Asian markets fluctuated Wednesday, with little sign of any relief from recent dour performances as investors remain fearful about the economic outlook owing to the impact of inflation, higher interest rates, China’s slowdown and the Ukraine war.
A series of weak indicators around the world and downbeat forecasts from big firms have chilled trading floors in recent weeks as the surge in prices begins to drag on consumer confidence, with warnings now swirling of a possible global recession.
The tech sector was again in the firing line after Snap, the parent of social media app Snapchat, provided a gloomy economic outlook, sending its shares diving more than 40 percent.
Wall Street titans followed Snap down, with Facebook-parent Meta and Google-parent Alphabet tanking.
Tokyo, Hong Kong and Jakarta were down while Shanghai, Sydney, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei and Manila rose.
The mood was not helped by news that US new home sales tanked in April while the Richmond Fed manufacturing index also fell, with both at the lowest levels since the pandemic began in 2020.
“The market is moving its focus — and has been for the last month or so — from inflation concerns to growth concerns,” said Ellen Hazen, of FL Putnam.
Investors are now wearily looking to the Fed’s next move on interest rates, with expectations for more half-point hikes to come as officials struggle to bring inflation down from four-decade highs.
There was a little hope after one policymaker, Atlanta Fed chief Raphael Bostic, suggested a break in the increases in September could make sense as the bank tries to avert a recession.
National Australia Bank’s Tapas Strickland said while it was not clear that the Fed was close to being more supportive of markets, “it is clear that growth headwinds are becoming more evident in the data, particularly stemming from the profit reporting season”.
“The Fed of course remains focused on inflation, but if inflation reads were to start to moderate, then Bostic has opened up the possibility of a Fed pause.”
Meanwhile, China continues to struggle with the fast-spreading Omicron variant, with leaders sticking to their zero-Covid strategy despite the dire impact on the economy of lockdowns.
And with no easing of that policy in sight, observers warned that a series of recent support measures would not be enough to lift optimism.
“Fiscal multipliers will be minimal in an economy where economic interaction and activity have slowed sharply,” said Stephen Innes of SPI Asset Management.
“Moving beyond mobility restrictions in short order is a pre-condition, but not a guarantee, for an Asia-led economic recovery.”
– Key figures at around 0230 GMT –
Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.1 percent at 26,713.08 (break)
Hong Kong – Hang Seng Index: DOWN 0.2 percent at 20,074.59
Shanghai – Composite: UP 0.2 percent at 3,076.11
Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.0709 from $1.0739 on Tuesday
Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2524 from $1.2535
Euro/pound: DOWN at 85.50 pence from 85.64 pence
Dollar/yen: UP at 127.13 yen from 126.86 yen
Brent North Sea crude: UP 1.2 percent at $114.93 per barrel
West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 1.2 percent at $111.08 per barrel
New York – Dow: UP 0.2 percent at 31,928.62 (close)
London – FTSE 100: DOWN 0.4 percent at 7,484.35 (close)
US recession would be ‘necessary price’ to defeat inflation: IMF chief
With inflation rising sharply, and the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, the United States is facing an increased risk of a downturn, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said Friday.
But any temporary pain caused by a recession would be “a necessary price to pay” to defeat damaging inflation, she said.
The Washington-based crisis lender again slashed its US growth forecast to 2.9 percent, from the 3.7 percent forecast in April, which was cut from the rate predicted at the start of the year.
The world’s largest economy rebounded strongly from the pandemic downturn, but that has come with “unwelcome side effects” of rising prices, Georgieva said.
While the IMF is confident the Fed’s rate hikes will bring down inflation, “We are conscious that there is a narrowing path to avoiding a recession,” she said in a statement.
The Fed last week implemented the biggest increase in its benchmark lending rate in nearly 30 years, as part of its aggressive effort to quell inflation that is at a four-decade high and squeezing American families struggling with rising prices for gasoline, food and housing.
The US economy already was seeing strong demand clashing with supply snarls due to pandemic lockdowns in China and elsewhere, when Russia invaded Ukraine, which has intensified the inflationary pressures.
For 2023, growth is expected to slow to 1.7 percent, but “narrowly avoid” a recession, according to the annual review of the US economy, known as the Article IV consultation.
The IMF chief said the battle against inflation must be the “top priority” despite the impact a US slowdown might have on the global economy.
“Success over time will be beneficial for global growth, but some pain to get to that success can be a necessary price to pay,” she said in response to a question from AFP.
Georgieva met with US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the officials “left no doubt as to their commitment to bring inflation back down.”
Nigel Chalk, deputy chief of the IMF’s Western Hemisphere division, said any US recession is likely to be short-lived, given the stockpile of savings and strong business and household balance sheets, and the strong labor market.
“All of those things would help support the economy,” he said. “So if it was hit by negative shock, it should pass relatively quickly and have a relatively quick recovery afterwards.”
– Roll back tariffs –
The IMF also urged Washington to remove punitive trade duties imposed under former president Donald Trump — something President Joe Biden said he is considering and Yellen appears to favor.
“Especially at a time when inflation is high and supply chains are strained… we can see clear benefits in rolling back the tariffs that were introduced over the last 5 years,” Georgieva said in a statement.
However, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has said the steep tariffs on China offer negotiating “leverage” with Beijing which she is reluctant to give up.
The IMF report said removing tariffs on steel, aluminum, and a range of products from China “would support growth and help reduce inflation.”
The rapid US recovery, helped by low interest rates and hefty government aid, had domestic benefits, reducing poverty and creating more than 8.5 million jobs since the end of 2020, according to the IMF analysis.
It also offered a boost to the pandemic-ravaged global economy, but fund economists cautioned that it will be “tricky” to avoid recession.
