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IMF and World Bank highlight fragile state of global economy

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Good evening,

The IMF’s Fiscal Monitor is the final in a flurry of reports from both the fund and the World Bank highlighting the fragile state of the global economy as it struggles with the lingering effects of the pandemic and the shock of war in Ukraine.

Today’s instalment points out the “narrowing fiscal space” faced by governments and the likelihood that any short-term benefit to public finances from higher inflation will soon disappear under the pressure of higher food and energy prices alongside rising interest rates.

The IMF now expects global prices to rise 7.4 per cent this year, much higher than the 3.2 per cent it forecast in late 2020.

In its World Economic Outlook published yesterday, the fund cut its global growth forecast for this year to 3.6 per cent, down 0.8 points since its January projections and a sharp fall from its estimated total for 2021 of 6.1 per cent.

Risks had “worsened significantly” from the war in Ukraine, it said, putting paid to the idea that this year would see a stronger recovery from the pandemic. On Monday, the World Bank also cut its global growth forecast from 4.1 per cent to 3.2 per cent.

A potential embargo on Russian oil and gas would raise inflation even further, the IMF said.

The effects of increasing price pressures, falling output and shrinking confidence across the global economy were also highlighted by the Brookings-FT tracking index, which compares global and country information with historical averages to determine whether data in a specific period is better or worse than normal. The index shows a marked slowing of growth since late 2021, with confidence levels dropping and a recent dip in financial market performance, leaving policymakers with “grim quandaries”.

Bar chart of annual GDP growth in 2022 (%, selected countries) showing the IMF cuts economic growth forecasts

IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva told the Financial Times last week that the Ukraine war was a “massive setback” for the world economy. But as well as causing “catastrophic” losses in Ukraine and a severe contraction in Russia, there were also wider risks from a more fragmented global economy, she argued.

“In a world where war in Europe creates hunger in Africa; where a pandemic can circle the globe in days and reverberate for years; where emissions anywhere mean rising sea levels everywhere — the threat to our collective prosperity from a breakdown in global co-operation cannot be overstated,” she said.

Latest news

  • Ukraine needs $5bn a month to plug financing gap, says IMF

  • Rio Tinto’s flagship iron ore mines report weak start to year

  • Bundesbank president warns against hasty interest rate rises from ECB (Reuters)

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

Need to know: the economy

Russia is planning legal action to recover $300bn of its foreign currency reserves — nearly half its total holdings — frozen through western sanctions. The tactic has prevented Russia’s central bank supporting the falling rouble and forced it to impose capital controls.

The energy crisis continues. Our Big Read tackles the crucial question: Can the EU wean itself off Russian gas? Despite Germany’s reliance on Russian supplies, it is resisting calls to restart nuclear power, as our new explainer details. US natural gas prices meanwhile have hit a 13-year high.

Latest for the UK and Europe

Yesterday’s IMF report also forecast that the UK would have the slowest growth in the G7 next year, increasing by just 1.2 per cent, and that the country’s inflation would be higher than other member states and slower to return to its 2 per cent target. The FT editorial board said the British government needed to recognise the continuing cost burden of coronavirus on healthcare, business and schools.

Line chart of GDP index showing the UK's economic performance since coronavirus has been middling

Energy bosses told a parliamentary committee that Britons were facing a “truly horrific” autumn, as steep rises in bills potentially leave up to 40 per cent of the country in fuel poverty. Households are already dealing with a 54 per cent rise in annual costs since the start of this month but could be paying an additional £600 from October when the price cap moves up another notch.

German producer prices increased by an annual 30.9 per cent in March — the fastest rate since 1949. The rise was driven by surging energy prices and higher costs of products such as fertiliser, of which Russia is a large exporter. The IMF downgraded its growth forecast for Germany this year by 1.7 percentage points to 2.7 per cent.

Global latest

Several big banks have downgraded growth forecasts for China as the country sticks to its rigorous zero-Covid policy, most notable in the strict lockdown of Shanghai, where many of the city’s wealthy are planning to leave. Official data on Monday showed better than expected growth for the first quarter but indicated that Chinese consumer activity was beginning to wilt.

In response, Beijing published 23 measures to support infrastructure projects and the country’s struggling property sector as well as help for stricken industries. The People’s Bank of China has reduced the amount of reserves that banks must maintain in an attempt to boost the economy, but interest rates remain unchanged.

Baby bust, our new series, examines how the pandemic has affected population growth and compares policy responses around the world.

Join us on April 26-27 at the Future Cities Americas forum where we will bring together government leaders, corporates, innovators, academics, investors and financial services to establish a common vision for the sustainable, equitable and safe cities of tomorrow. As a newsletter subscriber you can register free today here.

