Omicron’s Threat to Global Economy Increasingly Runs Through China
U.S. and Europe are learning to live with the virus, but Beijing’s zero-Covid strategy could hit supply chains.
U.S. and Europe are learning to live with the virus, but Beijing’s zero-Covid strategy could hit supply chains.
The direct economic harm caused by the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in highly vaccinated countries appears so far to be relatively modest and short-lived, but its indirect hit could prove significant if China resorts to repeated lockdowns in its effort to suppress the virus within its borders.
Omicron led to a fresh surge in infections wherever it gained a foothold, a rise in deaths, and disruptions for businesses as infected workers sought medical treatment or quarantined.
But it has also become clear that Omicron causes milder symptoms in vaccinated people than its predecessors, and an increasing number of European countries have lifted restrictions put in place when the variant emerged. U.S. job growth accelerated in January, even though the number of people not working because of illness more than doubled from December.
So while business surveys and other data indicate economic growth slowed in Europe and the U.S. as 2022 began, many economists expect the Omicron variant to do less damage than previous surges.
The lifting or absence of restrictions in Europe and the U.S. signals a greater willingness to live with the virus, while remaining alert to its dangers. That is not yet an option where populations have received vaccines that offer very limited protection against Omicron, as is the case in China.
That is part of the reason why China continues to pursue a “zero-Covid” strategy, which requires strict lockdowns when local outbreaks occur.
China is the world’s leading supplier of the parts other manufacturers use to make the products households buy, which are known by economists as intermediate goods. Should it have to lock down significant parts of its economy, the impact would likely be felt in lower growth and higher inflation in Western economies.
“Lockdown risks therefore continue to rise in China, even as they decline elsewhere,” said Frédérique Carrier, head of investment strategy at RBC Wealth Management. “Increased pandemic restrictions could lead to additional supply-chain disruptions, hold back the normalization of the global economy, and fuel global inflation, while capping Chinese economic growth.”
The International Monetary Fund’s economists estimate that supply-chain problems knocked between one half and one full percentage point off global economic growth in 2021, while pushing inflation higher. In other words, the global economy would have grown by as much as 6.9% last year, compared with the 5.9% expansion it actually recorded, if there had been no supply problems.
There are some signs that supply-chain problems are easing. A new supply- blockages measure developed by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed a record level of strain in November, but a decline in December and January, which they said “seems to suggest that global supply chain pressures, while still historically high, have peaked and might start to moderate somewhat going forward.”
A prolonged series of new lockdowns in China, however, could reverse that progress and be a significant drag on growth this year.
“China’s zero-Covid strategy could exacerbate global supply disruptions,” said Gita Gopinath, the IMF’s first deputy managing director.
According to the World Trade Organization, Chinese businesses sold $354 billion of intermediate goods to overseas buyers in the three months through June 2021, way more than the next largest exporter, which was the U.S. with $200 billion. The U.S. is the largest market for Chinese exports of intermediate goods, but South Korea, Japan, Germany and India also account for a significant share.
China would likely face a surge in deaths if it were to abandon the zero-Covid strategy now. About 86% of China’s population has been fully vaccinated, but the vaccines most widely used, developed by Sinopharm and Sinovac, use inactivated virus. Those are widely believed to be less effective against Omicron infections than the mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna Inc. and by Pfizer Inc. with BioNTech SE.
China is accelerating its efforts to produce domestic mRNA vaccines and medicines for Covid-19, said an official familiar with the matter. If it were to be successful, the need for lockdowns would become less pressing. But few expect a shift away from zero-Covid to happen soon.
“We really depend on China succeeding in this transition,” said Jörg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China and chief representative of German chemical company BASF SE in the country. “But frankly, it doesn’t look good.”
Assessing the scale of the threat to global supply chains is difficult, given uncertainties about how rapidly Omicron can spread in an environment where restrictions are as tight as they are in China.
Two factors could lessen the impact of a more-rapid spread than has so far occurred. First, economists see the willingness to live with the virus in the U.S. and Europe as opening the way for a greater shift back to spending on services and away from spending on goods this year. That would ease some of the demand pressures on supply chains.
It is also possible that Chinese authorities could manage the zero-Covid policy to support exports, given the drag on growth from problems in the country’s property market and weak consumer spending at home.
“We believe the government will make efforts to minimize the supply disruptions, including some loosening/improvement in the zero-Covid policy implementation,” economists at Barclays Bank wrote in a note to clients.
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Food prices continue to rise at a rapid pace, surprising central banks and pressuring debt-laden governments
LONDON—Fresh out of an energy crisis, Europeans are facing a food-price explosion that is changing diets and forcing consumers across the region to tighten their belts—literally.
