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Europe’s resilient manufacturers bounce back from virus

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Factories across Europe are buzzing with activity again, encouraging some industrial bosses to invest in extra production as they shrug off the rise in coronavirus infections that is casting a shadow over the continent’s economic recovery.

Many manufacturers adapted production sites quickly to protect their workers after the pandemic hit, and in recent months they have benefited from rising demand, driven by a rebound in exports, particularly to the resurgent Chinese market.

“The coronavirus shock was both a supply and a demand shock at the same time,” said Jörg Zeuner, chief economist of Union Investment, the €370bn German fund manager. “But it is important to understand that a lot of the supply restrictions were lifted over the summer — so manufacturing has been able to get production back to where it was before the lockdowns.”

Line chart of Eurozone purchasing managers' indices (below 50 = a majority of companies report contraction in activity) showing Manufacturing is proving more resilient to covid disruption

The resilience of manufacturing has supported the economic rebound in countries with larger industrial sectors. By August, German factory orders had almost reached pre-pandemic levels, while Italian industrial production was already back to last year’s levels.

“We will probably see Italy outperforming Spain, but also France, because it has a bigger manufacturing sector,” said Nadia Gharbi, economist at Pictet Wealth Management. Italy generates almost 17 per cent of income from manufacturing — less than Germany’s 21 per cent but more than France’s 12 per cent and Spain’s 11 per cent, according to the OECD.

“Italy functions best when it is under pressure, if we don’t move, we’re dead,” said Sergio Dompé, head of Milan-based biotechnology company Dompé, which had revenues of about €430m last year. “The system has proven resilient and the fact most companies are small and medium-sized has actually helped navigate Covid-19.” 

Industry bosses worry that the rise in coronavirus infections will lead governments to reimpose national lockdowns © Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg

Economists say manufacturers are likely to remain resilient for at least several more months, helped by a backlog of orders and the recent rebound in global trade. 

On Friday, IHS Markit will publish its latest survey of purchasing managers which is expected to show that activity is continuing to increase rapidly across Europe’s manufacturing sector in October, even as the slowdown in services deepens.

“The problem of the services sector, compared to manufacturing, is that it can be very directly affected by the epidemic and by the restrictions on mobility — and if its products don’t find a buyer straight away they can just be lost,” said Gregorio Izquierdo, chief economist of Spain’s CEOE business federation. “By contrast, manufacturing can build up stock and sell to far away markets.”

Line chart of Industrial production (indices, 2019 = 100) showing Italian industrial output is already back to pre-pandemic levels

A key part of Europe’s manufacturing sector is the car industry. While European car sales since the start of this year are still down 29 per cent, they have rebounded strongly — boosted by state subsidies for electric and hybrid vehicles in France and Germany — and in September they grew for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Ola Kallenius, chief executive of Daimler, said the maker of Mercedes-Benz cars was also enjoying a “remarkable recovery in China” where its sales have grown at double-digit rates for four consecutive months. “It is almost too good to be true,” he said. “They’ve managed a V-shaped recovery in the Chinese economy.”

Companies in other areas are benefiting from rising sales in China such as Gea Group, the German maker of machines that produce half the world’s beer, a quarter of its processed milk and a third of all instant coffee. 

“The strongest recovery now is definitely in China, where the virus has virtually gone and I would say people there are back to normal, so that is driving demand,” said Stefan Klebert, chief executive of Gea, which has five Chinese factories. 

The Düsseldorf-based company benefits from the resilience of its customers in the food and beverage industries and is pressing ahead with plans to build a new plant in Poland. “One customer may be hit by lower deliveries to fast food companies, but another is benefiting from higher sales of frozen pizzas to supermarkets,” said Mr Klebert. “It all evens out.”

In other sectors, a rebound in domestic demand has offset lower exports, such as the Italian ceramics industry. “Companies that have strong online channels and wholesales channels are faring well, especially thanks to the rebound of the Italian domestic market,” said Giovanni Savorani, chief executive of Gigacer and president of the national ceramics manufacturers trade association.

The overall performance of European manufacturing is patchy, however. Some sectors are still struggling. Aerospace, for example, has been hit by turmoil in the pandemic-stricken airline industry. Airbus plans to shed 15,000 jobs while cutting production by 40 per cent — leaving some of its suppliers scrambling to survive. 

Equally, Italian fashion industry suppliers, which enjoyed a steady 2-3 per cent yearly growth over the past five years, have suddenly lost more than 40 per cent of orders this year. Apparel, leather, shoe and accessories manufacturers, including large Italian fashion houses such as Prada and Armani, will have to cope with a €27bn loss of revenue this year and €12bn next year, according to an analysis by Cerved. 

