Equity markets tumbled again Tuesday to extend a global rout fuelled by fears of recession, with the Federal Reserve preparing to ramp up interest rates as inflation shows no sign of slowing.
Panic has swept through trading floors since data on Friday showed US consumer prices rising at their fastest pace in a generation owing to a spike in energy and food costs caused by the Ukraine war, China’s lockdowns and supply chain snarls.
The pain has been felt across all assets, with bitcoin threatening to fall below $20,000 for the first time since December 2020, currencies retreating against the dollar, and even safe-haven plays including the yen and gold feeling the squeeze.
Investors are now laser-focused on Wednesday’s Fed interest rate decision as it struggles to walk a fine line between reining in inflation and trying to keep the economy on track.
Danielle DiMartino Booth, at Quill Intelligence, said: “While tightening into a recession is no easy task, the Federal Reserve must indicate a willingness to raise interest rates by more than a half-percentage point at upcoming meetings if inflation continues to surprise to the upside.”
But JP Morgan Asset Management’s warned: “While there is no doubt that inflation is a considerable challenge for the US at this point, slamming on the brakes too hard risks pushing the economy off its track.”
Before Friday’s news, expectations had been for a 50-point basis hike and a signal that more of the same was to come at the next few meetings. But now analysts say there is a one-in-three chance officials could announce a three-quarter point increase, with some even predicting a one percentage point hike.
That has ramped up fears that the world’s top economy is heading for a recession, and on Monday Wall Street plunged with the broad-based S&P 500 sinking into a bear market after dropping more than 20 percent from its recent peak.
And the selling continued in Asia, with Sydney tanking five percent at one point as it reopened after a holiday weekend to catch up with Monday’s drama, while Tokyo was off around two percent and Wellington more than three percent.
Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei and Manila were also deep in the red.
Commentators warned that the Fed was in a tough place on what to do Wednesday. A decision to lift rates more than 0.50 percentage points could signal its determination to finally defeat inflation but also hit its credibility as it confuses officials’ signals to traders.
“Once the Fed starts moving in 75s it would be hard to stop, and the combination of this and the Fed’s outcome-based approach to inflation feels like it could be a recipe for recession,” said Evercore ISI’s Krishna Guha and Peter Williams.
Bets on a more aggressive approach have sent the dollar spiralling higher against other currencies, hitting a 24-year high Monday against the yen and a record peak on the Indian rupee.
Both units have clawed back some of the losses but remain under severe pressure, while the euro is in danger of hitting a two-decade low. The pound is at its weakest level in two years.
And bitcoin remains in the firing line, hitting $20,823 for the first time since December 2020, with selling compounded by news that crypto lending platform Celsius Network had paused withdrawals owing to volatile conditions. The announcement raised worries about a possible contagion for other firms.
– Key figures at around 0250 GMT –
Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 2.0 percent at 26,446.82 (break)
Hong Kong – Hang Seng Index: DOWN 0.7 percent at 20,926.15
Shanghai – Composite: DOWN 0.5 percent at 3237.98
Dollar/yen: DOWN at 134.40 yen from 134.42 yen late Monday
Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.0408 from $1.0412
Pound/dollar: UP at $1.2142 from $1.2136
Euro/pound: DOWN at 85.71 pence from 85.76 pence
Brent North Sea crude: UP 0.2 percent at $122.45 per barrel
West Texas Intermediate: UP 0.2 percent at $121.13 per barrel
New York – Dow: DOWN 2.8 percent at 30,516.74 (close)
London – FTSE 100: DOWN 1.5 percent at 7,205.81 (close)
— Bloomberg News contributed to this story —
Keeping China fed as inflation surges brings risk for commodity prices
Bedevilled by high fuel and fertiliser costs, along with a labour crisis driven by Covid-19 restrictions, China risks a smaller autumn harvest that could supercharge demand for commodities just as the world can afford it least.
Global food prices have spiked since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, a major world producer of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, driving costs to record highs.