“The stakes are clearly high. Misjudging the policy mix — in either direction — will result in sizable economic costs at home and negative outward spillovers to the global economy.”
However, the report pushed back against comparisons to the inflationary era of the 1980s, noting the economy and the central bank actions are “markedly different.”
Global trade unions urge UK to resolve rail strike row
International transport trade unions on Friday urged London to negotiate a swift end to Britain’s biggest rail strike in over 30 years, on the eve of the latest walkout.
More than 100 unions have written an open letter to UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps calling on him to help settle the bitter row over pay, as surging inflation sparks growing industrial unrest.
The letter, coordinated by the International Transport Workers’ Federation, comes one day before the third of this week’s three rail strikes.
“We are writing to call on you to meet with the transport unions to discuss rail workers’ concerns and enable the unions to reach a negotiated settlement to the disputes with rail employers,” the letter read.
And it called upon the government to “defend rail workers’ jobs, pay, conditions and pensions”.
Shapps has so far refused to get involved in negotiations, arguing that they should be held between workers’ trade unions, Network Rail and private-sector railway operating firms.
The letter was signed by unions from across the world, including Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East.
“We are shocked that … the UK government is set to impose cuts to railway services and scrap infrastructure projects at exactly the time when it should be investing, expanding and promoting public transport, especially the railways to help reduce global emissions from transport,” the letter continued.
“We call on you to do what’s right by these workers and their communities, and call on you to meet urgently with the transport unions.”
The RMT rail union insists strikes are necessary as wages have failed to keep pace with UK inflation, which has hit a 40-year high and is on course to keep rising.
The RMT also accuses Shapps of having “wrecked” negotiations by not allowing Network Rail to withdraw a letter threatening redundancies of 2,900 RMT members.
However, Shapps has called that “a total lie”.
Rail staff went on strike on Tuesday and Thursday — and are also set to do so on Saturday in the absence of a deal.
A Department for Transport spokesperson denied that the government had sought to obstruct any agreement.
“It is entirely false to claim the government is blocking negotiations,” the spokesperson stated.
“We have said from the outset we urge the unions and industry to agree a deal that is fair for railway staff, passengers and taxpayers.”
Separately, British Airways workers at London’s Heathrow airport voted on Thursday to strike over pay.
Members of the GMB and Unite trade unions overwhelmingly backed action and warned of a “summer of strikes” as the nation’s cost-of-living crisis worsens.
Ryanair, Brussels Airlines strikes disrupt Europe air travel
Strikes by staff at Ryanair and Brussels Airlines over pay and working conditions on Friday forced the cancelation of dozens of flights in Europe as the busy summer travel season gets underway.
The strikes are adding more headaches to passengers and the aviation sector, which has struggled with staff shortages as it struggle to recruit people after massive layoffs during the Covid pandemic.
Ryanair cabin crew unions in Spain, Portugal and Belgium called a three-day strike starting on Friday, and in Italy and France on Saturday.
The biggest impact was felt in Belgium, where the work stoppage led Europe’s biggest budget airline to cancel 127 flights to and from Charleroi airport near Brussels between Friday and Sunday.
Ryanair could only guarantee 30-40 percent of its scheduled flights at the airport, said a spokeswoman for Brussels South Charleroi Airport.
The situation in Belgium was further complicated by a three-day strike by staff at Brussels Airlines, a unit of German airline Lufthansa, which began on Thursday.
The company has cancelled 315 flights to and from Brussels’ international airport during the three-day strike.
The impact of the Ryanair strike was more limited in Portugal, where only two flights we cancelled on Friday morning, according to the SNPVAC union behind the walkout in the country.
It expects the strike to gain force later in the day.
In Spain, where Ryanair employs 1,900 people, no flights we cancelled except those heading to Belgium.
“We didn’t even know there was a strike…we didn’t have any problem at all,” said Manuel Carrion, a Spanish passenger with a Ryanair flight at Madrid airport.
Spain’s transport ministry on Thursday ordered Ryanair to operate 73 percent to 82 percent of flights over the strike period to maintain minimum services.
It argued there needs to be a balance between the “right to strike” and the “interest of travellers”.
– Threats –
But unions said Ryanair had gone beyond what was required and forced staff to maintain 100 percent of flights. Unions said they would take Ryanair to court as a result.
“The company informed staff that all flights were subject to the minimum service, and threated them with disciplinary action,” Ernesto Iglesias of local USO told reporters at Madrid airport.
The airline was not “respecting the law,” he added.
Ryanair cabin crew unions in Spain have called another strike from June 30 to July 2.
A strike on the weekend of June 12 and 13 already prompted the cancellation of about 40 Ryanair flights in France, or about a quarter of the total.
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has been dismissive of the strikes, saying earlier this month that most of the company’s flights “will continue to operate even if there is a strike in Spain by some Mickey Mouse union or if the Belgian cabin crew unions want to go on strike.”
– ‘Pushed to the brink’ –
Ryanair’s low-cost rival easyJet also faces nine days of strikes on different days in July at the Barcelona, Malaga and Palma de Mallorca airports.
British Airways workers at London’s Heathrow airport have voted to strike over pay as the cost-of-living crisis worsens in the UK, though no dates were set yet.
The strikes come as air travel has rebounded since Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted.
But the staff shortages have forced airlines to cancel flights, with German carrier Lufthansa cancelling more than 3,000 of them during the summer holidays.
On Monday, the European Transport Workers’ Federation called “on passengers not to blame the workers for the disasters in the airports, the cancelled flights, the long queues and longer time for check-ins, and lost luggage or delays caused by decades of corporate greed and a removal of decent jobs in the sector.”
The Federation said it expects “the chaos the aviation sector is currently facing will only grow over the summer as workers are pushed to the brink.”
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