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Why The Global Economy is Recovering Faster Than Expected – Harvard Business Review

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The economic impact of coronavirus continues to surprise. In the spring, previously unimaginable shutdowns pushed economic activity to unimaginable lows. After the initial shock, however, perhaps the biggest surprise has been how fears of systemic meltdown remain unfulfilled — the initial bounce back was far stronger and sooner than expected, and some sectors of the U.S. and other economies have seen complete recoveries to pre-crisis levels of activity.

While the stronger-than-expected recovery aligns with the business experience of many leaders we speak with, they still wonder what drove the gap between expectations and reality — and whether it can last. To answer these questions, we need to look at various recession types and their drivers, how Covid-19 fits in, and what this cycle’s idiosyncrasies are.

Fears Unfulfilled, Hopes Surpassed

As the coronavirus forced the economy into shutdown, a brutal economic contraction unfolded, breaking many (negative) records in the process. Yet, the sustained impact was broadly overestimated — both systemically and cyclically — as the intensity of the shock fueled widespread economic pessimism.

Systemic fears were captured in the popular prediction of a new Great Depression, which would bring sovereign defaults, banking system collapse, and price deflation. Yet after a wobble prices stabilized, sovereign borrowing costs broadly fell across the world despite expansive borrowing, and the banking systems has shown few signs of liquidity problems. (In fact, after hoarding capital banks are looking to return capital again.) The broader systemic fears remain unfulfilled and never looked as perilous as in 2008.

As systemic fears remained unfulfilled, cyclical fears also have proliferated. Unemployment — a cornerstone gauge of economic health — was expected to stay at high levels in the U.S. past the end of 2021. Analysts predicted waves of bankruptcies, a weakening housing market, and a potential collapse after an initial recovery in a “W”-shaped manner.

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Yet, here too the surprises have been to the upside. While still unacceptably high, unemployment fell much sooner and faster than thought: By September U.S. unemployment was lower than it was expected to be by the end of 2021. Housing showed remarkable resilience — with prices barely dipping and activity and sales bouncing back to or near the highs since the housing crisis. Many parts of the U.S. economy have returned to pre-crisis levels of activity. Indeed, as the 3Q GDP release last Thursday highlighted, over the last three months growth has been the highest ever recorded. While this does not indicate that the U.S. economy has returned to health or to pre-crisis levels of activity, it is testament to an extraordinarily vigorous rebound after a historically negative second quarter.

These patterns are true around the world: Economic surprise indices, which show an amalgamation of the differences between realized and expected performance, have spiked to record highs everywhere — with the exception for China, where expectations for a full recovery were the baseline.



Why the Covid Recession Outperformed Expectations

While many business leaders have seen these dynamics unfold in real time, they seek to understand the drivers that explain it in order to better see the path ahead. Charting recoveries remains exceptionally difficult (if not as difficult as predicting recessions), but there is value in thinking about the types of recession, their drivers, and impact — as well as about the idiosyncrasies that will shape the remaining recovery path.

There are three dimensions of economic recessions which – when taken together – can help frame the dynamics of recovery. The Covid recession displays distinctive characteristics within this framework that help explain much of what has been on display:

  • Recession nature. This captures the underlying force — for example, an investment bust, a financial crisis, a policy error or an exogenous shock — that’s afflicting the economy. Despite its brutal intensity, the Covid shock is preferable to an investment bust or a financial crisis that were at the heart of the last two recessions (2001 and 2008/09) because it comes without an overhang of excess investment to work off, which is what delays the onset of recovery and weighs on its trajectory. Indeed, the biggest risk of an exogenous shock is that it morphs into a systemic crisis (traditionally, the fear would be a financial crisis).
  • Policy response. This decisively shapes the recovery path and is a clear silver lining of the Covid recession. The speed, feasibility, and effectiveness of fiscal policy has been demonstrated, above all in the U.S. There remains a common misperception that virus caseloads and Covid deaths are strict determinants of economic performance. In reality, the correlation is weak — precisely because a strong economic policy response effectively bridges some of the economic damage from less successful virus control efforts. Think of how U.S. efforts at virus control largely failed relative to other rich nations —  in Europe, for example — yet U.S. real growth has still come out ahead. The much bolder U.S. policy effort explains that outcome. Yet, the ultimate impact of policy is to prevent a different type of contagion — household and firm bankruptcies and a wobbly banking system — and this is where structural damage comes in.
  • Structural damage. This is the key determinant of a recession’s shape. When a recession leads to a collapse in capital expenditures and pushes workers out of the labor force, an economy’s productive capacity declines. That’s what happened in the U.S. in 2008 as the financial crisis disrupted capital stock growth and made it much harder to return to pre-crisis levels. The Covid recession is more favorable in this respect as there is no “overhang” from the last expansion which did not see excesses in investment or lending that now has to be worked off. Additionally, the fast policy response — unlike in 2008 — contained bankruptcies and drove a strong V-shape recovery in capital goods orders. So far, the Covid recession looks likely to have avoided major structural damage.

