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As virus spreads, economists point to growing recession risk

Don Lee
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – As the coronavirus outbreak enters a potentially dangerous new phase, with cases widening in Europe and expected to spread in the United States, economists have begun to raise their estimates for the risk of a global recession and fallout to the American economy.

Economists say the stock market sell-off in recent days reflects a reassessment of the likely magnitude of the hit to corporate earnings in the virus’ wake, suggesting the economic pain could last longer and the recovery may not be as swift as initially thought.

“Businesses of all kinds, in a lot of places, being impaired really (made) me skeptical that this is something that would fade quickly and from which we would recover quickly,” said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust in Chicago. “And that realization is now cascading through, both to investors and to policymakers, that this is a situation that is more serious than initially thought.”

Many American companies rely on overseas sales and production in China for a significant share of their revenue and profits. And a growing number of firms, including Apple, Starbucks and the chipmaker Qualcomm, have lowered their earnings guidance in recent days.

Tannenbaum now sees the Federal Reserve cutting interest rates by a quarter of a point in April. Just a few weeks ago, he and many other analysts expected the central bank would stand pat on rates for the rest of the year.

Fed officials aren’t sounding alarm bells yet, but say they’re closely monitoring the situation. And while they don’t want to react to volatile swings in financial markets, deepening losses in stocks could undercut consumer confidence, which in turn could cause a retrenchment in spending and push the economy into recession.

Oil prices, Treasury yields and stock indexes all have sunk this week. The Dow lost ground for a fifth straight session Wednesday and is now down more than 8% from a week ago.

“The equity market is central to the U.S. economy,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, noting that the large baby boom population is particularly susceptible to a market downturn because they have much of their nest egg in it.

Zandi considered the rapid spread of the virus in Italy a major turning point, and after Tuesday’s warning from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that infections were bound to increase in the United States, he raised the odds of a global recession to 50%, up from just 20% last week.

“If it goes to a pandemic, then I think the economy is in recession,” he said.

The World Health Organization hasn’t yet classified the outbreak as a pandemic. As of late Wednesday, its daily tracking reported more than 81,000 confirmed cases in more than 36 countries, with the death toll exceeding 2,750, the vast majority in China. The rate of increase in cases is now fastest outside of China.

In fact, China, where the COVID-19 virus was first detected in December, has seen a steady decline in reports of new infections in recent days. And key parts of the Chinese economy, which had been in virtual lockdown, have picked up notably as many operations have resumed.

But even as things look better in China, a surge of new cases in South Korea, Italy and Iran has sparked fears that the economic impact will only widen as other countries, and the companies that operate there, adopt similarly stringent responses to keep the virus in check, such as travel restrictions and temporary closures of factories and businesses.

In the face of heightened uncertainties, some companies are taking more extreme measures. Nestle this week told all of its 291,000 employees worldwide to hold off on business travel until the middle of next month.

Even before the virus outbreak, the global economy was smarting from President Trump’s trade wars, uncertainties about Brexit and rising tensions in South America and the Middle East.

Now it looks like several major economies – Japan, Germany, Italy, South Korea – could slide into a technical recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative output.

Fed officials seemed unruffled by the stock market declines, or that the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to an all-time low Tuesday as investors fled riskier assets for the safety of U.S. government bonds.

Fed Vice Chair Richard H. Clarida, speaking at an economic conference in Washington on Tuesday afternoon, said that “it is still too soon to even speculate about either the size or the persistence of these effects, or whether they will lead to a material change in the outlook.”

Clarida added that the U.S. economy and the central bank’s current monetary policy were both in a “good place,” essentially repeating public comments made by Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell two weeks ago.

Trump’s chief economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, has insisted that even if the rest of the world tumbled into recession, the U.S. could remain an island of prosperity.

“Right here we’re doing awfully well now,” he said on CNBC on Tuesday as stocks were rapidly falling.

“We have contained this,” he said. “I won’t say airtight, but it’s pretty close to airtight.” As of Wednesday there were at least 60 confirmed cases in the U.S., with no deaths.

Trump, who returned Wednesday from a trip to India, appeared frustrated by the increased concern at home and sought to reassure Americans in an evening news conference.

In a tweet earlier Wednesday, he praised his administration’s response to the virus, and lashed out at the news media for making the coronavirus “look as bad as possible, including panicking markets.”

Trump has frequently touted the stock market gains under his watch, something that he sees as a validation of his successful stewardship of the economy ahead of the November election.

U.S. job growth, in particular, has held up very well. And the Fed’s low interest rates have given a boost to the housing market and are helping household balance sheets.

At the same time, corporate debts are high, manufacturing remains in recession and business investment is sluggish. Analysts say it’s possible the U.S. could skirt a recession in a global downturn, but it’ll be close.

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Research firm Oxford Economics this week also revised its outlook, writing that “the economic impact to the U.S. and global economy was believed to be mostly contained last week, but rising volatility, plunging stock prices, and a strengthening dollar will likely exacerbate the economic shock on the U.S. economy.”

Even if the world avoids a coronavirus pandemic, Oxford Economics said the U.S. economy will barely be able to stay above water in the first quarter and that growth for the year as a whole was likely to come in at a sub-par rate of 1.5%.

One of the biggest threats is interruptions in global supply chains, the network of manufacturers, vendors, distributors and transporters needed to get goods from factories to customers.

Despite Kudlow’s assertion that “there’s no supply disruptions out there yet,” many companies and analysts in various industries can attest otherwise.

IPC, an electronics industry trade group, said this week that manufacturers were already hurting and surveys indicate they are expecting, on average, product shipment delays of at least five weeks.

Said John Mitchell, IPC’s president and chief executive: “The delays will likely have ripple effects for the rest of the year.”