World economy powering down daily makes recession more likely

By Enda Curran and Michelle Jamrisko / Bloomberg News

A PANDEMIC-DRIVEN global recession is becoming more likely by the day as the flow of goods, services and people faces ever-increasing restrictions.

In just the past day or so, President Donald Trump curbed travel to the US from Europe, Italy’s government ordered almost every shop to close and India suspended most visas. Twitter Inc. joined the flood of companies telling employees to work at home and the National Basketball Association suspended its season.

While such announcements are aimed at containing the coronavirus, each quarantined city, canceled flight, scrapped sporting event and scuppered conference will hammer demand across the globe this quarter and likely longer. An initial consumer rush to stock up on supplies may be followed by months of cautious restraint.

“The resulting pandemic of fear continues to spread and is bound to cause a global recession,” Ed Yardeni, president and founder of Yardeni Research Inc. wrote in a research note.

Dashed are the hopes from just a few weeks ago that the world economy would track a V-shaped trajectory—a sharp first-quarter slump in growth followed by a second-quarter rebound. Now, the biggest economic shock since the 2008 financial crisis is raising the risk of a worldwide recession, with the debate shifting to how long and deep the slump will be.

Equities and bond yields continued their retreat on Thursday, with the MSCI World Index of stocks now on the verge of a bear market.

China is already on course for what could be its first quarterly contraction in decades. In the US, a Bloomberg Economics model suggests a 53-percent chance that the 11-year expansion will end within a year. The economies of Japan, Germany, France and Italy were already shrinking, or stalled, before the virus outbreak, and the UK is wobbling amid Brexit uncertainty.

As the virus spreads, the threat grows of a phenomenon economists refer to as a feedback loop—a vicious cycle in which a country that starts to recover domestically then suffers diminished demand from abroad as other nations succumb, prolonging the downturn.

At Pacific Investment Management Co., global chief economic adviser Joachim Fels says the US and Europe face the “distinct possibility” of a recession. Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, a paid contributor to Bloomberg News, says the coronavirus may prove to be the most serious crisis of the century so far and puts the odds of a US recession at 80 percent.

Traditionally more conservative in calling a recession, Wall Street economists are also downgrading their forecasts. Those at Bank of America Corp. on Wednesday cut their global growth forecast for 2020 from 2.8 percent to 2.2 percent. That’s “in spitting range of a typical global recession” and well below the world’s long-term trend of 3.5 percent, they said.

Counterparts at JPMorgan Chase & Co. told clients this week that the risk of a global recession “has risen materially.” To revive their confidence, they said they need to see a fading of the virus, a stronger and more creative response by economic policy makers, and for firms and banks not to slash jobs or lending.

Policy makers are already struggling to keep up, adding to concern that falling demand won’t be cushioned enough by stimulus.

The Federal Reserve’s emergency interest rate cut of March 3 failed to buoy investor confidence, adding to pressure on its officials to ease monetary policy and perhaps even slash rates to zero when they reconvene next week if not sooner. There are also calls for it to follow the Bank of England in channeling assistance to parts of the economy in most need.

European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde gets her chance to act on Thursday. She telegraphed action by telling European leaders that the region risks an economic shock that echoes the crisis of the last decade unless they act urgently. But she too is limited in her ability to respond given euro-area interest rates are already negative, a problem for Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda too.

That leaves fiscal policy, which should be more potent than monetary policy because it can be targeted and delivered in size. But governments are again proving sluggish in getting ahead of the crisis with the majority waiting for their nations to become infected before shifting and then only slowly.

While more governments are rolling out stimulus packages worldwide and are offering more than $130 billion of virus-relief steps, Trump’s administration has been slow crafting a plan after initially questioning the need for one.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised to do “whatever is necessary” on Wednesday, but the rhetoric has yet to be matched by a fiscal push in Europe’s largest economy, which is traditionally skeptical of opening the fiscal spigot.

Much of the economic data have yet to bear out the magnitude of the pain to the global economy. In some ways, though, the virus outbreak’s impact is more worrisome than even the financial crisis, given that it’s hitting a multitude of consumer and business channels and has crushed prospects for a full recovery in some sectors, said Taimur Baig, chief economist at DBS Bank in Singapore.

“This is the opposite transition from the crisis propagation perspective—now we have the services sector basically coming to a standstill worldwide” while the financial system still is relatively healthy, said Baig, a former economist at the International Monetary Fund.

While the crisis of 2008-09 was a “classic financial crisis,” this time, “it’s not about fixing banks or putting capital in there—it’s about saying the pandemic has ended. That’s what makes it very uncertain” as the virus has proved so hard to control, he said.


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