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Covid lives on amid war, weak money and Joe Biden’s struggles



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Good evening,

One important thing to remember about our supposedly “post-Covid world” is that it is, as yet, far from being post-Covid.

Reports from China illustrate the point, with the government announcing that it will strictly limit its citizens going abroad. This is part of increasing official efforts to combat a coronavirus outbreak that has led to weeks of city lockdowns.

At the same time, President Xi Jinping prioritising the elimination of the virus is coming under pressure as a result of the economic strain it is causing. For example, China’s main financial centre Shanghai recently imposed restrictions on non-government food deliveries in the city.

Xi’s zero-Covid strategy threatens to crush economic growth and pile pressure on hard-pressed businesses, with the president this year seeking an unprecedented third term in office.

North Korea, meanwhile, has confirmed its first coronavirus cases and death since the pandemic’s beginning and imposed nationwide lockdowns. The country’s chief ally China has, despite its own problems, promised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un its “full support and assistance”.

North Korea is one of only two countries that have not yet initiated a Covid-19 vaccination programme. The other is Eritrea.

In Europe, Russia’s war in Ukraine has led to questions of who is going to pay for the damage. At the same time, farmers in Ukraine — some of the world’s most important agricultural producers — are accusing the Russian army of plundering their land.

What are the chances, however, of the war being brought to a negotiated end? Jonathan Powell, chief executive of charity Inter Mediate, which works to resolve armed conflicts around the world, says that those chances must be kept alive.

He criticises, for example, UK government ministers for “outcompeting each other to expand Ukrainian war aims with aggressive rhetoric”. The risk of a wider catastrophe must be managed by offering Russian president Vladimir Putin what, in ancient times, the Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu called a “golden bridge” to retreat over, he adds.

US president Joe Biden has a reputation for being a first class negotiator, stretching far back in his political career to the Salt talks of the 1970s. At this dangerous moment, however, he finds himself not in a position to take the advice of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger that it is unwise to be facing more than one major enemy at a time.

While it was Kissinger who attracted China into friendly relations with the US a half-century ago, Biden finds himself assailed by a diversity of enemies, among them the relatively realigned Russia and China.

As the FT’s Ed Luce writes, reflecting the views of CIA chief William Burns, the US is facing a new global realignment. All this, plus — in common with much of the world — inflation, too.

Taming fast rising prices, says US Federal Reserve chief Jay Powell, will “include some pain”.

This may well mean global recession. Tough times indeed.

Latest news

For up-to-the-minute news updates, visit our live blog

Need to know: the economy

European gas prices have soared after Russia imposed sanctions on EU energy companies. Moscow’s move reinforces Putin’s willingness to use energy as a weapon against the EU.

Norway’s oil fund has denounced “corporate greed” in executive pay. The world’s largest sovereign wealth fund has voted against remuneration packages at Intel, Apple, IBM and General Electric.

Latest for the UK and Europe

Allianz, Europe’s largest insurance company by market value, says it is highly likely to leave Russia. The move could hit the German company’s profits by as much as €500mn.

The controversy at Monte dei Paschi continues after executives at the world’s oldest bank were acquitted of helping hide more than €2bn in losses. The overturning of the convictions of 13 bankers in one of the biggest financial scandals in Italian history has drawn shocked reactions from local politicians and campaigners.

UK attitudes today are positive about high levels of immigration. With a growing sense that borders are under control, the appetite for hostile policies is shrinking, writes the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch.

Chart showing that before the EU referendum, anxiety over immigration rose in line with overseas arrivals. Since then immigration has kept rising, but concerns have evaporated

Global latest

Baltic states have hailed Finland and Sweden’s expected accession to Nato. The move will dramatically improve the security of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, say foreign ministers.

Diplomats face “one last chance” to revive Iran’s nuclear deal, writes former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian.

The cost of living crisis in Australia has raised the prospect of opposition leader Anthony Albanese becoming prime minister. Local alarm has also been sparked after a decision by the Solomon Islands, which is about 2,000km to the north-east of Australia, to sign a security pact with China.

