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Economic Forecast: Rebound interrupted as resurgence of pandemic deepens uncertainty

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The coronavirus pandemic represents a very large shock for the global and EU economies, with very severe economic and social consequences. Economic activity in Europe suffered a severe shock in the first half of the year and rebounded strongly in the third quarter as containment measures were gradually lifted. However, the resurgence of the pandemic in recent weeks is resulting in disruptions as national authorities introduce new public health measures to limit its spread. The epidemiological situation means that growth projections over the forecast horizon are subject to an extremely high degree of uncertainty and risks.

An interrupted and incomplete recovery

The Autumn 2020 Economic Forecast projects that the euro area economy will contract by 7.8% in 2020 before growing 4.2% in 2021 and 3% in 2022. The forecast projects that the EU economy will contract by 7.4% in 2020 before recovering with growth of 4.1% in 2021 and 3% in 2022. Compared to the Summer 2020 Economic Forecast, growth projections for both the euro area and the EU are slightly higher for 2020 and lower for 2021. Output in both the euro area and the EU is not expected to recover its pre-pandemic level in 2022.

The economic impact of the pandemic has differed widely across the EU and the same is true of recovery prospects. This reflects the spread of the virus, the stringency of public health measures taken to contain it, the sectoral composition of national economies and the strength of national policy responses.

Rise in unemployment contained compared to drop in economic activity

Job losses and the rise in unemployment have put severe strains on the livelihoods of many Europeans. Policy measures taken by Member States, together with initiatives at EU level have helped to cushion the impact of the pandemic on labour markets. The unprecedented scope of measures taken, particularly through short-time work schemes, have allowed the rise in the unemployment rate to remain muted compared to the drop in economic activity. Unemployment is set to continue rising in 2021 as Member States phase out emergency support measures and new people enter the labour market, but should improve in 2022 as the economy continues to recover.

The forecast projects the unemployment rate in the euro area to rise from 7.5% in 2019 to 8.3% in 2020 and 9.4% in 2021, before declining to 8.9% in 2022. The unemployment rate in the EU is forecast to rise from 6.7% in 2019 to 7.7% in 2020 and 8.6% in 2021, before declining to 8.0% in 2022.

Deficits and public debt set to rise

The increase in government deficits is expected to be very significant across the EU this year as social spending rises and tax revenues fall, both as a result of the exceptional policy actions designed to support the economy and the effect of automatic stabilisers.

The forecast projects the aggregate government deficit of the euro area to increase from 0.6% of GDP in 2019 to around 8.8% in 2020, before decreasing to 6.4% in 2021 and 4.7% in 2022. This reflects the expected phasing out of emergency support measures in the course of 2021 as the economic situation improves.

Mirroring the spike in deficits, the forecast projects the aggregate euro area debt-to-GDP ratio will increase from 85.9% of GDP in 2019 to 101.7% in 2020, 102.3% in 2021 and 102.6% in 2022.

Inflation remains subdued

A steep fall in energy prices pushed headline inflation into negative territory in August and September. Core inflation, which includes all items except energy and unprocessed food, also fell substantially over the summer due to lower demand for services, especially tourism-related services and industrial goods. Weak demand, labour market slack and a strong euro exchange rate will exert downward pressure on prices.

Inflation in the euro area, as measured by the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP), is forecast to average 0.3% in 2020, before rising to 1.1% in 2021 and 1.3% in 2022, as oil prices stabilise. For the EU, inflation is forecast at 0.7% in 2020, 1.3% in 2021 and 1.5% in 2022.

Members of the College said:

Valdis Dombrovskis, Executive Vice-President for an Economy that Works for People, said: “This forecast comes as a second wave of the pandemic is unleashing yet more uncertainty and dashing our hopes for a quick rebound. EU economic output will not return to pre-pandemic levels by 2022. But through this turbulence, we have shown resolve and solidarity. We have agreed unprecedented measures to help people and companies. We will work together to chart the course to recovery, using every tool at our disposal. We agreed a landmark recovery package, NextGenerationEU – with the Recovery and Resilience Facility at its heart – to provide massive support to worst-hit regions and sectors. I now call again on the European Parliament and Council to wrap up negotiations quickly for money to start flowing in 2021 so that we can invest, reform and rebuild together.”

