Fresh evidence points to paralysis of global economy
Data from US and Japan triggered fears that the downturn has turned into the worst slump since the 1930s!
Larry Elliott, economics editor
The sharpest contraction in US growth for more than a quarter of a century, a collapse in Japanese factory output and an emergency package of help for the struggling countries in Eastern Europe provided fresh grim evidence today of the paralysis in the global economy.
Amid fears that the downturn triggered by the credit crunch has turned into the worst slump in output since the 1930s, data from Washington showed that the havoc wreaked by the problems on Wall Street last Autumn was far worse than originally believed.
American gross domestic product in the final three months of 2008 declined at an annual rate of 6.2%, much weaker than the earlier estimate of a 3.8% fall and the worst performance by the world’s biggest economy since early 1982.
A breakdown of the data revealed that consumer spending, exports and investment in commercial property were all even lower than originally believed, although the main reason for the downward revision to growth was that the build up of inventories by companies was far less pronounced than originally believed.
Analysts said there had been no let-up in the bad news since the turn of the year and the markets are now braced for payroll figures next Friday to show that around 750,000 jobs were lost in the US during February, with worse to come in future months.
Rob Carnell, economist at ING Financial Markets, said: “Data released so far in the first quarter of 2009 suggest that we are in for another horror story, with new record lows being set in consumer confidence, accelerating declines in the labour market [we may be nearing a million payrolls losses per month before long] and further severe contractions for business investment.” Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics said he did not expect the US economy to begin expanding again until 2010 and even then the recovery was likely to be “muted”.
Meanwhile, there was also grim news from the world’s second biggest economy, with industrial production dropping 10% between December and January and real household spending 5.9% lower last month than it was in January 2008. Exports from Japan have been severely impaired by the retrenchment in the US and much slower levels of growth in China.
Three development institutions - the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development today announced a €24.5bn (£22bn) loan programme to help central and eastern Europe, where plunging industrial production and falling currencies have raised concerns that the region will become the scene for the next stage of the global crisis.
The three banks said the two-year plan would provide quick, large-scale financing to banks and ensure smaller companies would not be shut off from capital, but the markets - which believe a much bigger package will be necessary to prevent economic collapse - greeted the plan coolly. The Hungarian government will tell an EU summit on Sunday that the money from the World Bank, the EIB and the EBRD needs to be multiplied 10 times for central Europe alone.
Under the development bank plan, the EBRD will provide up to €6bn euros this year and next to the region’s financial sector, which will include trade finance through banks.
The EIB said it will lend €11bn to businesses in central, eastern and southern Europe, of which €5.7bn is ready to be disbursed, and a further €2.8bn should be approved by the end of April.
The Washington-based World Bank said it intends to propose lending and political risk guarantees of up to €7.5bn for banks, infrastructure projects and trade financing. Its president Robert Zoellick said earlier this week that $120bn (£84bn) could be needed to recapitalise Eastern Europe’s banking system, which has seen the large sums invested by Western banks during the boom years disappear during the credit crunch.
“It (the €24.5bn package) sounds like a lot of money, but when (commercial) banks have lent Eastern Europe about 1.7 trillion dollars, 25 billion is peanuts,” said Nigel Rendell, emerging markets strategist at Royal Bank of Canada in London.
“Ultimately we will have to get a much bigger package and a coordinated response from the IMF, the European Union and maybe the G7.”