Need to know: business

The sexist comments levelled at Aviva chief Amanda Blanc at the company’s annual shareholder meeting should not be seen as a one-off, writes Helen Thomas. Rare is the woman who has risen through the ranks in business without a few stories about feeling belittled, patronised, overlooked or excluded on account of her gender, she says.

As gloomy economic talk threatens to revive memories of the 1970s, rock group Pink Floyd are not complaining. They are selling their back catalogue for about $500mn, with Warner Music and KKR-backed BMG among those interested.

Science round up

As if to keep things in perspective and remind us that we live on a small piece of rock in the limitless universe, astronomers have unveiled the first images of the closest black hole to Earth. They hope to glean new information from it about mysterious celestial bodies.

There are clues but few answers to the childhood hepatitis mystery, writes Anjana Ahuja. Adenoviruses, Covid-19 and exposure to dogs have all been blamed for new cases around the world.

Covid cases and vaccinations

Total global cases: 515.2mn

Total doses given: 11.7bn

Get the latest worldwide picture with our vaccine tracker

And finally . . . 

Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe silkscreen
An Andy Warhol silkscreen sold for $195mn, just the week before a football shirt worn by Maradona fetched over £7mn © AP

Here are some reflections about the recent sale at auction of the shirt worn by Diego Maradona, when his footballing genius defeated England in the 1986 World Cup. As one who witnessed the event, I didn’t see which England player exchanged shirts at the end of the game with the Argentine star. But it was Steve Hodge who showed the enterprise to approach Maradona and ask for the shirt. Hodge played just three times for England and jobbed his way around numerous football clubs with a final brief spell at pride of London’s East End, Leyton Orient. The shirt at auction made more than £7mn. A nice bit of pension. Well done, Steve.

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Inflation and the economics of belonging



This article is an on-site version of Martin Sandbu’s Free Lunch newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every Thursday

Times of big global upheaval may not be good for the world, but the dirty secret of journalism is that regular opinion writers find them professionally quite rewarding. Books, however, are a different matter. The economic shocks have been rolling in so fast that the slow process of book publishing leaves years of painstaking work hostage to fortune. I finished my last book, The Economics of Belonging, in the early months of 2020, just too soon to discuss a pandemic that in weeks turned the global economy upside down.

The paperback edition, which came out in the US on Tuesday, gave me a chance to think about what has changed (though after I sent off the new preface, Russia attacked Ukraine, leaving the book outdated again). For me, the most “intriguing” thing about the pandemic is that some of the policies I advocated in the book suddenly fell massively into favour. They include strong macroeconomic stimulus for a “high-pressure economy”, policies helping to rebalance power in the labour market and the digital economy (and, of course, the combination of the two, where high demand pressure improves the bargaining power of workers), and easier conditions for leaving bad jobs to look for better ones. The US government’s “Bidenomics”, in particular, is a great test case.

In the book, I argued we had had far too few of these things in the past. The cost, I wrote, had been poor growth and productivity performance, and also rising unfairness because these outcomes disproportionately hurt those on lower wages and on the margins of the labour market. Among other things, I concluded it was crucial to be much less timid about macroeconomic demand stimulus.

This week, these arguments have been supplemented by new research from the Bank for International Settlements. Here are three key findings. First, on average, recessions increase inequality. Second, increases in inequality are sticky, and it does not quickly come back down by itself. This is called “inequality hysteresis” in the jargon. (The analogy is with the “hysteresis” where output lost in a downturn is gone forever as post-recession economies rarely return to their pre-recession path). And third, higher inequality blunts the normal macroeconomic policy tools used to fight inflations. Together, these findings imply there are several equilibrium paths that the economy could end up on: some where recessions are rarer or shallower, inequality is lower and output and productivity are higher; and some where recessions are more frequent or deeper, inequality is higher and output and productivity are lower. Which an economy follows depends in part on how much firepower policymakers are willing to use to keep economies growing, with particular concern for those at the bottom.

This is the background from which I have approached the great post-pandemic inflation debate. As I wrote very early on, a bout of inflation would be a welcome sign that we had got demand policies right. And I have argued that the subsequent increases were, in any case, due to, yes, transitory supply shocks. The fact that we have had one unforeseen supply shock after another — which nobody disputes — is not a reason to think each of them is not transitory.

