All economic downturns are unfair. Some people inevitably get hit harder than others. But almost a year into the COVID-19 catastrophe, the data makes it abundantly clear: the impact of this crisis is uniquely unequal.
More than a million Canadians remain under- or unemployed while millions more simply adjusted to working from home.
The second wave of COVID-19 cases and increased restrictions in many parts of the country have clobbered the most vulnerable workers who were already struggling. But many Canadians who were lucky enough to keep their jobs have been able to cut expenses on travel, commuting and child care. In doing so, they’ve saved more than $170 billion, collectively.
Stock markets have soared to all-time highs even while the global economy collapsed. Since bottoming out last April, both the Dow and the S&P are up more than 60 per cent.
Djenaba Dayle lost her job as a server at events in Toronto when the pandemic hit last March.
“You watch the news and you see people who are privileged and fortunate enough to be in a position to save money right now,” she said. “And I know that, for myself, it’s just debt.”
When COVID-19 began spreading last year, Dayle knew tough times were coming. She applied for the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) and eventually the new extended employment insurance programs. But it’s still not enough, she said.
“It’s either pay my full rent and not eat or eat and get behind in my rent.”
On the other side of the country, Cole Westersund has experienced both sides of the pandemic’s economic divide. Last March, he was terrified that his work as a real estate agent in Vancouver would grind to a halt along with the rest of the economy.
“It was incredibly difficult to face the fact that you might not be able to put food on the table,” he said.
Then, about a month into the pandemic, some restrictions began to lift. And suddenly his phone started ringing, he said. Clients were looking for properties out of town.
“Coming out of the lockdown, they figured, ‘Hey, we have this money saved up,'” said Westersund. “If people were fortunate to keep their jobs, [they figured] let’s change our lifestyle. You know, if you’re a skier, if you’re a hiker, a biker or a fisherman.”
He said people were looking for more space and privacy or even just a break from being cooped up because of public health restrictions.
And business has been booming ever since, he said. He’s been struggling to keep up with demand. The sale of recreational real estate, such as cottages, has soared 11.5 per cent in the first nine months of 2020.
But Westersund said it’s important to remember every purchase is also a sale. And many of the clients selling their properties were listing because times were so tough.
“Stepping into a client’s house, knowing full well that the reason that they’re selling is because they need the money, it’s a difficult conversation to have,” he said.
It is the definition of a K-shaped recovery. People on the lower branch have seen their fortunes fall and have not yet recovered while those on the upper branch have prospered.
Experts worry the increased division between those two branches may outlast the pandemic.
“Some of these effects could end up being permanent, and the bottom part of the K could persist for quite a while,” said former Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz, speaking at an online event on Jan. 13 hosted by Western University’s Ivey Business School.
The concern is that the worsening inequality of the economic downturn will lead to what economists call scarring: long-term job losses that result in lower growth and drag the whole economy down.
Poloz said the key right now is to support Canadians who are still reeling financially. He pointed out that interest rates remain at historic lows.
“The main thing is for us to focus on boosting growth,” he said. “I’m hopeful that, in this context that we find ourselves, we can have more federal and provincial collaboration that allows us to do some things that will boost growth forever.”
WATCH | Canadian entrepreneurs on navigating the pandemic:
Djenaba Dayle, the server from Toronto, takes umbrage with the term scarring.
“They’re deep, festering, open wounds,” she said. “It’s not a scar. Things have not healed over.”
In order to heal, she said, Canadians need to rethink how social programs work. Dayle said the COVID-19 crisis is a glaring reminder that the support system wasn’t adequate before the pandemic hit.
“[We need] changes to EI, changes to how we approach people who are renters, changes to how we support folks who are down on their luck,” she said.
Dayle said the minimum wage needs to rise, and that rent control is crucial — and not just during a crisis. Several economists have proposed introducing automatic triggers that would restart more intensive support programs such as CERB when major trouble hits.
On the upside, most experts agree the recovery is nearly here. Daily COVID-19 case numbers are finally starting to decrease. Vaccines are beginning to roll out, albeit slowly. Economic forecasts from the major Canadian banks suggest blockbuster growth in April, May and June. Even once you factor in a negative quarter of growth to start the year, economists are predicting GDP will come in around 4.5-5 per cent for 2021 and at a similar level in 2022.
“It’s a massive acceleration of growth that we’re expecting over the next couple of years or so,” said Derek Holt, vice-president and head of capital markets economics with the Bank of Nova Scotia.
It’s been decades since Canada has seen that level of growth. Growth like that means investment and building — and that means jobs will be created. It means everyone benefits.
