rates at the Fed. That tends to put downward pressure on their currencies as investors buy dollars, raising the risk of financial instability. Their central banks do not have the luxury of ignoring temporary or imported inflation. Brazil, Mexico and Russia have raised interest rates recently, and more places may follow. The combination of jabbing too late and tightening too soon will be painful.

Prepare to take shelter

The economic cycle has been frantic, leaving the slump far behind in only a year. Perhaps by the summer of 2022 most people will be vaccinated, business will have adapted to new patterns of demand and stimulus will be unwinding in an orderly way. In this weird boom, however, beware those fault lines.

Dig deeper

Central banks face a daunting task: tapering without the tantrum (July 2021)
Surprising levels of inflation are increasingly being driven by wages, not goods (July 2021)

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Fault lines in the world economy”

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The rapid growth the U.S. economy has seen is about to hit a wall – CNBC

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A National Park Service worker replaces a flag at the Washington Monument which reopened today following a six month closure due to COVID-19 safety measures, in Washington U.S., July 14, 2021.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuter

The U.S. economy is expected to post another roaring growth spurt in the second quarter, before a slow and steady dose of reality starts to sink in.

Gross domestic product is projected to accelerate 9.2% for the April-to-June period, according to a FactSet survey. The Commerce Department will release its first estimate for second-quarter GDP on Thursday.

In a pre-pandemic world, that would have put annualized growth at its fastest level since the second quarter of 1983. However, the current circumstances and the outsized policy response they generated make this merely the third straight quarter of GDP that sits well above the post-Great Recession trend.

Things are about to change, however.

The economy is creeping back toward normal, the open checkbook from Congress is about to get tighter, and millions of sidelined American workers will be returning to their jobs. That means a gradual reversion to the mean for an economy more used to growing closer to 2% than the much stronger levels it has turned in during the reopening.

“Growth has peaked, the economy will slow a bit in the second half of this year, then much more noticeably in the first half of 2022 as fiscal support fades,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “The contours of growth are going to be shaped largely by fiscal policy over the next 18 months. The tailwind just blows less strongly, and may stop altogether by this time next year.”

It’s been a long road getting here, but the economy has gotten very close to its pre-pandemic self.

In fact, according to a running gauge that Jefferies keeps, overall output is at 98.6% of its “normal” level before Covid-19 turned everything upside down. The firm uses a slew of indicators to measure then versus now, and finds that while some areas such as employment and air travel are lagging, retail and housing have helped push overall activity to just below the 2019 level, at 98.6%.

“When I look holistically at household income dynamics and balance sheets, I see a very, very positive situation, very healthy fundamentals, and it’s hard to be pessimistic on the outlook,” said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist at Jefferies.

Indeed, household net worth totaled $136.9 trillion at the end of the first quarter, a 16% increase from its 2019 level, according to the Federal Reserve. At the same time, household debt payments compared with disposable personal income fell to 8.2%, a record low going back to 1980.

But much of that net worth has been driven by increases in financial assets such as stocks, and personal income has swelled due to government stimulus payments that are slowing and eventually will stop.

Demographics holding back growth

Keeping up such a rapid pace of growth will be difficult in an economy that has long been held back by an aging population and lackluster productivity. Those issues will be exacerbated by dwindling policy support as well as an ongoing battle against Covid-19 and its variants, though few economists expect widespread lockdowns and the plunge in activity that happened in early to mid-2020.

“What we see is an economy growing robustly above trend albeit at a slower pace through 2023,” said Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at consulting firm RSM. “Absent any productivity-enhancing policy support, we eventually will move back to trend because there’s not much we can do about the demographic headwinds, which will eventually drag growth back to the long-term trend.”

But there also are shorter-term headwinds that should temper those gaudy growth numbers.

An aggressive spurt of inflation brought on by supply constraints and huge demand related to the economic reopening will hit output. While many economists, including those at the Federal Reserve, are willing to write off the inflation as temporary with soaring used auto and truck prices contributing a large component, officials including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the price increases are likely to continue for at least several months.

Gasoline prices at a Royal Dutch Shell Plc gas station in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, July 7, 2021.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Inflation combined with fading fiscal support also then will serve as a growth limit.

“The economy is facing supply constraints with residential investment likely a drag and the change in inventories remaining negative,” Bank of America U.S. economist Alexander Lin said in a note. “Looking ahead, this is likely the peak, with growth cooling in the coming quarters.”

Capital Economics forecasts a below-consensus 8% GDP figure for the second quarter, then a drop to 3.5% in the following period.

“With surging prices squeezing real incomes we suspect the pace of monthly growth will remain lackluster, setting the stage for a sharp slowdown in consumption and GDP growth in the third quarter,” wrote Paul Ashworth, chief North American economist at Capital Economics.

The pandemic is another wild card.

Cases of the delta variant are spiking in a handful of states, and health officials worry that the U.S. could face a surge like the one hitting some European and Asian countries. Few if any economists expect another wave of lockdowns or similar constraints in the U.S., but pressure from abroad could hit domestic growth.