But suppose it is true, as most people now seem to think, that record-high inflation is the price we are paying for a high-pressure demand policy, how well is that policy delivering for the price? Let us look at the US, which is clearly the economy that has taken most seriously the need for high-pressure demand if not in so many words.

Take productivity first. Increasing at an annual average rate of 1.1 per cent since end-2019, output per hour worked has performed reasonably well — better than in the immediate pre-pandemic years but still disappointing compared with the faster labour productivity growth of the more distant past. Note, however, that output in the US economy is greater today than projected before the pandemic — and you should pause to acknowledge what an extraordinary feat that is. At the same time, fewer people are in work than three years ago, and many fewer than would have been expected on the preceding trend. Put together, this means productivity is significantly higher than projected before the pandemic: output per hour has grown unexpectedly fast.

What about inequality? The great Atlanta Fed wage growth tracker usefully breaks down wage growth by wage level. As its chart (reproduced below) shows, wages are growing much faster among the poorest paid than among the highest paid, and this gap has been increasing fast — in fact, it is the highest on record. Caveat: these should not be seen as entirely real-time measures (they are 12-month moving averages of year-over-year wage changes for the same individuals). But the pattern shows convincingly that wages have become less unequal in the pandemic, that the most recent wage growth has been particularly strong at the low end and, therefore, that it is likely that the poorest have seen real wage increases even as the highest paid have seen real wage cuts. (Another caveat: the very richest are not captured; data shortcomings mean the tracker excludes those earning more than $150,000 a year.)

Line chart of Year-on-year US wage growth by wage level showing It's boom time for low-paid Americans

So far, then, the economics of belonging thesis is holding up quite well. Better wages at the bottom and higher productivity than expected are a pretty good reward for a rise in inflation — at least if inflation does indeed come down reasonably soon in the absence of new negative shocks to global supply. With US profits soaring as a share of real value added (see chart), there is little sign of unsustainable wage demands forcing companies to fuel price inflation. For more on this sort of argument, read Adam Tooze’s latest write-up on the debate over wage pressures on companies’ pricing. And remember that inflation was unexpectedly low in the previous decade, so the current increase just helps to bring price levels in line with what the Federal Reserve encouraged people to plan on when making long-term lending and borrowing decisions.

Chart showing US non-financial corporations' unit profits are at record highs

The contrast with other countries is instructive. In the UK, output has not held up as well as in the US. And the distribution of wages has behaved quite differently. As the chart below shows, in the second half of 2020 the lowest earners did best. But since then, the highest earners have caught up and then some, with the two years showing a clear widening of inequality.

Chart of UK monthly pay by percentile

Inflation rates, meanwhile, are comparable between the two countries. What accounts for the difference in the output and inequality developments that has come with this inflation? The likely answer is precisely the much punchier stimulus and more consciously redistributive policy choices in the US compared with the UK. We should not write off Bidenomics yet, nor accept the new narrative that all a high-pressure economy brings is immiserising inflation.

Other readables

  • A new paper contributes to the literature showing how financial crises can spawn political extremism. The study shows that greater exposure to foreign-currency loans in Hungary, which lead to greater financial distress as the exchange rate moves, results in greater support for the populist far right.

  • News in the world of universal basic income: US cities are experimenting with a UBI for artists, and a group of Polish municipalities plans a two-year UBI pilot for 5,000 people. In the UK, a new report by the organisation Compass calculates that a UBI amounting to £11,000 for a family of four could be funded by removing tax-free allowances, increasing tax rates by 3 percentage points and charging everyone the same national insurance rate.

  • The German soul-searching on how much to support Ukraine is fascinating. Jürgen Habermas, the greatest living German theorist of democracy, has weighed in on the side of caution. Adam Tooze puts the contribution in context. And Paul Mason argues convincingly why those on the left must reject Habermas.

Numbers news

  • UK consumer price inflation hit the highest rate in more than 40 years because of the recent jump in energy prices. It puts the country near the top of the inflation table among OECD economies.