This is happening even though inflation as a whole is falling thanks to lower energy prices, presenting a new policy challenge for governments that deployed billions in aid last year to keep businesses and households afloat through the worst energy crisis in decades.
New data on Wednesday showed inflation in the U.K. fell sharply in April as energy prices cooled, following a similar pattern around Europe and in the U.S. But food prices were 19.3% higher than a year earlier.
The continued surge in food prices has caught central bankers off guard and pressured governments that are still reeling from the cost of last year’s emergency support to come to the rescue. And it is pressuring household budgets that are also under strain from rising borrowing costs.
In France, households have cut their food purchases by more than 10% since the invasion of Ukraine, while their purchases of energy have fallen by 4.8%.
In Germany, sales of food fell 1.1% in March from the previous month, and were down 10.3% from a year earlier, the largest drop since records began in 1994. According to the Federal Information Centre for Agriculture, meat consumption was lower in 2022 than at any time since records began in 1989, although it said that might partly reflect a continuing shift toward more plant-based diets.
Food retailers’ profit margins have contracted because they can’t pass on the entire price increases from their suppliers to their customers. Markus Mosa, chief executive of the Edeka supermarket chain, told German media that the company had stopped ordering products from several large suppliers because of rocketing prices.
A survey by the U.K.’s statistics agency earlier this month found that almost three-fifths of the poorest 20% of households were cutting back on food purchases.
“This is an access problem,” said Ludovic Subran, chief economist at insurer Allianz, who previously worked at the United Nations World Food Program. “Total food production has not plummeted. This is an entitlement crisis.”
Food accounts for a much larger share of consumer spending than energy, so a smaller rise in prices has a greater impact on budgets. The U.K.’s Resolution Foundation estimates that by the summer, the cumulative rise in food bills since 2020 will have amounted to 28 billion pounds, equivalent to $34.76 billion, outstripping the rise in energy bills, estimated at £25 billion.
“The cost of living crisis isn’t ending, it is just entering a new phase,” Torsten Bell, the research group’s chief executive, wrote in a recent report.
Food isn’t the only driver of inflation. In the U.K., the core rate of inflation—which excludes food and energy—rose to 6.8% in April from 6.2% in March, its highest level since 1992. Core inflation was close to its record high in the eurozone during the same month.
Still, Bank of England Gov. Andrew Bailey told lawmakers Tuesday that food prices now constitute a “fourth shock” to inflation after the bottlenecks that jammed supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise in energy prices that accompanied Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and surprisingly tight labor markets.
Europe’s governments spent heavily on supporting households as energy prices soared. Now they have less room to borrow given the surge in debt since the pandemic struck in 2020.
Some governments—including those of Italy, Spain and Portugal—have cut sales taxes on food products to ease the burden on consumers. Others are leaning on food retailers to keep their prices in check. In March, the French government negotiated an agreement with leading retailers to refrain from price rises if it is possible to do so.
Retailers have also come under scrutiny in Ireland and a number of other European countries. In the U.K., lawmakers have launched an investigation into the entire food supply chain “from farm to fork.”
“Yesterday I had the food producers into Downing Street, and we’ve also been talking to the supermarkets, to the farmers, looking at every element of the supply chain and what we can do to pass on some of the reduction in costs that are coming through to consumers as fast as possible,” U.K. Treasury Chief Jeremy Hunt said during The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit in London.
The government’s Competition and Markets Authority last week said it would take a closer look at retailers.
“Given ongoing concerns about high prices, we are stepping up our work in the grocery sector to help ensure competition is working well,” said Sarah Cardell, who heads the CMA.
Some economists expect that added scrutiny to yield concrete results, assuming retailers won’t want to tarnish their image and will lean on their suppliers to keep prices down.
“With supermarkets now more heavily under the political spotlight, we think it more likely that price momentum in the food basket slows,” said Sanjay Raja, an economist at Deutsche Bank.
It isn’t entirely clear why food prices have risen so fast for so long. In world commodity markets, which set the prices received by farmers, food prices have been falling since April 2022. But raw commodity costs are just one part of the final price. Consumers are also paying for processing, packaging, transport and distribution, and the size of the gap between the farm and the dining table is unusually wide.
The BOE’s Bailey thinks one reason for the bank having misjudged food prices is that food producers entered into longer-term but relatively expensive contracts with fertilizer, energy and other suppliers around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in their eagerness to guarantee availability at a time of uncertainty.
But as the pressures being placed on retailers suggest, some policy makers suspect that an increase in profit margins may also have played a role. Speaking to lawmakers, Bailey was wary of placing any blame on food suppliers.
“It’s a story about rebuilding margins that were squeezed in the early part of last year,” he said.
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