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What In The World Is Going On? Global Lockdown Recession Recovery Underway

Published 09/22/2020, 01:10 AM
Updated 07/09/2023, 06:31 AM

There has never been a recession like the one that hit the global economy earlier this year. It was truly global because every country in the world experienced an economic downturn as almost all governments around the world responded to the pandemic by imposing lockdown restrictions to slow the spread of the virus. China (in late January) and Italy (in early March) did so before the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the pandemic on March 11. Almost everyone else followed suit immediately after the WHO declaration. While the pandemic continues to plague the world with new outbreaks and waves of infection, the global economy has recovered in recent months. Let’s take a world tour to assess the strength and sustainability of the recovery:

(1) Global PMIs and leading indicators. It’s been a V-shaped recovery according to the global PMIs (purchasing managers indexes) for both advanced and emerging economies as well as for both manufacturing and non-manufacturing around the world (Fig. 1 andFig. 2). The global composite PMI—which combines the global manufacturing indexes (M-PMIs) and non-manufacturing indexes (NM-PMIs)—rebounded from a record low of 26.2 during April to 52.4 during August, the best reading since March 2019. That’s certainly a V-shaped recovery.

Not surprisingly, leading on the way down and on the way up was the NM-PMI for advanced economies. As a result of social distancing, this has been the first-ever global recession led by services-producing industries. It hit the global economy hard during March and April. The gradual easing in lockdown restrictions led to a solid rebound in both non-manufacturing and manufacturing industries since the April bottom.

The index of OECD leading indicators confirms the V-shaped recession and recovery for the advanced economies. It plunged from 99.4 during January to a record low of 93.2 during April, and rebounded to 98.3 during August (Fig. 3). Here are the three readings for January, April, and August for the US (99.3, 92.6, 97.6), Europe (99.5, 90.7, 98.3), and Japan (99.5, 98.3, 98.9). The OECD also compiles leading indicators for the BRIC countries. Here are their three readings for January, April, and August: Brazil (103.1, 93.3, 100.4), China (98.1, 94.9, 98.8), India (100.1, 87.1, 97.1), and Russia (99.7, 91.0, 98.7) (Fig. 4).

(2) Global production and exports. So far, we have data only through June for global industrial production and world exports (Fig. 5). They both show steep declines from December through April of 13.0% and 18.2%, respectively, and have rebounded 5.7% and 8.0% since then, through June.

The most current, and among the most relevant, export series for gauging the global economy is the one reported by China. The data we track are seasonally adjusted and available through August. Chinese exports (in yuan) plunged 42.1% from January through February, then rebounded through July to a record high; it dipped slightly in August, though still exceeded January’s reading by 9.1% (Fig. 6). That’s impressive.

(3) Commodity prices. Also impressive is the rebound in the CRB raw industrials spot price index, led by the price of copper (Fig. 7). Since March 23—when the Fed announced its policy response to the pandemic, which we call “QE4ever”—through Friday, September 11, the former is up 10%, while the latter is up 43%. The price of copper has rebounded from a low of $2.12 per pound on March 23 to $3.03 on Friday, September 11, holding near September 4’s $3.05, which was the best reading since June 20, 2018, i.e., when Trump started to escalate his administration’s trade wars.

My colleagues and I created a Global Growth Barometer (GGB), which simply averages the CRB index of industrial commodity prices with the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil (Fig. 8). It is very similar to the S&P Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI), which gives energy commodities a combined weight of 61.71%; that compares with the 50.00% weight that our GGB gives to oil. Recently, the price of oil dropped a bit on concerns about a slowdown in the global economic recovery, which hasn’t been confirmed by either the CRB index or the price of copper. Our GGB and the GSCI are up 19% and 29%, respectively, since March 23.

(4) Currencies. By the way, there continues to be a strong inverse correlation between commodity price indexes (using either our GGB or the GSCI) and the trade-weighted dollar (TWD) (Fig. 9). The relationship between the dollar and commodity prices is quite a bit easier to see on a chart than the relationship between the dollar and US fiscal and monetary policies relative to those of other major economies.

The TWD has dropped 7.5% through September 11 since peaking this year on March 23. That coincided with the rebound in our GGB. It also nearly reverses the 9.4% surge in the TWD since the start of this year through its recent peak, which coincided with the pandemic-related plunge in commodity prices.

I’ve often observed that the dollar tends to weaken when overseas economies are showing strength relative to the US economy. Rising commodity prices suggest that’s the case relative to countries that are commodity producers. The inverse correlation between the dollar and commodity prices is partly attributable to the strong correlation between commodity prices and the currencies of commodity-producing countries such as Australia and Canada (Fig. 10).

China’s economy fell into the pandemic-related recession earlier this year before the US did the same, and China’s recovery started a couple of months sooner than the recovery in the US. China also seems to have made more progress in ending the spread of the virus than elsewhere in the world. That helps to explain why the Chinese yuan is up 4.7% since May 28 through Friday, September 11 (Fig. 11).

For a few weeks during the summer, it seemed that Europeans were also making more progress in dealing with the pandemic than have Americans. That explains some of the 9.8% bounce in the euro since May 7 through Friday, September 11 (Fig. 12). But now that Europeans are returning from their long summer vacations, another wave of infection is hitting Europe.

However, the euro may continue to benefit from the perception that the pandemic has reduced, rather than increased, the likelihood of the disintegration of the European Union (EU) and the Eurozone. On July 20, the 27 EU governments reached a breakthrough agreement authorizing the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, to raise €750 billion to provide grants and loans to help member countries cover the costs of dealing with the pandemic.

This deal marks a precedent for common debt borrowing at the EU level, something that many countries, including Germany, opposed for a long time. But this oppositional stance had softened in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

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