LONDON/TOKYO: Global factories took a beating in February from the coronavirus outbreak with activity in China shrinking at a record pace, surveys showed yesterday, raising the prospect of a coordinated policy response by central banks to prevent a global recession. Fears of a pandemic pushed markets off a precipice last week, wiping more than $5 trillion from global share values as stocks cratered, marking their steepest slump in more than a decade and stoking widespread expectations of monetary easing.
The outbreak is plunging the world economy into its worst downturn since the global financial crisis, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned yesterday, urging governments and central banks to fight back to avoid an even steeper slump. Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said yesterday the Bank of Japan would take necessary steps to stabilise financial markets. Futures now imply a full 50 basis point cut by the US Federal Reserve in March, while Australian markets are pricing in a quarter-point cut at the RBA’s today’s meeting.
Kuroda’s comments, made in an emergency statement just days after a similar move by Fed Chair Jerome Powell, were welcomed by markets as a signal the world’s biggest central banks were mustering a coordinated response to the crisis, and world stock markets regained a measure of calm yesterday. China, for its part, has injected large amounts of liquidity to shore up market confidence.
The coronavirus outbreak will have a major impact on economic growth worldwide this year, the OECD warned yesterday as it lowered its global GDP forecast by half a percentage point to 2.4 percent, the lowest rate since the 2008-09 financial crisis. That forecast assumes the virus outbreak fades this year, but a more severe outbreak “would weaken prospects considerably”, the group of free-market economies said.
Already the global economy risks an outright contraction in the first quarter, the OECD said, in its first comprehensive study of the impact on the world’s major economies. Stock markets plummeted worldwide last week as investors fled to bonds and other safe havens on fears that consumer and business spending will freeze up as the virus spreads, curtailing corporate profits. In China, where the virus COVID-19 emerged in December, annual GDP growth is expected to reach just 4.9 percent, a 0.8 point drop from the OECD’s original growth forecasts announced last November.
The central People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has also told banks to help firms struggling with repayments by extending loans and not penalize them if they are late with payments. “Policymakers and the credit rating agencies have taken a ‘wait-and-see’ approach to the situation, although – as usual – the relative order of willingness to act re: events with policy action was confirmed this past week,” said Erik Nielsen, group chief economist at UniCredit.
In Australia, financial regulators held an emergency meeting to discuss the economic impact of the outbreak, two sources told Reuters, as markets moved to price in a central bank rate cut as early as this week. “A rate cut only helps a little bit, by easing debt service costs. But it does little if anything to solve the bigger problems of cash flow interruption,” said Rob Carnell, Asia- Pacific chief economist at ING in Singapore. “This is where the BoJ’s special loans … and the PBOC’s suggested easing of banks’ response to late or delinquent loans is closer to what is needed.”
China’s factory activity suffered the sharpest contraction on record in February, the Caixin/Markit Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) showed, underlining the crippling effects of tough travel curbs and public health measures taken to contain the outbreak. That followed the Chinese government’s similarly dire PMI release at the weekend, which also showed a record pace of decline.
And while the manufacturing downturn in the euro zone eased last month the virus outbreak is starting to weigh on a post-election recovery in Britain’s manufacturing sector, where factories reported a big jump in delays in their supply chains. “Should disruptions continue in China and even spread to other economies, as is looking increasingly likely given the recent news flow, then we could see supply- and demand-side constraints come into effect and the decline in production accelerate anew,” said IHS Markit economist Phil Smith.
The slump in China, the world’s second-largest economy, dealt a severe blow to factories across Asia, including those in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, offering the clearest evidence yet of the epidemic’s damaging effects on global growth and businesses. “The slump in manufacturing activity looks to have had a significant impact on trade,” Capital Economics wrote in a research note on the Caixin PMI. “The PMIs also point to a major hit to employment, the effects of which will take longer to reverse. And with the jump in virus cases overseas, there is a growing risk of a protracted downturn in foreign demand.”
Japan’s PMI showed its factory activity was hit by the sharpest contraction in nearly four years in February, reinforcing expectations the economy may have slipped into recession. Separate data showed Japanese firms cut spending on plant and equipment in the quarter to December, casting doubt on the Bank of Japan’s view that robust domestic demand will make up for some of the weakness in exports. “Near-term prospects for Japan’s industrial sector appear very bleak,” said Joe Hayes, economist at IHS Markit, which compiles the survey.
South Korea’s factory activity also shrank faster in February, as export orders contracted at the quickest pace in over six years in a shattering blow to production. Activity in Vietnam and Taiwan, two key economies in the global technology supply chain, slipped into contraction from growth the month earlier. Among Asian economies less reliant on global trade, growth in India’s factory sector eased slightly from a near eight-year high in January while Indonesia’s factory sector returned to growth. – Agencies