Need to know: business

Multinationals are still paying almost 200,000 employees in Russia despite pledges to suspend or end their operations, according to FT analysis. Mass sackings or nationalisations could follow as hopes of a swift end to the war in Ukraine fade. Russia’s recently developed domestic payments system is helping the country overcome the withdrawal of Visa and Mastercard.

Netflix shares plunged as the video-streaming company said its decade-long run of subscriber growth had ended in the first quarter. “Now the easy-money years of streaming are ending, just as Hollywood’s golden years did,” commented the FT Lex column. Evidence is already mounting that hard-pressed UK consumers are busy ditching their various subscriptions.

Another pandemic boom that might be fading is food delivery. Shares in Just Eat — as with its rivals DoorDash, Deliveroo and Delivery Hero — have plunged as intense competition makes it difficult for any operator to make money. Just Eat is mulling a sale of its Grubhub business in response.

Surging inflation and the war in Ukraine are expecting to feature heavily as first-quarter earnings season in the US picks up steam. Groups representing 70 per cent of the S&P 500 by value are reporting before the end of the month. Average growth in earnings per share is estimated to reach just 5.2 per cent, a sharp drop from the 32 per cent of the fourth quarter of 2021.

Bar chart of EPS growth (%) showing energy to lead S&P 500 first-quarter earnings season

Higher costs of living are also feeding through to wage demands. Workers at GlaxoSmithKline have voted to strike over a below-inflation pay rise, the first such action in the drugmaker’s history and unusual in Big Pharma.

There are no such worries at the other end of the pay scale: the bumper bonus is back. Huge recent payouts are all the more jarring because they come just as consumers face steep rises in the price of energy and food, writes US investment and industries editor Brooke Masters.

Meanwhile, drowning your sorrows is set to get a lot more expensive. Heineken, the world’s second largest brewer, is putting up beer prices because of “off-the-charts” increases in costs, even though sales are up as punters return to bars.

Airlines are split on mandatory masks for passengers after a US judge blocked the government from enforcing the rule. Shares in Uber and Lyft leapt after the ride-sharing companies said they would drop mask requirements for US customers.

The head of Korean Air told the FT that South Korean authorities needed to speed up the lifting of pandemic restrictions, describing it as “nonsense” that a PCR test is required for inbound passengers. In the UK, ministers are loosening strict requirements on background checks for new employees to help airlines address severe staff shortages.

Fallout from the war has added to financial problems at Credit Suisse, which now expects a first-quarter loss.

UK gym operators are snapping up prime retail slots in struggling high streets and shopping centres hit by the shift to ecommerce. Vacancy rates remain high, with 14 per cent of retail and leisure venues forecast to remain empty in the first half of this year. But etailers are not immune from problems: Amazon last week said it would add a surcharge on its US sellers to offset growing inflation and fuel costs.

The World of Work

Deloitte has significantly cut back its London office space in the latest sign of how hybrid working has disrupted the commercial real estate market. The sector is also facing higher costs from environmental regulations as well as the rise of flexible working groups such as WeWork.

Technology may have made working from home a lot easier but it has also made it harder to take sick days, writes Emma Jacobs. “We have to be mindful that the lesson from the pandemic is flexible working and not working round the clock,” says one expert.

Another worrying indicator is the growing exhaustion felt by many workers from endless meetings, whether online or in person. “I keep hearing from so many people that they are simultaneously craving face-to-face contact but are also overwhelmed by it,” writes Viv Groskop.

The advantages of experienced older workers have never seemed more obvious, says columnist Pilita Clark. But these same people are vanishing from their desks at much higher rates than their mid-career colleagues in a reversal of an important pre-Covid trend towards older workforces, she writes.

What can companies do when faced with this outflow of workers and what can managers do to retain staff? Listen to our latest Working It podcast on the Great Resignation and sign up for our Working It newsletter.

Covid cases and vaccinations

Total global cases: 494.3mn

Total doses given: 11.5bn

Get the latest worldwide picture with our vaccine tracker

And finally.

Do you think marriage, for all its imperfections, is still the best path to fulfilment? Or do you concur with one writer’s view that it’s merely a “life-long market correction to true love’s overvaluation”? William Skidelsky reviews three new books exploring the lingering appeal of an institution that is under threat.