    Chart of annual percentage change in consumer prices in April 2022 in the UK compared with selected countries
  • The cognitive impairment caused by severe Covid-19 is comparable to the decline that takes place between the ages of 50 and 70, according to new research.

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The recession session II | Financial Times



An internal staff memo from the desk of Greg Peters, co-chief investment officer of the $890bn asset manager PGIM Fixed Income, reaches our inbox. It makes some timely points so we’re sharing the highlights.

Peters has been around the block and knows his stuff. Despite being known internally for somewhat jazzy jackets, he has helped manage some of PGIM’s biggest strategies since joining in 2014 and before that led Morgan Stanley’s fixed income research.

It’s fair to say that his mood doesn’t currently match the brightness of his blazers. Here’s the main message of the memo, with our emphasis.

I want to take this moment to plainly and clearly reiterate my thoughts on the market and risk opportunities. I continue to assert and thus wish to restate that I believe it is entirely too early to dip your toe into the risk waters. The simple fact is that valuations are decidedly average and the tightening into a recession game hasn’t even yet begun in earnest. The persistent inflation backdrop increases my confidence in a central bank induced recession. Frankly, I don’t see another way out.

There’s some rubbernecking around crypto “getting smoked” and how it could escalate into a “full fledged meltdown” for the space, as well as a prediction that sterling is going to nosedive because “the unsteady BOE, fraught politics and Brexit are rearing their individual and collective ugly heads”.

But the central message of Peters’ memo is on his view that central banks globally are willing to sacrifice economic growth to combat inflationary pressures. And even setting aside how fiercely (or not) central banks will react to inflation, the economic impact of price rises is starting to become a major worry.

Walmart’s woeful results on Tuesday provided one of the strongest hints yet that some companies are struggling to pass cost pressures on to consumers. That raises broader worries about both corporate profit margins and the health of American spenders — two pretty important pillars of financial market returns in recent years.

Walmart’s share puke — now down 18 per cent over the past two sessions — has naturally hogged headlines. But on Wednesday, Target also warned that rising costs were eating into profits, hammering home that this is potentially a broader problem. The news sent its shares down nearly 25 per cent, while US consumer staples stocks, supposedly one of the steadiest, most defensive corners of markets, went down a whopping 6.4 per cent.

That dragged the S&P 500 down another 4 per cent on Wednesday to take its decline to 17.7 per cent this year. The Nasdaq slumped over 5 per cent to extend its 2022 loss to almost 27 per cent.

The breadth of the sell-off reeks of recession fear, triggered by consumer-hurting inflation. This has morphed from a spec-tech wreck, to a broad tech rout, and now to an unnervingly broad market decline.

Here’s more from Peters’ memo, with FTAV’s emphasis:

In my mind, CBs have worked too hard for too long to gain inflation fighter status that they are not going to casually throw away that hard earned credibility currency. I continue to look at the early 1980s as a guide where the Fed cranked up interest rates by 10% percentage points; killed the economy which prompted inflation to fall, which in turn allowed for a multiple decade backdrop of low inflation and a reasonably prosperous economy. Perhaps, the Fed wont hit it as hard as the early 1980s given the different secular factors that they face in the years and decade ahead — but they are still going to pump the economic brakes enough to turn growth negative. In my simple mind, it is an inevitable outcome and nothing more than the uncomfortable math of monetary policy.  

So yes, I have a very high probability of a recession over the next 12-24 months.

However, Peters reckons implications for markets is a bit more complex. Stocks have sold off and corporate bond spreads widened significantly, making valuations a bit less wild. But Peters still doesn’t think they are nearly compelling enough yet to start dip-buying, given the risks of recessions.

 I am very sure that if the economy hits a recession, spreads will widen. Actually, that recession/spread relationship might be the only universal truth that I can accept as true. Consequently, given that we are only at the average in spreads AND I think recession risk is elevated, I don’t see a rational argument to add nonsystematic spread risk to the portfolios.