“Export platforms like Vietnam are being locked down now,” Brusuelas said. “Vietnam is becoming a more important cog in the global supply chain, so we are watching that closely.

Brusuelas added that the negotiations over the debt ceiling also could shake up things in the U.S. Yellen said Friday that extraordinary measures the U.S. may need to take to continue paying its debts could hit troubles as soon as October.

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Restarting a sustainable, export-oriented economy – Business in Vancouver

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Clean, sustainable products and services will be key to B.C.’s economic recovery | Chung Chow

This column was originally published in BIV Magazine‘s Trade issue.

As B.C. looks to restart its economy, the demand for our province’s clean and sustainable products and services is surging across a variety of sectors, demonstrating the key role that trade will play in our economic recovery.

Exports increased 24% year-to-date for April – that’s up $3 billion over the same time last year. It’s a big boost for the provincial economy, with a majority of our exports being commodities in great demand. Our stringent environmental standards in wood exports, burgeoning clean tech sector and high standards in labour protections mean that when other markets buy from us, they’re also contributing to a cleaner and more socially responsible global economy.

B.C. was committed to international trade long before the pandemic. It creates new opportunities for businesses, and more importantly, it creates good jobs and prosperity for people in B.C. When businesses export, they are more resilient. Access to more markets means they have a more diverse customer base and aren’t as impacted by fluctuations in their local economies.

We have a program perfectly designed to help small businesses get their goods and services to new markets. It’s called Export Navigator. This program offers businesses free expert guidance on exporting. Businesses get connected with an expert advisor who will help “navigate” them through the export process. It’s hugely beneficial, helping businesses reach new customers for the first time and making the process a lot easier along the way.

We continue to support B.C. businesses in other ways as well. For example, we developed a series of grant programs to meet their unique needs, making over half a billion dollars available in direct supports. The Launch Online program helps businesses improve their online presence to attract and keep customers and meet demand as online shopping hit new heights during the pandemic. The Supply Chain and Value-Added Manufacturing grant helps B.C.-based manufacturers in the aerospace, shipbuilding, food processing and forestry sectors recover and grow, supporting them to seek efficiencies to continually keep goods flowing into the marketplace.

From natural resources and agrifoods to manufactured goods and high-tech goods and services, B.C. has a lot to offer to the world. We are a responsible, low-carbon producer of natural resources and manufactured goods, and we are working hard to make sustainability a larger part of B.C.’s brand and our global competitive advantage. Our priority is to help B.C.-based businesses start up, scale up, access global markets and succeed in the highly competitive world marketplace. The more we export, the more new dollars we bring into B.C. and generate revenue that supports government investments in health care, education and critical infrastructure.

We stand behind the high-quality goods that B.C. has to offer to the world. Globally, companies large and small are increasingly applying environmental, social and governance filters to their investment decisions. We are committed to growing our economy in a sustainable way, and are working on a new trade diversification strategy that will provide us with the opportunity to develop an updated, forward-looking and ambitious approach that aligns closely with these principles, while ensuring that our exporting businesses are maximizing the opportunities afforded to them through Canada’s existing free trade agreements. Our recently announced Mass Timber Demonstration Program is an example of how we are advancing technologies that can showcase to the world the possibilities of building with a more sustainable and environmentally friendly product from B.C.

The pandemic leaves behind many lessons and creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity for B.C. to redefine itself. We know the pandemic is not impacting everyone equally, with women and visible minorities being disproportionately impacted. This is why we are committed to continuing to grow strong, robust industries that can provide good jobs for all of B.C.’s diverse populations.

Growth in trade will be a big part of our economic recovery, and as we transition through our restart plan, we will continue to engage with businesses, industry and key stakeholders to ensure we’re supporting their efforts to expand globally.

Our goal is to diversify our trade sectors to include not just our natural resources, but clean tech, high tech, agritech and advanced manufacturing. We need to support our exporters and encourage new exporters to expand our opportunities in global markets and strengthen our resilience.

We’re committed to invest in people and in businesses to restore economic growth and we are confident that the entrepreneurial spirit of B.C.’s business community will rise to the challenge as we work together to build a better future with meaningful jobs and a strong, sustainable economy for all. 

Ravi Kahlon is B.C.’s minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation. George Chow is the province’s minister of state for trade.

This column was originally published in the July 2021 issue of BIV Magazine. The digital magazine can be read in full here.

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Economy

ECB Lifts Restrictions on Bank Dividends as Economy Rebounds – Bloomberg

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The European Central Bank said it will lift a cap on how much lenders can return to shareholders with dividends and share buybacks, while urging them to remain cautious given uncertainty in the pandemic.

The ECB “decided not to extend beyond September 2021 its recommendation that all banks limit dividends,” the central bank said in a statement on Friday. “Instead, supervisors will assess the capital and distribution plans of each bank as part of the regular supervisory process.”

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