It’s quite possible that we were prepared for the worst with the Covid recession because the late and sluggish recovery from the Great Recession is still on our minds. And using the drivers outlined above we can see why: It started as an investment bust that turned into a financial crisis, which in turn impaired financial sector balance sheets and household balance sheets. This was met with a policy response that was quite delayed and kicked in after significant damage was already done. If that serves as in an implicit baseline for how recoveries play out, then the better than expected Covid trajectory should not surprise us. 

Can the Covid Recovery Continue to Surprise to the Upside?

To gauge the next leg of recovery we need to go beyond the above drivers – think of them as the necessary foundations for a continued strong recovery – and look at the idiosyncrasies of the Covid recession for sufficient conditions that show how the strength could be delivered.

Looking at the sectors of the U.S. economy more closely, we can divide it into three parts that were impacted very differently given the nature of the virus-driven recession. This suggests the “easy” phase of recovery is exhausted:

  • Sectors unaffected by Covid, such as housing and utility consumption, financial services, and off-premise food. Using a household budget as an analogy, you can think of these as “fixed costs” that cannot be reduced easily. This amounts to about 46% of U.S. consumption and never dipped.
  • Sectors affected by lockdowns, but not by social distancing, such as autos and other durable goods. These sectors took a big hit from physical lockdowns, but once those were lifted, they bounced back strongly, often fully — and sometimes even exceeding pre-crisis levels. These sectors represent about 16% of the U.S. consumption.
  • Sectors that are directly vaccine dependent, such as transportation, recreation, and food service. Some of these sectors bounced back after the lockdown, while others remain unable to meaningfully recover to pre-crisis activity levels because of the risk of exposure to the virus. These sectors represent about 38% of U.S. consumption.


The next leg of a strong recovery thus hinges on that third group of sectors as the recovery potential of the second group is largely exhausted (and the first never dipped). This really moves the question of vaccines front and center. A timeline for the creation of a safe, effective vaccine that provides immunity for a significant time and can be rolled out quickly is fraught with uncertainty. Currently crowdsourced forecasts project a reasonable expectation that a vaccine will become available and meaningfully distributed (i.e. to those most vulnerable and those most at risk of spreading the virus) around Q2 2021.

How It Could All Go Wrong From Here

Neither the necessary nor the sufficient conditions outlined above are guaranteed. A lot can go wrong, and indeed fears of another economic collapse are common in public discourse.

The truly bad scenario is often captured in warnings about a “W-shaped” recession, which would imply another phase of negative growth. In other words, after the collapse (Q2) and the very strong bounce (Q3) we would need Q4 (or Q1 2021) to be a second window of negative growth.

How likely is this scenario? It would almost certainly require a renewed surge of the virus and stringent lockdown that would hamper the second group of sectors. Hospital capacity will prove the ultimate constraint on policy makers’ balancing act between keeping economic activity high and the population safe. While another lockdown is possible, as we’re seeing in Europe, in the U.S. selective shutdowns are more likely given political dynamics, leaving room for growth to stay above zero.

And while positive growth remains our expectation for Q4 and 2021, a host of other risks lingers. A continued failure to extend fiscal stimulus measures could diminish the slope of recovery — or in the extreme turn it negative. A broader political failure — perhaps related to a contested election outcome — is also on the list of risks.