Moscow stands accused of pushing the globe to the brink of catastrophe by blockading Ukrainian ports and seizing commodity stocks, driving up prices and leaving the world’s poorest nations facing hunger.
China is relatively self-reliant, producing more than 95 percent of its needs in rice, wheat and maize.
But relentless Covid disruptions — caused by restrictions on the movement of goods and farm workers — on top of higher fertiliser and fuel costs and issues with access to equipment, threaten the autumn harvest of key crops such as soybean and corn.
Experts caution even a small rise in demand from the world’s most populous nation could drive global commodity costs up sharply.
“The last thing the global market needs right now is for China to become a more active buyer,” said Even Pay, an agriculture analyst with consultancy Trivium China.
Corn prices hit a nine-year high in April, while soybean prices traded near a 10-year high this month.
China is the last major economy to adhere to a zero-Covid policy.
How that manifests itself in the next harvest is uncertain, but Pay said “last-mile logistics” have been complicated by virus restrictions in rural areas afraid of the spread of the disease.
“Villages have been very resistant to letting outsiders in during Covid-control periods,” she added.
If China ends up going to the global market to fill any shortfall, there will be “a big impact” on prices, said Darin Friedrichs, co-founder of agriculture research firm Sitonia Consulting.
– Seeds of doubt –
For now, Beijing is keeping a close eye on the country’s wheat harvest.
At a meeting last month, Premier Li Keqiang said a strong summer harvest with manageable prices depended in part on “unimpeded” access of workers and machines to wheat-growing provinces from eastern Anhui to northern Shanxi.
China has harvested about 80 percent of its winter wheat crop so far, according to state media, although Friedrichs cautioned that prices are 25 percent higher than last year, at about 3,000 yuan ($450) per tonne.
While a decent wheat harvest is good news to world markets, “Covid-related disruptions haven’t gone away”, according to Pay, who added that prices of fertilisers and fuels were riding high.
China has “massively ramped up its wheat, corn, barley purchases” in recent years, from below 20 million tonnes a year around four years ago to some 50 million tonnes now, according to Andrew Whitelaw, an analyst at Thomas Elder Markets.
But global inflation and uncertainty will make it expensive for China to import more.
Already, China has bought newly harvested wheat for its reserves at sky-high prices this month.
The political dimension of feeding China’s vast population has not been lost on Beijing.
President Xi Jinping has said China should make “unrelenting efforts to ensure grain security”, state media reported.
The issue has grown in importance since 2020, when the coronavirus spread worldwide, said Friedrichs.
“There were worries about global disruptions to supply chains, and now we have the global food crisis — that’s redoubled focus on food security,” he said.
VW faces Brazil hearing over dictatorship-era slavery claims
German carmaker Volkswagen faces an audience with Brazilian prosecutors Tuesday over allegations of human-rights violations at a farm it ran during Brazil’s military dictatorship, including slave labor, rapes and beatings.
Prosecutors have assembled a 90-page dossier they say documents years of atrocities committed by Volkswagen managers and hired guns at a cattle ranch the company owned in the Amazon rainforest basin in the 1970s and 80s.
In the latest attempt to bring justice for abuses committed under Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime, the federal prosecutor’s office for labor affairs summoned VW representatives to a hearing in Brasilia to answer for evidence of abuses including torture and killings at the property in the northern state of Para, known as Fazenda Vale do Rio Cristalino.
“There were grave and systematic violations of human rights, and Volkswagen is directly responsible,” lead prosecutor Rafael Garcia told AFP.
The audience will be an initial contact “to see if it’s possible to reach a settlement” without opening criminal proceedings, he said.
Volkswagen has declined to comment on specifics of the case, saying it first needs “clarity on all the allegations.”
But the company is “committed to contributing very seriously to the investigations,” a spokeswoman for Volkswagen Brasil told AFP by email.
In 2020, Volkswagen agreed to pay 36 million reais ($6.4 million at the time) in compensation for collaborating with Brazil’s secret police during the dictatorship to identify suspected leftist opponents and union leaders at its local operation, who were then detained and tortured.