But will Canadians remember how much people needed government assistance during the worst of the pandemic? Will they remember how insufficient it was for many?
Dayle isn’t sure
“Let’s say I have very little faith,” she said. “But [I have] a great deal of hope.”
‘Do whatever it takes’: Beijing urged to act as China’s economy falters – The Guardian
The US economy is 'nowhere near a recession this year,' says an economist—but 2023 is a different story – CNBC
With turmoil in the markets, high inflation and impending interest rate hikes that will make borrowing money more expensive, many Americans are wondering if the economy is heading toward a recession.
Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein said last weekend that “it’s certainly a very, very high risk factor,” and consumers should be “prepared for it.” However, he hedged his comments by saying the Federal Reserve “has very powerful tools” and a recession is “not baked in the cake.”
Although it is impossible to know for sure, the odds of a U.S. recession in the next year have been steadily rising, according to a recent Bloomberg survey of 37 economists. They have the probability pegged at 30%, which is double the odds from three months ago.
To put that number into context, the threat of a recession is typically about 15% in a given year, due to unexpected events and numerous variables.
The bottom line: “The likelihood of recession this year is pretty low,” says Gus Faucher, a chief economist at financial services company PNC Financial Services Group. However, “it gets dicier in 2023 and 2024.”
What determines whether the economy enters a recession
A recession is a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months, according to The National Bureau of Economic Research, which officially declares recessions.
A key indicator of a possible recession is the real gross domestic product (GDP), an inflation-adjusted value of the goods and services produced in the United States. For the first time since early in the pandemic, it decreased at an annual rate of 1.4% in the first quarter of 2022. Since many economists agree that 2% is a healthy annual rate of growth for GDP, a negative quarter to start the year suggests the economy might be shrinking.
Another factor is rising inflation, which has recently shown signs of slowing down. But it’s still well above the Fed’s 2% target benchmark, with a year-over-year rate of 8.3% in April, according to the most recent Consumer Price Index numbers.
With a high rate of inflation, higher prices outpace wage growth, making things like gas and rent more expensive for consumers. For that reason, the Fed imposes interest rate hikes, as they did in March and May, with five more expected to follow this year. These hikes discourage spending by making the cost of borrowing money more expensive for businesses and consumers.
While many economists still expect the GDP to grow in 2022, the rate by which inflation is decreasing is less clear.
Signs of economic strength
However, there are positive economic indicators to consider as well. Job numbers continue to look good, as the U.S. economy in April had its 12th straight month of job gains of 400,000 or more. And employment levels and consumer spending remain strong, for now, despite interest hikes and inflation.
“Ultimately, inflation in terms of rising prices needs to work its way into actual spending behavior,” says Victor Canalog, head of the commercial real estate economics division within Moody’s.
He points out that consumer expenditures in the U.S. rose by 2.7% last quarter: “People are still spending more, but at what point will they start spending less?”
Despite these positives, risks remain. The Federal Reserve is walking a fine line with its monetary policy, says Faucher, as doing either too much or too little to control inflation could further hurt the economy.
“Rising interest rates are designed to cool off growth, hopefully without pushing the economy into recession,” says Faucher. But he says that if the central bank “raises their rates too much, that can push the economy into recession.”
“That’s why I’m more concerned about 2023, or 2024, because we’ll have felt the cumulative impact of all of those interest rate increases that we’re going to be seeing over the next year and a half.”
‘Difficult to believe’: Biden’s economy plan a tough sell in Asia – Al Jazeera English
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – US President Joe Biden’s arrival in Seoul on Friday marks not only the start of his first visit while in office to South Korea and Japan, but the beginnings of an economic initiative aimed at deepening United States ties across Asia.
Though many of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework’s details have yet to be finalised, the Biden administration has made one point clear – the plan is not a traditional trade agreement that will lower tariffs or otherwise open access to US markets, but a partnership for promoting common economic standards.
While many of China’s regional neighbours share Washington’s concerns about the burgeoning superpower’s ambitions, the IPEF’s lack of clear trade provisions could make it an uninspiring prospect for potential members, especially in Southeast Asia.
“You can sense the frustration for developing, trade-reliant countries,” Calvin Cheng, a senior analyst of economics, trade and regional integration at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera. “There’s always talk about engaging Asia, the idea, but what exactly is it – and what are the incentives for developing countries to take up standards that are being imposed on them by richer, developed countries?”
Since announcing the IPEF in October, the Biden administration has characterised the initiative as a way of promoting common standards under the pillars of fair and resilient trade; supply chain resilience; infrastructure, clean energy, and decarbonisation; and tax and anti-corruption.