What It Means for Businesses

In times of crisis it’s tempting to be pessimistic and fearful, particular if the drivers are unfamiliar or the risks pose credible systemic threats. However, this inclination to pessimism and retreat also carries risks itself and we should remind ourselves that 14% of firms across all sectors typically grow both revenues and margins during downturns. This is not just idiosyncratic luck — i.e. being in the right sector and seeing a demand boost because of the nature of the crisis — it’s driven by a firm’s ability to see beyond the acute phase of a crisis and exploit its idiosyncrasies to drive differential growth in new areas. While monitoring the overall macro landscape remains important, leaders should not underestimate the importance of measuring, interpreting, and exploiting the dynamics of their own sectors and markets in order to be able to invest and flourish during the recovery and the post-crisis period.

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Wall Street skids on inflation fears; USD, bond yields jump

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U.S. stocks suffered the biggest slump in at least 11 weeks on Wednesday and benchmark Treasury yields jumped after data showed consumer prices in April unexpectedly rose by the highest level in nearly 12 years, prompting bets on earlier interest rate hikes.

A 0.8% jump in the U.S. consumer price index – outpacing a 0.2% forecast – boosted the U.S. dollar as expectations of rising real interest rates burnished the currency’s appeal.

The gyrations in financial markets underscored concerns among some investors that the Federal Reserve could be wrong in its prediction that inflation pressures in the United States are temporary, and that the central bank may have to raise rates sooner than it expects.

The prospect of tighter monetary policy knocked shares lower and the stock market steadily extended losses through the day. The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 2%, the S&P 500 dropped 2.1%, and the Nasdaq Composite lost 2.7%. [.N]

For the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite Index, Wednesday’s tumble was the biggest fall in a single day since Feb. 25, while the Dow’s decline was the sharpest in a day since Jan 29.

Richard Clarida, vice chair of the Federal Reserve, acknowledged on Wednesday that the latest inflation report was the second piece of data in a week to catch the central bank off-guard, describing it as the “biggest miss in history.”

Yet Clarida maintained the Federal Reserve’s dovish note, saying it will be “some time” before the U.S. economy is sufficiently healed for the central bank to consider pulling back its crisis-level of support.

Some investors continued to challenge the Federal Reserve’s assessment, however.

“We’ve been warning about the prospect of higher for longer inflation in the United States for many months, but even we hadn’t predicted this,” said James Knightley, chief international economist at ING Group.

“We increasingly doubt the Fed’s position that this is transitory and think they will end up hiking rates far sooner than 2024.”

Some money market investors seemed to agree. Eurodollar futures contracts expiring in December on Wednesday priced in a 25-basis-point rate hike by the end of next year, compared with 22 basis points before the inflation report.

DOLLAR GAINS

Weakness on Wall Street mirrored stock market losses in Asia, as surging commodity prices stoked inflation concerns. MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan had slumped 0.95% overnight, after hitting its lowest level since March 26.

European shares fared better. London’s blue-chip FTSE 100 rebounded 0.8% as buoyant corporate earnings and a better-than-expected economic growth report bolstered hopes about a sharp recovery from the pandemic-driven recession.

In the United States, the surprisingly strong inflation data lifted Treasury yields. The benchmark 10-year Treasury yield jumped to 1.6952%, its biggest rise in a day since March 18, and the two-year Treasury yield also rose to stand at 0.1668%. [US/]

In keeping with expectations of rising price pressures as the U.S. economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, the yield curve steepened, and the spread between two- and 10-year Treasury yields widened to 152.8 basis points.

The dollar, which could benefit from rising real interest rates, gained after wobbling briefly earlier in the day.

The dollar index, which measures the greenback against six major currencies, rose 0.65% to 90.795.

A stronger dollar dented the euro, which slid 0.6% to $1.2070.

Higher Treasury yields and the stronger dollar dragged on non-yielding bullion. Spot gold slid 1.3% to $1,813.41 an ounce. [GOL/]

Hopes of rising demand on the back of an economic recovery pushed oil prices to eight-week highs.

U.S. crude jumped 1.2% to $66.08 a barrel, the highest close since March 11. Brent crude added 1.1% to $69.32 per barrel, a close last seen on March 5. [O/R]

In cryptocurrencies, ether fell after scaling a new record high overnight, dropping 2% to $4,096.01. The value of the second-biggest digital token has surged over 5.5 times so far this year.

