Ukraine war pulls rug out from under world economy rebound

The conflict has disrupted shipments of Russian oil and gas as well as Ukrainian grain, which developing countries rely on. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - This year was supposed to confirm the world economy's comeback from the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. Instead, the six-month-old war in Ukraine has sparked fears of recession.

"Six short months ago, the macro landscape was markedly different from today," the financial data firm S&P Global said in a recent report.

Both the United States and euro zone economies were expected to see strong growth, and elevated inflation levels were seen by policymakers and markets as transitory.

"Things have changed, and not for the better," added S&P Global.

Global growth forecasts have been repeatedly cut, with the International Monetary Fund now expecting a 3.2 per cent expansion compared to nearly 5 per cent earlier.

Russia and Ukraine together account for just 2 per cent of global output and trade, according to the OECD. But Russia is a major exporter of oil, gas and agricultural goods, while many developing countries rely heavily on grain from Ukraine, one of the breadbaskets of the world.

The war has disrupted those shipments, causing energy and food prices to surge worldwide.

Inflation has soared everywhere, prompting central banks to aggressively hike rates - a move that usually tames prices but slows economic activity.


Prices soar everywhere

In Tunis, "low-income people are living a nightmare", said Ms Naima Degaoui, a 70-year-old former nurse.

"Prices on almost everything are rising: peaches, apricots, peppers for which the prices have quadrupled, red meat," she said.

Some 11,000km away, in the Chilean city of Valparaiso, 33-year-old social worker Nayib Pineira said "everything is much more expensive". He said local petrol prices have risen to 1,300 pesos (per litre (S$1.99), "nearly what Europeans pay, but with a European salary".

In Europe, natural gas prices have soared as Russia has slashed deliveries to countries that oppose the war. Oil prices have jumped, too.

The rise in energy prices has increased the costs of making and shipping an array of goods. Energy-intensive sectors such as the chemicals and metals industries have been particularly hard hit, especially in Germany, which had become extremely dependent upon cheap Russian natural gas.

Scrambling to control the situation

Faced with surging inflation, developed nations have reverted to supporting their economies just when they were hoping to wean them off aid provided to help with Covid lockdowns.

With support for heating costs, cuts to petrol taxes, price caps and windfall taxes on oil companies, European nations have pulled out the stops to cushion the blow to consumers from higher energy costs.

In the US, Congress passed a US$370 billion (S$515 billion) investment package called the Inflation Reduction Act that aims to contain health care costs and promote alternative energies.

Central banks, meanwhile, are expected to continue their aggressive interest rate hikes. Stock markets have been spooked by the monetary tightening, with the S&P 500 index suffering its worst half-year performance in 14 years.

Developed nations have reverted to supporting their economies just as they were hoping to wean them off Covid aid. PHOTO: AFP

Global slowdown... then recession?

There is precious little optimism right now: US consumer confidence is nearly at a record low, while that for German investors is at a two-year low point.

The Chinese property market is in a severe crisis, adding to problems caused by strict Covid-19 lockdowns.

In Europe, there are worries that, if Russia reduces gas deliveries even further, there could be shortages and rationing during the coming winter.

Coupled with the tightening of monetary policy underway by central banks, fears have been rising of a global recession, although the main forecasters have so far discounted this possibility.

That is because there are also signs of resilience in the global economy. The labour markets in both Europe and the US remain strong.

The Biden administration has pointed to the strength of the US jobs market to argue that the US economy is not in recession despite two consecutive quarters of economic contraction.

The mixed signals prompted analysts at HSBC to compare the situation to the thought experiment by Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist Erwin Schroedinger to resolve a quantum paradox in which two states are simultaneously possible.

"In the same way that Erwin Schroedinger's cat was both dead and alive at the same time, the global economy may be both in a recession and not - at least not yet," they wrote.

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