Companies in historic fashion districts — such as Lake Como, home to Italy’s main silk and textile manufacturers, and the Marche region, where brands like Tod’s and Poltrona Frau are based — fear the Covid crisis will be their last straw. 

But what worries industry bosses even more is the possibility that the recent rise in coronavirus infections pushes governments to reintroduce strict national lockdowns. 

“Many companies, including healthy companies, would not survive a second lockdown,” said Klaus Fischer, owner of Fischer Group, a maker of wall plugs and car parts based near Stuttgart. “I hope politicians will be smart enough to try everything to prevent a second lockdown.”

Additional reporting by Joe Miller in Frankfurt and Daniel Dombey in Madrid



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French Greens given a grilling over meat-free school lunches

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Grégory Doucet, mayor of Lyon, said he had no inkling that the school lunches served up in the French city this week would put him at the centre of a political storm. 

But the decision by the environmentalist mayor that children should be offered just a single lunch option — one without meat — prompted immediate denunciations from French government ministers, and protests by farmers who responded by releasing herds of cows outside city hall. 

The ruling — which Doucet said he took for a limited period to avoid long queues for multiple menus that would bunch pupils close together during the Covid-19 pandemic — has set carnivores against vegetarians, town against country, and right against left. 

“It touches a lot of topics deeply rooted in French political culture,” said Vincent Martigny, politics professor at the University of Nice. “Everybody knows we should be eating less meat, but we’re still a very traditional food culture in France, quite conservative. If you don’t eat meat and drink wine, you’re not very French.” 

Doucet and his Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV) , which took Lyon from the centre-right in local elections last year, say the row has more to do with June’s regional elections and the presidential and legislative polls due in 2021. 

“They’re targeting the ecologists because we’re the biggest threat,” Doucet told the Financial Times. 

Farmers released herds of cows outside Lyon city hall to protest against the removal of meat from school lunches
Farmers released herds of cows outside Lyon city hall to protest against the removal of meat from school lunches © Olivier Chassignole/AFP via Getty Images

Even so, a mini-campaign by some ministers in President Emmanuel Macron’s government to curry favour with conservative voters and paint the Greens as crazed ideologues quickly spun out of control and exposed divisions in the cabinet.

Gérald Darmanin, the hardline interior minister, denounced the Lyon Greens for what he called a “moralistic, elitist policy” to deprive working-class students of meat. Julien Denormandie, who holds the agriculture portfolio, leapt to the defence of farmers, calling the decision “shameful” and saying: “Let’s stop putting ideology on our children’s plates!”

Environment minister Barbara Pompili, however, said she was sorry to hear a “prehistoric debate” full of clichés about the supposed nutritional inadequacies of vegetarian food. Macron eventually had to tell them to stop disagreeing in public as he called for an end to the “idiotic” argument. 

The school meals controversy is the latest manifestation of a long-running debate in France and abroad over the environmental sustainability of meat consumption by an increasingly wealthy and numerous world population, given the land taken up by cattle and their greenhouse gas emissions. 

Doucet, a “flexitarian” who said he tried to limit his intake of meat and fish, has campaigned to reduce consumption of animal protein and provide more vegetarian meals in schools, but he said his immediate priority was to ensure the meat served comes from local farmers.

He also pointed out that Gérard Collomb, his centre-right predecessor as mayor, had made exactly the same decision for a single, no-meat menu acceptable to the largest number of school pupils during an early phase of the pandemic — and there had been no political backlash. 

“When we took the decision, we didn’t think for one minute it would lead to a political polemic,” Doucet said. 

Somewhat later than neighbouring countries such as the UK, France is in any case gradually coming to accept vegetarianism. The Michelin Guide this year for the first time awarded one of its prized stars of approval to a French vegan restaurant called ONA — for Origine Non Animale

“People used to be treated as the village idiot if they were vegetarian,” said Jean-Pierre Poulain, a sociologist specialising in food at the University of Toulouse. “That’s no longer the case.” 

The change was slow in coming, said Poulain, but as in other urbanised societies, French city dwellers anthropomorphised pets, idealised wild animals and no longer automatically accepted the legitimacy of killing animals to eat them.

As mayor of Lyon, Doucet has also found himself at the heart of another contemporary debate — this time a particularly French one — about the role of schools and other state institutions in shaping the values and ideals of the nation’s youngest citizens.

Macron and his ministers, who are currently promoting legislation designed to curb Islamist “separatist” ideology and lifestyles, are demanding strict adherence to French secular values. As such they are reluctant to see the state’s prerogatives usurped by local governments with their own priorities.