A man and a woman sitting in a room with a sunset behind them
© Getty Images

Working it — Discover the big ideas shaping today’s workplaces with a weekly newsletter from work & careers editor Isabel Berwick. Sign up here

FT Asset Management — The inside story on the movers and shakers behind a multitrillion-dollar industry. Sign up here

Thanks for reading Disrupted Times. If this newsletter has been forwarded to you, please sign up here to receive future issues. And please share your feedback with us at disruptedtimes@ft.com. Thank you



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Economy

Travel chaos and cost of living leave Britons holidaying at home

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Air travel chaos and cost of living worries have spurred a surge in bookings by Britons for domestic summer holidays, offering hope to a sector struggling with financial pressures and a worsening economic outlook.

UK domestic holiday businesses had feared 2022 would spell an end to the summer staycation boom of the pandemic’s first two years, when onerous travel restrictions and fears of catching Covid-19 deterred holidaymakers from international travel.

But inquiries and late bookings for domestic summer holidays have jumped since early June, after flight cancellations caused major travel disruption during the school half-term holiday and balmy weather swept across the country.

Last-minute bookings for summer holiday accommodation from Sykes Holiday Cottages, one of the UK’s leading holiday rental agencies, were up 22 per cent at the start of June, compared with the same period last year.

Just under 40 per cent of Britons said they were more likely to choose a domestic holiday instead of an overseas break than before the pandemic, according to polling conducted in mid-June and published on Friday by VisitBritain, the UK’s tourist board.

Of those choosing a staycation, 65 per cent told VisitBritain it was because UK breaks were easier to plan, 54 per cent said they wanted to avoid long queues at airports and the risk of cancelled flights, and 47 per cent said it was because UK holidays were more affordable.

“Whether families think they can’t afford a summer getaway abroad, or they’ve had their flights cancelled, or the potential of sitting with four kids for 12 hours in the airport has just scared them off, many are opting to stay at home,” said Sir David Michels, president of the Tourism Alliance, a lobby group. “That’s a net-positive for the UK tourism industry.”

Michels said he did not expect demand for domestic holidays this summer to surpass the heights of summer 2021, but it was possible levels of demand could mirror last year.

He added that sterling’s depreciation this year “certainly wouldn’t hurt” the domestic market as it would “put some people off” travelling overseas. The currency is down 9.3 per cent against the dollar and 2.2 per cent against the euro since the start of 2022.

Cottage bookings on Awaze, a vacation rental company, for June were flat compared with 2021 and up 21 per cent on 2019, while bookings for August this year were 6 per cent higher than the same month last year and 46 per cent up on 2019. July was slightly down on 2021 levels.

Graham Donoghue, chief executive of Sykes Holiday Cottages, said the UK was “continuing to ride the staycation wave despite the return of foreign travel”.

“Uncertainty around Covid restrictions has seemingly been replaced with another worry — overseas travel disruption — while an increased pressure on household budgets is leading to many turning to staycations as the better value option,” explained Donoghue.

On Thursday, British Airways check-in staff voted to strike later in the summer over pay, setting the stage for yet more air travel disruption.

Travellers queue at security at London’s Heathrow airport on Wednesday
Lengthy delays at airport have increased the appeal of UK staycations © Frank Augstein/AP

Henrik Kjellberg, Awaze chief executive, said the travel chaos had “benefited” the domestic tourism market as holidaymakers looked to “avoid the stress and hassle” of overcrowded airports.

He said people had been “introduced to the charms of staycations” during the pandemic and they were “here to stay”, adding that pandemic travel restrictions had combined with a “gradual trend of people thinking more and more about their CO₂ footprint” to encourage more families to consider holidaying locally.

Meanwhile, members of the trade body UKHospitality reported a 20-30 per cent uplift in inquiries over the platinum jubilee weekend in early June from customers searching for holidays in late summer or over the school half-term holiday in October, according to Kate Nicholls, chief executive.

Nicholls said the extension of the staycation boom would provide a lifeline for independent businesses, which have been hit hardest by cost pressures resulting from supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine.

“British holidaymakers will tend to go for the less obvious options,” said Nicholls. “There’s a proportion of customers who will always go branded, but there is also a proportion of domestic visitors who are much more confident about going off the beaten track and looking for independents, looking for boutique options.”

The success of domestic tourism has become more significant because inbound tourism is not expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels until 2025.

The task for the industry now is to convince British holidaymakers to keep returning in future summers. “If the sun keeps shining, I think it’s going to be a much fuller UK with UK residents than summers before the pandemic,” said Michels. “We’ve now had three years of lots of people holidaying at home. I don’t think this is going away.”

“The longer this trend lasts, the stickier those habits become and the more beneficial it will be for communities across the country,” said Nicholls.



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Economy

Rising rates raise prospect of property crash

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Brenda McKinley has been selling homes in Ontario for more than two decades and even for a veteran, the past couple of years have been shocking.