– Crusading priest –
That settlement caught the eye of Ricardo Rezende, a Catholic priest who spent years compiling evidence of abuses at Volkswagen’s farm after moving to Para in 1977 and hearing what he says were horrifying stories from victims.
Rezende wondered if the company could also be held to account for that case, and decided to share his files with prosecutors, he told AFP.
“You can’t fix someone suffering torture by paying reparations. The suffering of the women whose sons and husbands went to the farm and never came back — there’s no reparation for that pain,” said the priest, now 70.
“But there could be a symbolic reparation. I think it’s necessary.”
Rezende’s hundreds of pages of testimony and other documents convinced prosecutors to launch a task force, which spent three years assembling evidence — boiled down to the dossier they will now present to VW.
In it, victims tell investigators of being lured to the 70,000-hectare (173,000-acre) farm with false promises of lucrative jobs, then forced to cut down the jungle under grueling conditions for Volkswagen’s cattle ranch, which became the biggest in Para for a time.
Workers were kept in “debt-slavery” by being forced to buy food and supplies from the farm at exorbitant prices, prosecutors said.
Those who tried to escape were beaten, tied to trees and left for days by armed guards who kept violent watch over the workforce, they said.
In one case, three witnesses said gunmen kidnapped a worker’s wife and raped her as punishment after he tried to escape.
“There were extremely grave abuses,” said Rezende, who estimates hundreds and probably thousands of workers were essentially enslaved from 1974 to 1986.
– VW in the jungle? –
What was a German automaker doing raising cattle in the Brazilian Amazon in the first place?
The story is a window on how the military regime saw the Amazon, and helps explain why the world’s biggest rainforest is threatened today.
It was a time when Brazil was urgently pushing to develop the rainforest, which the regime saw as backwards, luring settlers with promised riches and the slogan: “Land without men for men without land.”
The government also lured companies. Volkswagen benefited from tax exemptions and negative-interest loans for cutting down the forest to develop a farm, not to mention close ties with the regime, Rezende said.
“On the one hand, Volkswagen loved the dictatorship. On the other, it was a highly profitable business,” he said.
“It could have 6,000 people working almost for free.”
Authorities say such practices were widespread in the Amazon region, even after the dictatorship.
Holding other companies to account would depend on gathering sufficient evidence, Garcia said.
US approves first pill for treatment of alopecia
The Food and Drug Administration on Monday approved a drug called baricitinib as the first oral tablet for treating severe alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder affecting more than 300,000 people in the United States every year.
Alopecia causes either temporary or permanent patchy hair loss that can affect any hair-bearing site of the body, leading to emotional distress. The condition has come to the fore recently through high-profile cases including Hollywood actress Jada Pinkett Smith and congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.
“Access to safe and effective treatment options is crucial for the significant number of Americans affected by severe alopecia,” said FDA official Kendall Marcus in a statement.
“Today’s approval will help fulfill a significant unmet need for patients with severe alopecia areata.”
Baricitinib, which is made by US pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and known by the trade name Olumiant, belongs to a class of drugs called Janus kinase inhibitors. It works by interfering with the cellular pathway that leads to inflammation.
Its approval for use against alopecia was based on the results of two randomized, controlled clinical trials involving a total 1,200 adults with severe alopecia.
Each trial split participants into three groups: a placebo group, a group that received a two-milligram dose every day, and a group that received a four-milligram dose every day.
After 36 weeks, almost 40 percent of those on the higher dose grew back 80 percent of their scalp hair, compared to around 23 percent of the lower dose group, and five percent of the placebo group.
Around 45 percent of people in the higher dose group also saw significant eyebrow and eyelash regrowth.
The most common side effects included upper respiratory tract infections, headaches, acne, high cholesterol, and increase of an enzyme called creatinine phosphokinase.
Prior treatments for alopecia included topical or oral drugs, but these have been considered experimental and none was approved.
Baricitinib was previously approved for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, and during the Covid pandemic its license was extended to the treatment of hospitalized Covid patients.
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