Paolo Gentiloni, Commissioner for Economy, said: “After the deepest recession in EU history in the first half of this year and a very strong upswing in the summer, Europe’s rebound has been interrupted due to the resurgence in COVID-19 cases. Growth will return in 2021 but it will be two years until the European economy comes close to regaining its pre-pandemic level. In the current context of very high uncertainty, national economic and fiscal policies must remain supportive, while NextGenerationEU must be finalised this year and effectively rolled out in the first half of 2021.”

A high degree of uncertainty with downside risks to the outlook

Uncertainties and risks surrounding the Autumn 2020 Economic Forecast remain exceptionally large. The principal risk stems from a worsening of the pandemic, requiring more stringent public health measures and leading to a more severe and longer lasting impact on the economy. This has motivated a scenario analysis for two alternative paths of the pandemic evolution – a more benign one and a downside one – and its economic impact. There is also a risk that the scars left by the pandemic on the economy – such as bankruptcies, long-term unemployment and supply disruptions – could be deeper and farther reaching. The European economy could also be impacted negatively if the global economy and world trade improved less than forecast or if trade tensions were to increase. The possibility of financial market stress is another downside risk.

On the upside, NextGenerationEU, the EU’s economic recovery programme, including the Recovery and Resilience Facility, is likely to provide a stronger boost to the EU economy than projected. This is because the forecast could only partially incorporate the likely benefits of these initiatives, as the information available at this stage on national plans is still limited. A trade agreement between the EU and the UK would also have a positive impact on the EU economy from 2021 compared to the forecast baseline of the UK and EU trading based on WTO Most Favoured Nation (MFN) rules.

Background

The forecast was prepared in a context of severe uncertainty, with Member States announcing major new public health measures in the second half of October 2020 to limit the spread of the virus.

The forecast is based on the usual set of technical assumptions concerning exchange rates, interest rates and commodity prices, with a cut-off date of 22 October 2020. For all other incoming data, including information on government policies, this forecast takes into consideration information up until and including 22 October. Unless policies are credibly announced and specified in adequate detail, the projections assume no policy changes.

The forecast hinges upon two important technical assumptions. First, public health measures are assumed to remain in force to some degree throughout the forecast horizon. However, after their significant tightening in the fourth quarter of 2020, the stringency of the measures is expected to gradually ease in 2021. It is also assumed that the economic impact of a given level of restrictions will diminish over time as the health system and economic agents adapt to the coronavirus environment. Second, given that the future relations between the EU and the UK are not yet clear, projections for 2021 and 2022 are based on a technical assumption that the EU and the UK will trade on WTO Most Favoured Nation (MFN) rules from 1 January 2021 onwards. This is for forecasting purposes only and reflects no anticipation nor prediction as regards the outcome of the negotiations between the EU and the UK on their future relationship.

The European Commission’s next forecast will be an update of GDP and inflation projections in the Winter 2021 Economic Forecast, which is expected to be presented in February 2021.

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Appliance standards and labelling is highly effective at reducing energy use

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Policies that introduce minimum efficiency performance standards and energy-consumption labelling on appliances and equipment have led to reduced power consumption, lower carbon emissions, and cost savings for consumers, according to analysis published today by the IEA and the 4E Technology Collaboration Programme (4E TCP).

The report’s findings are drawn from nearly 400 evaluation studies covering 100 countries, including those with the longest running and strongest appliance policies, such as China, European Union, Japan and the United States.

“The findings from the study are important as they provide evidence that standards and labelling are highly effective policy instruments that bring benefits to consumers as well as lower emissions and lower energy demand,” said Brian Motherway, the Head of Energy Efficiency at the IEA.

The study shows the policies have had significant positive impacts:

  • In countries with long-running policies, appliances are now typically consuming 30% less energy than they would have done otherwise.
  • In the nine countries/regions for which data were available, such programmes reduced annual electricity consumption by a total of around 1 580 terawatt-hours in 2018 – similar to the total electricity generation of wind and solar energy in those countries.
  • The programmes that have been operating the longest, such as those in the United States and the European Union, are estimated to deliver annual reductions of around 15% of their current total national electricity consumption. This percentage increases each year as more of the older, less-efficient stock is replaced with equipment that meets new higher efficiency standards.
  • These energy savings represent a significant financial boon for businesses and householders. In the United States alone, utility customers are now economising USD 60 billion each year, or USD 320 per customer.
  • Also, the United States, European Union and China together are avoiding annual CO2 emissions of more than 700 million tonnes, equivalent to the total energy-related emissions of Germany.
  • Well-designed policies encourage product innovation and lead to economies of scale, which reduces the cost of appliances even without accounting for the efficiency gains. For example, in Australia the sticker price of appliances has typically fallen 40% over the last 20 years, while average energy consumption has fallen by a third.

