Europe dragged into record recession in battle to halt coronavirus

Europe’s economy is taking a battering not seen in decades, the outcome of severe restrictions on businesses and households by governments desperately trying to contain a pandemic that’s killed almost 17 000 people worldwide.

The first major numbers outlining the damage tell a story of companies seeing demand plunge at a record pace, activity shrinking and confidence dropping. Government leaders, who’ve said the continent is fighting a war, have pledged massive stimulus to cushion the blow and protect jobs, as have central banks, but the measures will almost certainly not prevent a deep recession this year.

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The scale of the challenge was laid bare Tuesday in the monthly Purchasing Managers Indexes from IHS Markit. The euro-area measure for manufacturing and services dropped to the lowest since the series began in 1998.

Germany’s struggling manufacturing industry slipped deeper into recession, while France also registered sharp declines.

“The near term economic outlook is terrible,” said Stephen King, senior economic adviser at HSBC Holdings Plc. “There should be no surprise about these numbers given what is going on and that they confirm what we knew from China earlier.”

The figures may not capture the full extent of the downturn because of the way the hit to supply chains is distorting the results. Just hours before the euro-area PMI, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said the region’s economy could shrink more than 11% quarter-on-quarter in the three months through June.

“Only a foolish optimist would have expected otherwise during the current supply and demand shock that the economy is facing,” Bert Colijn, senior economist at ING, wrote of the PMI. “The survey likely still understates March activity as more restrictive measures came into effect after the survey was conducted.”

That gloomy picture is being replicated across the world as countries try to stem the spread of the disease. IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva warned Monday that the global economy is facing a slump “at least as bad as during the global financial crisis or worse.”

In Australia, the composite PMI dropped to a record low in March, while Japan’s fell to the weakest since 2011. Services led the declines in both countries.

The U.K. figures painted another bleak picture, dropping to a series low. A separate report from the Confederation of British Industry underscored the pessimism among manufacturers, who anticipate the weakest output since the financial crisis over the next three months.

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Investor concern has sparked a panicked selloff in equity markets. The Stoxx Europe 600 Index has fallen more than 30% in the past month, effectively wiping out almost seven years of gains. The S&P 500 is at the lowest since 2016.

The airline industry is among the worst hit, and companies including Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa have been forced to ground thousands of planes. Countless jobs are at risk because of closures of stores, restaurants and hotels, while manufacturing has also been disrupted by national lockdowns.

Warnings about the depth of the slump having been coming almost daily.

At the weekend, Morgan Stanley said that U.S. gross domestic product could fall at an annual rate of 30% in the second quarter, driving up unemployment to average 12.8%. Federal Reserve policy maker James Bullard offered an even worse prediction that the jobless rate could rise to 30%. Markit’s U.S. PMI, due later on Tuesday, is forecast to show sharp contractions in both manufacturing and services this month.

Bloomberg Economics says the global economy will shrink almost 2% year-on-year in the first half, with the euro-area suffering the worst back to back quarterly contractions in its history. While a pickup is expected later this year, “a lot needs to go right” for that to happen, according to Tom Orlik, BE chief economist.

Central banks are continuing their firefight, with almost 40 interest-rate cuts last week alone.

The Fed unexpectedly announced more huge measures on Monday, saying it will buy unlimited amounts of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities to keep borrowing costs at rock-bottom levels. Both the Bank of England and the European Central Bank have also announced huge expansions of their asset-purchase programs.

(Updates to add quote, CBI report from fifth paragraph)

--With assistance from Zoe Schneeweiss, Piotr Skolimowski and Paul Gordon.

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