(Reporting by Koh Gui Qing in New York, Tom Arnold in London and Swati Pandey in Sydney; Additional reporting by Sujata Rao in LondonEditing by Alison Williams and Matthew Lewis)

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Oil drops as India coronavirus crisis tempers rally

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Oil prices fell on Thursday, pulling back from an eight-week high as concerns about the coronavirus crisis in India, the world’s third-biggest importer of crude, tempered a rally driven by IEA and OPEC predictions that demand is coming back strong.

Brent crude was down 32 cents, or 0.5%, at $69.00 a barrel by 0145 GMT, after gaining more than 1% on Wednesday. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) was down 31 cents, or 0.5%, to $65.77 a barrel, having risen 1.2% in the previous session.

“The path for crude prices appears to be higher but until the situation improves in India, WTI will probably struggle to break above the early March high,” Edward Moya, senior market analyst at OANDA, said in a note.

Oil demand is already outstripping supply and the shortfall is expected to grow further even if Iran boosts exports, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its monthly report on Wednesday.

A day earlier, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) stuck to its forecast for a strong return of world oil demand in 2021, with growth in China and the United States cancelling out the impact of the coronavirus crisis in India.

But global concern is rising over the situation in India, the world’s second-most populous country, where a variant of the coronavirus is rampaging through the countryside in the deadliest 24 hours since the pandemic began.

Medical professional are still unable to say for sure when new infections will hit a plateau and other countries are alarmed over the transmissibility of the variant that is now spreading worldwide.

Fuel shortages are getting worse in the southeastern United States six days since the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline network in the world’s biggest consumer of oil.

Colonial, which pipes more than 2.5 million barrels per day, said it is hoping to get a large portion of the network operating by the end of the week.

 

(Reporting by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Michael Perry)

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Oil prices on track for eight-week high on demand hopes

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Oil prices rose more than 1% on Wednesday, putting the contracts on track for their highest close in almost eight weeks, as U.S. crude exports plunged and on signs of a speedy economic recovery and upbeat forecasts for energy demand.

Brent futures rose 74 cents, or 1.1%, to $69.29 a barrel by 12:05 p.m. EDT (1605 GMT), while U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude rose 75 cents, or 1.2%, to $66.03.

That puts both benchmarks on track for their highest closes since March 11. Earlier in the session, WTI on track for its highest close since Oct. 29, 2018 and Brent for its highest close since May 28, 2019.

U.S. crude exports fell last week to around 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd), their lowest since October 2018, while crude inventories declined 0.4 million barrels versus an expected 2.8 million-barrel draw, according to weekly government data. [EIA/S]

“The export (drop) is the bullish element keeping trade propped up,” Tony Headrick, energy market analyst at CHS Hedging, said, noting the crude stock “drawdown combined with the lack of exports is good sign.”

Traders noted one factor weighing on prices this afternoon was the U.S. inventory report also showed total oil products supplied fell 2.2 million bpd to 17.5 million bpd. That was their biggest weekly decline and the lowest weekly demand since January.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its monthly report that oil demand is already outstripping supply and the shortfall is expected to widen even if Iran boosts exports.

Similarly, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on Tuesday stuck to a forecast for a strong recovery in world oil demand in 2021, with growth in China and the United States outweighing the impact of the coronavirus crisis in India.

Oil prices today are experiencing a lift on positive demand outlooks released by OPEC and IEA, which both came out with a similar consensus that oil demand will average 96.4 million bpd in 2021,” said Louise Dickson, oil markets analyst at Rystad Energy.

Oil also found support from positive economic data. Britain’s pandemic-battered economy grew more strongly than expected in March, while U.S. consumer prices increased by the most in nearly 12 years in April as booming demand amid a reopening economy pushed against supply constraints.

India’s coronavirus death toll crossed 250,000 in the deadliest 24 hours since the pandemic began.

In the United States, fuel shortages worsened as the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, the nation’s largest fuel pipeline network, entered its sixth day and gasoline stations from Florida to Virginia ran out of supply in some cities.

Colonial, which transports more than 2.5 million bpd, said it hopes to restart a large portion of the network by the end of the week.

The gasoline crack spread – a measure of refining profit margins – was on track for its highest close since hitting a record high on April 20, 2020 when WTI futures turned negative, according to Refinitiv data.

(Additional reporting by Laura Sanicola in New York, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Shu Zhang and Sonali Paul in Singapore; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Mark Heinrich)

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