“The message is simple: expanding standards and energy efficiency labelling programmes makes the energy transition challenge easier, more affordable and become a reality,” said Jamie Hulan, the Chair of the 4E TCP.

The IEA will continue to collaborate with 4E TCP to enhance and promote the use of such policies. 4E TCP is an international platform for fourteen countries and the European Union to exchange technical and policy information focused on increasing the production and trade in efficient end-use equipment.

Ahead of this November’s COP26 Climate Change Conference, the IEA is working with the UK Government via the Super-Efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment (SEAD) initiative to coordinate and improve international action on product energy efficiency. The United Kingdom is leading the COP26 Product Efficiency Call to Action, which aims to double the efficiency of key global products by 2030, initially focusing on four key energy-consuming products: air conditioners, refrigerators, lighting and industrial motors systems. The IEA is supporting the implementation of this work and helping expand the number of countries ready to make this commitment.

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Global economy projected to show fastest growth in 50 years

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The global economy is expected to bounce back this year with growth of 5.3 per cent, the fastest in nearly five decades, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

In its new report released on Wednesday, the agency said that the rebound was highly uneven along regional, sectoral and income lines, however.  

During 2022, UNCTAD expects global growth to slow to 3.6 per cent, leaving world income levels trailing some 3.7 per cent below the pre-pandemic trend line. 

The report also warns that growth deceleration could be bigger than expected, if policymakers lose their nerve or answer what it regards as misguided calls for a return to deregulation and austerity. 

Differences in growth 

The report says that, while the response saw an end to public spending constraints in many developed countries, international rules and practices have locked developing countries into pre-pandemic responses, and a semi-permanent state of economic stress. 

Many countries in the South have been hit much harder than during the global financial crisis. With a heavy debt burden, they also have less room for maneuvering their way out through public spending. 

Lack of monetary autonomy and access to vaccines are also holding many developing economies back, widening the gulf with advanced economies and threatening to usher in another “lost decade”. 

“These widening gaps, both domestic and international, are a reminder that underlying conditions, if left in place, will make resilience and growth luxuries enjoyed by fewer and fewer privileged people,” said Rebeca Grynspan, the secretary-general of UNCTAD. 

“Without bolder policies that reflect reinvigorated multilateralism, the post-pandemic recovery will lack equity, and fail to meet the challenges of our time.” 

Lessons of the pandemic 

UNCTAD includes several proposals in the report that are drawn from the lessons of the pandemic. 

They include concerted debt relief and even cancellation in some cases, a reassessment of fiscal policy, greater policy coordination and strong support for developing countries in vaccine deployment. 

Even without significant setbacks, global output will only resume its 2016-19 trend by 2030. But even before COVID-19, the income growth trend was unsatisfactory, says UNCTAD. Average annual global growth in the decade after the global financial crisis was the slowest since 1945. 

Despite a decade of massive monetary injections from leading central banks, since the 2008-9 crash, inflation targets have been missed. Even with the current strong recovery in advanced economies, there is no sign of a sustained rise in prices. 

After decades of a declining wage share, real wages in advanced countries need to rise well above productivity for a long time before a better balance between wages and profits is achieved again, according to the trade and development body’s analysis. 

Food prices and global trade 

Despite current trends on inflation, UNCTAD believes the rise in food prices could pose a serious threat to vulnerable populations in the South, already financially weakened by the health crisis. 

Globally, international trade in goods and services has recovered, after a drop of 5.6 per cent in 2020. The downturn proved less severe than had been anticipated, as trade flows in the latter part of 2020 rebounded almost as strongly as they had fallen earlier. 

The report’s modelling projections point to real growth of global trade in goods and services of 9.5 per cent in 2021. Still, the consequences of the crisis will continue to weigh on the trade performance in the years ahead. 