. . . The next months and quarters are highly likely to be volatile with violent moves in spreads both wider and tighter. Unless spreads blow out quickly over the near term, I would look to use the volatility to reduce risk in spread tightening (and thus better liquidity conditions) and not buy the dip. Buy the dip is a failed formula with CBs fighting inflation as a backdrop.

Only one thing would make Peters change his mind, and that is a clear sign that inflation has peaked, which would encourage central banks to back off.

This would reduce the risk of a policy mistake and/or a CB led recession. I know this sounds overly simplistic, but inflation is what matters most and driving central banks, politics and consumer psyche. All said, I believe that duration and interest rates are going to be a much cleaner play around this central bank inflation fighting into a recession narrative. At some point, although not yet as I still see another 25bp or so in 10yr yields, the rate market is going to be the first to react as I expect to see duration rally (both front-end and the belly) well before spreads. You got a preview sense of that yesterday, and past few days, but I don’t think it will hold with the Fed continuing to move thus continuing to unhinge the belly.

That said, FTAV recalls Paul Samuelson’s old 1966 quip that the stock market had predicted nine of the past five recessions. Is this just another classic markets freakout that will pass?

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Sri Lanka becomes first Asia-Pacific country in decades to default on foreign debt



Sri Lanka’s central bank has confirmed the country has missed a deadline for foreign debt repayments, the first sovereign default in the Asia-Pacific region this century, according to Moody’s.

A 30-day grace period for missed interest payments on two international sovereign bonds expired on Wednesday, forcing Sri Lanka into what some analysts called a “hard” default as Colombo confronts an economic and political crisis. The last Moody’s-rated sovereign borrower to default in Asia was Pakistan in 1999.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government said last month that Sri Lanka would stop repaying its international debt to conserve foreign currency reserves for imports such as fuel, medicine and food.

Sri Lanka, which has never defaulted before, owes about $51bn in overseas debt to international bondholders as well as bilateral creditors including China, Japan and India.

At a briefing on Thursday, Nandalal Weerasinghe, the central bank governor, confirmed that Sri Lanka’s creditors could now consider the country technically in default.

“We announced to the creditors, we said we are not in question to pay that. If you even don’t pay after 30 days . . . then probably from their side they can consider it as a default,” he said. “Our positions are clear. We say until they come to restructure we will not be able to pay.”

But the central bank disputed that it was a hard default, calling the move “pre-emptive”.

S&P last month downgraded Sri Lanka’s foreign currency ratings to “selective default” on the missed interest payments.

Analysts said that rising global interest rates, high energy prices and a surge in inflation was piling pressure on import-dependent developing economies such as Sri Lanka.

The island borrowed heavily to fund infrastructure-led growth after the end of its civil war in 2009, but policies including a 2019 tax cut and the loss of tourism during the pandemic left it unable to refinance in international debt markets.

The crisis has triggered widespread pain for Sri Lanka’s population, with a scarcity of fuel leading to long queues for petrol and multi-hour power cuts. The currency has also plunged, exacerbating political unrest.

The cabinet, including Gotabaya’s brother Mahinda, the prime minister, resigned last week as attacks by pro-government supporters against a growing protest movement triggered a wave of violence across the island.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the newly appointed prime minister, said this week that the Treasury was struggling to find $1mn to pay for imports.

Sri Lanka has begun negotiations with the IMF over a loan programme and is appointing advisers for debt restructuring talks with its creditors. But it lacks a fully functioning government, including a finance minister, and analysts expect any deal to take months.

The missed payments, for interest on two $1.25bn international sovereign bonds maturing in 2023 and 2028, could trigger cross-default clauses that would bring much of Sri Lanka’s debt due before it has begun formal restructuring talks.

A Sri Lankan government bond maturing in July this year is trading at about 45 cents to the dollar, with longer-dated bonds at even lower values.

JPMorgan on Wednesday assigned an overweight rating to Sri Lanka bonds, indicating that it expected bond prices to rise in the coming months.

“Twists and turns are likely to materialise in the months ahead,” JPMorgan wrote. “However . . . we think risk-reward is favourable to start building long positions.”

Additional reporting by Hudson Lockett

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