A fact sheet distributed by the White House in February describes the framework as part of a wider push to “restore American leadership” in the region by engaging with partners there to “meet urgent challenges, from competition with China to climate change to the pandemic”.
Nevertheless, Biden’s decision not to pursue a major trade deal harks back to the protectionist leanings of former US President Donald Trump, and, in particular, his administration’s abrupt pullout from the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Trump, whose antipathy towards traditional alliances sparked anxiety in many Asian countries, scuttled that agreement in 2017 despite sharing the deal’s aims of countering expanding Chinese economic influence.
But even without clear benefits to boost trade, Asian leaders have, for the most part, reacted favourably to the prospect of renewed US engagement in Asia.
Longtime allies Japan and South Korea are expected to be among the first to engage with the IPEF, as are Singapore and the Philippines.
From Vietnam, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said at the recent US-ASEAN summit that Vietnam “would like to work with the US to realise the four pillars of that initiative”.
However, he added that Vietnam needed more time to study the framework, as well as to see more “concrete details”.
Thailand has also demonstrated interest, while leaders in Indonesia and India have yet to take a clear position.
Huynh Tam Sang, a lecturer of international relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, said Hanoi wished to avoid antagonising either the US or China – a common position for Southeast Asian states attempting to stay clear of great power struggles while avoiding being dominated by their northern neighbour.
“The Vietnamese government has been rather prudent not to showcase any intentions to join the IPEF or not, though I think there are many benefits to joining,” Sang told Al Jazeera, listing clean energy and reliable supply chains as common interests.
Sang said, however, that other standards, such as those related to taxes and anti-corruption efforts, could be a step too far for the Vietnamese government.
“I think Vietnam could be really reluctant to join that pillar for fear of the US intervening in Vietnam’s domestic politics,” he said.
“The anti-corruption campaign is definitely going on, but many Vietnamese are very sceptical of this view of cooperation, especially with the US when the Biden administration has prioritised democratic values when fostering ties with regional countries.”
Such concerns could undercut the renewed US engagement, particularly when China has made a point to engage in trade without such values-based strings attached. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade deal that went into effect at the start of this year, is a testament to that hands-off approach to some observers.
China played a key role in negotiating the RCEP, which also includes Japan and South Korea, plus all 10 of the ASEAN member-states – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – as well as Australia and New Zealand.
In total, the RCEP covers some 2.3 billion people and an estimated 30 percent of the global economy. The partnership is widely seen as being more focused on promoting trade by removing tariffs and red tape, with a less holistic approach to raising economic standards than the TPP or its successor, the reassembled Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Cheng described the CPTPP, of which the US is not a member, as the “gold standard” for trade deals in the region, noting its commitment to expanded trade access as well as provisions to safeguard labour rights, promote transparency and address environmental issues and climate change.
“So the IPEF is pretty much that, but taking out the trade deal aspect of it, leaving just the standards,” he said.
It remains to be seen how far the standards-only method will go in terms of winning acceptance across Asia.
Already, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and international trade minister Azmin Ali have said the US should take a more comprehensive approach.
Ali described the framework proposal in an interview with Reuters as a “good beginning for us to engage on various issues” and said Malaysia would decide which IPEF pillars it would consider joining. At the same time, he made clear the IPEF was not a replacement for the more-comprehensive TPP.
Some of the most straightforward public criticism of the new framework on that front has come from prominent former ministers in Japan, one of the region’s most steadfast US allies.
Earlier this month, former foreign minister Taro Kono and former justice minister Takashi Yamashita spoke at an event in Washington of the new framework’s lack of hard commitments, an aspect they found glaring in the context of the abrupt collapse of the TPP. In their comments, the two maintained the IPEF would only serve to undermine the CPTPP.
“Now the Biden administration is talking about the Indo-Pacific Economic whatever, I would say forget about it,” Kono said.
Hiroaki Watanabe, a professor of international relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, said the US withdrawal from the TPP had undermined Japanese perceptions of the IPEF’s stability. Though Biden may promote his framework while in power, Watanabe said, there was no guarantee the next president would.
“Right now, it’s the Biden administration, but we don’t know what will come next – it could even be Trump again,” Watanabe told Al Jazeera.
“From a non-American perspective, it’s really difficult to believe what America is saying when it says it wants to commit itself to these plans,” Watanabe added. “There are many challenges to the logistics of this, and then the US may just throw away the kind of commitment as measured by the IPEF in the future. Practically, it’s not meaningless, but it’s not significant either.”
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