When China Sneezes
The COVID-19 outbreak has hit at a time of much greater economic vulnerability than in 2003, during the SARS outbreak, and China's share of world output has more than doubled since then. With other major economies already struggling, the risk of outright global recession in the first half of 2020 seems like a distinct possibility.
NEW HAVEN – The world economy has clearly caught a cold. The outbreak of COVID-19 came at a particularly vulnerable point in the global business cycle. World output expanded by just 2.9% in 2019 – the slowest pace since the 2008-09 global financial crisis and just 0.4 percentage points above the 2.5% threshold typically associated with global recession.
Moreover, vulnerability increased in most major economies over the course of last year, making prospects for early 2020 all the more uncertain. In Japan, the world’s fourth-largest economy, growth contracted at a 6.3% annual rate in the fourth quarter – much sharper than expected following another consumption-tax hike. Industrial output fell sharply in December in both Germany (-3.5%) and France (-2.6%), the world’s fifth- and tenth-largest economies respectively. The United States, the world’s second-largest economy, appeared relatively resilient by comparison, but 2.1% real (inflation-adjusted) GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2019 hardly qualifies as a boom. And in China – now the world’s largest economy in purchasing-power-parity terms – growth slowed to a 27-year low of 6% in the last quarter of 2019.
In other words, there was no margin for an accident at the beginning of this year. Yet there has been a big accident: China’s COVID-19 shock. Over the past month, the combination of an unprecedented quarantine on Hubei Province (population 58.5 million) and draconian restrictions on inter-city (and international) travel has brought the Chinese economy to a virtual standstill. Daily activity trackers compiled by Morgan Stanley’s China team underscore the nationwide impact of this disruption. As of February 20, coal consumption (still 60% of China’s total energy consumption) remained down 38% from the year-earlier pace, and nationwide transportation comparisons were even weaker, making it extremely difficult for China’s nearly 300 million migrant workers to return to factories after the annual Lunar New Year holiday.