For director of UNCTAD’s globalization and development strategies division, Richard Kozul-Wright, “the pandemic has created an opportunity to rethink the core principles of international economic governance, a chance that was missed after the global financial crisis.” 

“In less than a year, wide-ranging US policy initiatives in the United States have begun to effect concrete change in the case of infrastructure spending and expanded social protection, financed through more progressive taxation. The next logical step is to take this approach to the multilateral level.” 

The report highlights a “possibility of a renewal of multilateralism”, pointing to the United States support of a new special drawing rights (SDR) allocation, global minimum corporate taxation, and a waiver of vaccine-related intellectual property rights.  

UNCTAD warns, though, that these proposals “will need much stronger backing from other advanced economies and the inclusion of developing country voices if the world is to tackle the excesses of hyperglobalization and the deepening environmental crisis in a timely manner.” 

For the UN agency, the biggest risk for the global economy is that “a rebound in the North will divert attention from long-needed reforms without which developing countries will remain in a weak and vulnerable position.”

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Italy: Pro-growth reforms and government support key to a greener and jobs-rich recovery

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The post-COVID recovery offers an exceptional opportunity for Italy to tackle long-standing obstacles to job creation and the raising of living standards, according to a new OECD report.

The OECD’s latest Economic Survey of Italy says government support for Italian households and businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic should continue until the recovery is firmly underway, but should become increasingly targeted as the economy continues to strengthen. It says that generous fiscal support has been effective in mitigating job losses and preserving productive capacity. This will help boost the short-term recovery as vaccination rates accelerate and restrictions ease. Higher public spending, including from Next Generation EU funds, will support higher investment alongside improved confidence and demand.

The National Recovery and Resilience Plan offers a unique opportunity to create a greener, more digitised and productive economy, the report adds. The government, it says, has an ambitious agenda rightly prioritising reforms to competition, to boost the efficiency of civil justice processes and to reform the public sector in order to tackle uncertainty, delays and costs that currently hamper investment. Green infrastructure and broadband investments can improve the competitiveness of Italian firms.

The report suggests that the chances of implementing this reform plan successfully are greater than on previous occasions. Clear implementation milestones and targets linked to the disbursement of Next Generation EU funds have been publicised, while recently passed laws to simplify green investments and support decision-making  will help facilitate successful implementation of the plan.

The OECD projects Italy’s economic growth to be 5.9% this year and 4.1% in 2022, following an 8.9% fall in GDP in 2020. A stronger-than-expected second quarter explains the upward revision from the 4.5% expansion forecast for 2021 in the OECD’s May Economic Outlook. 

Presenting the report alongside Italy’s Economy and Finance Minister Daniele Franco today, OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said: “Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan is activating stronger, greener, fairer and more digitised growth that will benefit all Italians with improved opportunities to get ahead. A more effective public sector is crucial for ensuring its success. The plan must be fully implemented and complemented with reforms to support further growth, including with more investment in green infrastructure and R&D and reforms to keep driving the effective digital transformation of the Italian economy.”

The report recommends that once the pandemic subsides, public spending and tax policy must be reformed to complement the National Recovery and Resilience Plan. Currently, pension-related expenses crowd out investment in infrastructure, education and training, penalising the young, many of whom are out of work and at risk of poverty.

Labour force participation remains particularly low for women, especially those with children. Access to quality childcare and adult skills training needs to be improved across all regions, the report says.

Compared with the OECD average, taxes on labour remain too high. The report recommends implementing comprehensive tax reform to reduce the complexity of the system and to lower labour taxes. This should be financed through improved compliance – driven by greater use of technology and card payments.

Raising the effectiveness of Italy’s public sector is more urgent than ever. The report says that fully implementing the National Recovery and Resilience Plan will help fill skills gaps in the public sector, further its digitisation and reduce regulatory barriers that inhibit civil servants’ ability to deliver.

The report welcomes the set up for the Plan’s implementation and says the administration would generally become stronger and more agile by reducing the number of existing rules, regulating the services sector and green economy with a stronger focus on outcomes, in line with the government’s priorities and that support sustained growth. The report also recommends encouraging better coordination across Italy’s multiple layers of government.

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