Prices in her patch south of Toronto rose as much as 50 per cent during the pandemic. “Houses were selling almost before we could get the sign on the lawn,” she said. “It was not unusual to have 15 to 30 offers . . . there was a feeding frenzy.”

But in the past six weeks the market has flipped. McKinley estimates homes have shed 10 per cent of their value in the time it might take some buyers to complete their purchase.

The phenomenon is not unique to Ontario nor the residential market. As central banks jack up interest rates to rein in runaway inflation, property investors, homeowners and commercial landlords around the world are all asking the same question: could a crash be coming?

“There is a marked slowdown everywhere,” said Chris Brett, head of capital markets for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at property agency CBRE. “The change in cost of debt is having a big impact on all markets, across everything. I don’t think anything is immune . . . the speed has taken us all by surprise.”

Listed property stocks, closely monitored by investors looking for clues about what might eventually happen to less liquid real assets, have tanked this year. The Dow Jones US Real Estate Index is down almost 25 per cent in the year to date. UK property stocks are down about 20 per cent over the same period, falling further and faster than their benchmark index.

The number of commercial buyers actively hunting for assets across the US, Asia and Europe has fallen sharply from a pandemic peak of 3,395 in the fourth quarter of last year to just 1,602 in the second quarter of 2022, according to MSCI data.

Pending deals in Europe have also dwindled, with €12bn in contract at the end of March against €17bn a year earlier, according to MSCI.

Deals already in train are being renegotiated. “Everyone selling everything is being [price] chipped by prospective buyers, or else [buyers] are walking away,” said Ronald Dickerman, president of Madison International Realty, a private equity firm investing in property. “Anyone underwriting [a building] is having to reappraise . . . I cannot over-emphasise the amount of repricing going on in real estate at the moment.” 

The reason is simple. An investor willing to pay $100mn for a block of apartments two or three months ago could have taken a $60mn mortgage with borrowing costs of about 3 per cent. Today they might have to pay more than 5 per cent, wiping out any upside.

The move up in rates means investors must either accept lower overall returns or push the seller to lower the price.

“It’s not yet coming through in the agent data but there is a correction coming through, anecdotally,” said Justin Curlow, global head of research and strategy at Axa IM, one of the world’s largest asset managers.

The question for property investors and owners is how widespread and deep any correction might be.

During the pandemic, institutional investors played defence, betting on sectors supported by stable, long-term demand. The price of warehouses, blocks of rental apartments and offices equipped for life sciences businesses duly soared amid fierce competition.

“All the big investors are singing from the same hymn sheet: they all want residential, urban logistics and high-quality offices; defensive assets,” said Tom Leahy, MSCI’s head of real assets research in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. “That’s the problem with real estate, you get a herd mentality.”

With cash sloshing into tight corners of the property market, there is a danger that assets were mispriced, leaving little margin to erode as rates rise.

For owners of “defensive” properties bought at the top of the market who now need to refinance, rate rises create the prospect of owners “paying more on the loan than they expect to earn on the property”, said Lea Overby, head of commercial mortgage-backed securities research at Barclays.

Before the Federal Reserve started raising rates this year, Overby estimated, “Zero per cent of the market” was affected by so-called negative leverage. “We don’t know how much it is now, but anecdotally its fairly widespread.”

Manus Clancy, a senior managing director at New York-based CMBS data provider Trepp, said that while values were unlikely to crater in the more defensive sectors, “there will be plenty of guys who say ‘wow we overpaid for this’.”

“They thought they could increase rents 10 per cent a year for 10 years and expenses would be flat but the consumer is being whacked with inflation and they can’t pass on costs,” he added.

If investments regarded as sure-fire just a few months ago look precarious; riskier bets now look toxic.

A rise in ecommerce and the shift to hybrid work during the pandemic left owners of offices and shops exposed. Rising rates now threaten to topple them.

A paper published this month, “Work from home and the office real estate apocalypse”, argued that the total value of New York’s offices would ultimately fall by almost a third — a cataclysm for owners including pension funds and the government bodies reliant on their tax revenues.

“Our view is that the entire office stock is worth 30 per cent less than it was in 2019. That’s a $500bn hit,” said Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh, a professor or real estate and finance at Columbia University and one of the report’s authors.

The decline has not yet registered “because there’s a very large segment of the office market — 80-85 per cent — which is not publicly listed, is very untransparent and where there’s been very little trade”, he added.

But when older offices change hands, as funds come to the end of their lives or owners struggle to refinance, he expects the discounts to be severe. If values drop far enough, he foresees enough mortgage defaults to pose a systemic risk.

“If your loan to value ratio is above 70 per cent and your value falls 30 per cent, your mortgage is underwater,” he said. “A lot of offices have more than 30 per cent mortgages.”

According to Curlow, as much as 15 per cent is already being knocked off the value of US offices in final bids. “In the US office market you have a higher level of vacancy,” he said, adding that America “is ground zero for rates — it all started with the Fed”.

UK office owners are also having to navigate changing working patterns and rising rates.

Landlords with modern, energy-efficient blocks have so far fared relatively well. But rents on older buildings have been hit. Property consultancy Lambert Smith Hampton suggested this week that more than 25mn sq ft of UK office space could be surplus to requirements after a survey found 72 per cent of respondents were looking to cut back on office space at the earliest opportunity.

Hopes have also been dashed that retail, the sector most out of favour with investors coming into the pandemic, might enjoy a recovery.

Big UK investors including Landsec have bet on shopping centres in the past six months, hoping to catch rebounding trade as people return to physical stores. But inflation has knocked the recovery off course.

“There was this hope that a lot of shopping centre owners had that there was a level in rents,” said Mike Prew, analyst at Jefferies. “But the rug has been pulled out from under them by the cost of living crisis.”

As rates rise from ultra-low levels, so does the risk of a reversal in residential markets where they have been rising, from Canada and the US to Germany and New Zealand. Oxford Economics now expects prices to fall next year in those markets where they rose quickest in 2021.

Numerous investors, analysts, agents and property owners told the Financial Times the risk of a downturn in property valuations had sharply increased in recent weeks.

But few expect a crash as severe as that of 2008, in part because lending practices and risk appetite have moderated since then.

“In general it feels like commercial real estate is set for a downturn. But we had some strong growth in Covid so there is some room for it to go sideways before impacting anything [in the wider economy],” said Overby. “Pre-2008, leverage was at 80 per cent and a lot of appraisals were fake. We are not there by a long shot.”

According to the head of one big real estate fund, “there’s definitely stress in smaller pockets of the market but that’s not systemic. I don’t see a lot of people saying . . . ‘I’ve committed to a €2bn-€3bn acquisition using a bridge format’, as there were in 2007.”

He added that while more than 20 companies looked precarious in the run-up to the financial crisis, this time there were perhaps now five.

Dickerman, the private equity investor, believes the economy is poised for a long period of pain reminiscent of the 1970s that will tip real estate into a secular decline. But there will still be winning and losing bets because “there has never been a time investing in real estate when asset classes are so differentiated”.



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Economy

Chinese banks lend Pakistan $2.3bn to avert foreign exchange crisis

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A consortium of Chinese state banks has lent $2.3bn to Pakistan to help the country stave off a foreign payments crisis, finance minister Miftah Ismail said on Friday.

Confirmation of the support from China, a close economic and military ally of Pakistan, came on the same day Islamabad announced a one-off 10 per cent ‘super tax’ on important industries that is intended to lead to a stalled $6bn IMF loan package being resumed.

“I am pleased to announce that Chinese consortium loan of Rmb15bn ($2.3bn) has been credited in to SBP [State Bank of Pakistan, Pakistan’s central bank] account today, increasing our foreign exchange reserves,” Ismail said in a tweet on Friday evening.

A senior government official said the arrival of the loan was “one of the signals that we’re about to return to the IMF programme”.

China had quietly urged Islamabad to repair ties with the IMF “as an essential step to improve Pakistan’s economic health and avoid a default”, the official said.

The Chinese loan will raise Pakistan’s liquid foreign reserves of $8.2bn to $10.5bn and could help shore up the rupee, which has slumped against western currencies.

Pakistan began to receive IMF payments in 2019 under a 39-month loan programme, but the fund has so far given only about half of the $6bn agreed.

In recent months, sliding confidence in Pakistan’s economy has prompted concerns it could follow Sri Lanka in defaulting on international debt.

Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, who was elected by parliament in April following the ousting of rival Imran Khan, unveiled on Friday the new super tax to be levied on manufacturers of cement, beverages, steel, tobacco and chemicals.

“The government has decided to impose a 10 per cent ‘poverty alleviation tax’ on large-scale industries of the country,” Sharif tweeted.

Business leaders widely criticised the move and share prices on the Karachi Stock Exchange fell nearly 5 per cent after news of the tax emerged. Analysts said the decision would further fuel inflation, a central concern for households across Pakistan.

Zaffar Moti, a former KSE director, said: “This is a major setback for the economy. The government has decided to further tax those who are already paying their taxes.”





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