Conservatives have already fulminated about the Green mayor of Bordeaux rejecting a public Christmas fir because he did not want to celebrate around a “dead tree”. Other Green civic leaders have refused to host the Tour de France cycle race in their towns because of the carbon footprint of all the accompanying motor vehicles.

On the right, the loss of meat as a choice for school meals is sometimes portrayed as another step towards the forced dismantling of the French way of life, but politicians wary of pointless conflicts are more phlegmatic about the affair.

“I don’t think the children of Lyon are going to die of anaemia in the days ahead, but I also don’t think this will do much to reduce greenhouse gases,” Roland Lescure, an MP with Macron’s governing La République en Marche! party, was quoted as saying in Le Parisien.

“Everyone is playing politics,” he added, “including the mayor of Lyon.” 



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ECB signals rising concern about eurozone bond market sell-off

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The European Central Bank has indicated it will increase the pace of its emergency bond purchases to counter the recent sell-off in eurozone sovereign debt markets if borrowing costs for governments, companies and households continue to rise.

Philip Lane, chief economist of the ECB, said on Thursday that the central bank was “closely monitoring the evolution of longer-term nominal bond yields” and its asset purchases “will be conducted to preserve favourable financing conditions over the pandemic period”.

The ECB has pledged to ensure financial conditions encourage investment and spending, helping the eurozone economy to make a swift recovery and lifting inflation towards the central bank objective of just below 2 per cent.

To achieve this, Lane signalled that it would rely on its pandemic emergency purchase programme, under which it plans to spend up to €1.85tn on buying bonds by March 2022. There is just under €1tn of that amount left to spend.

“We will purchase flexibly according to market conditions and with a view to preventing a tightening of financing conditions that is inconsistent with countering the downward impact of the pandemic on the projected path of inflation,” he said.

Eurozone government bonds fell to their lowest levels for almost six months this week, and while Lane’s comments caused a brief rally on Thursday afternoon, prices then resumed their downward path.

Bond yields move inversely to prices, so the sell-off is pushing up the cost of borrowing for governments, which must sell vast amounts of extra debt this year to cover the cost of the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences.

Germany’s 10-year bond yield has risen to its highest level since last March, while the French equivalent returned to a positive yield for the first time since June and Italian sovereign yields hit their highest level since November.

ECB president Christine Lagarde said in a speech on Monday that policymakers were “closely monitoring” the rises. 

Isabel Schnabel, another ECB executive board member, said in an interview with Latvian news agency Leta published on Thursday: “A too-abrupt increase in real interest rates on the back of improving global growth prospects could jeopardise the economic recovery.”

Lane gave more detail of how the ECB defines “favourable” financing conditions, saying it would track the availability and cost of bank lending and market-based funding — in particular, the risk-free overnight index swap curve and the GDP-weighted eurozone sovereign bond yield curve, which have both risen in recent days.

He warned of the need to avoid “a mutually-reinforcing adverse loop” in which banks interpret lower borrowing demand as a negative signal about the economy and companies interpret a tightening of bank lending conditions as a worrying sign about the outlook. 

Eurozone bank lending to the private sector grew by just under €12bn in January, down 75 per cent from the average monthly loan growth last year according to data published on Thursday.

Much of the slowdown was because of a sharp fall in net lending to insurers and pension funds. Lending to non-financial companies also retreated slightly, while lending to households still grew but at its slowest rate since last April.

Krishna Guha, vice-president at Evercore ISI, said “ECB jawboning” was “having little effect” and “the next step — in our view presaged by Lane — is for the ECB to dial up the pace of its [bond] purchases”.

Last week the ECB spent a net €17.3bn on its emergency bond purchase programme, up slightly from the previous week but still well below the levels of last April, during the previous sell-off in government bond markets.

Frederik Ducrozet, strategist at Pictet Wealth Management, said the ECB was likely to wait until it was clear the bond market sell-off was a lasting shift before increasing its emergency bond buying above €20bn per week. But he said that “will bring the risk of disappointment [for investors] — because you have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk as a central bank”.



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Armenia’s prime minister claims military is plotting a coup

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Armenia’s prime minister has claimed the country’s military is plotting a “coup,” and taken to the streets with his supporters after senior army figures in the former Soviet republic called on him to resign.

Nikol Pashinyan has faced months of protests demanding he step down after the defeat of Armenian forces in a six-week war with neighbouring Azerbaijan that ended in November.

The army weighed in on Thursday, calling on the prime minister to quit after he fired the first deputy chief of staff for criticising him.

A letter to the prime minister signed by 40 senior officers warned Pashinyan not to use force against demonstrators, but did not say whether the army would act to remove him from power.

“The current government’s ineffective management and serious mistakes in foreign policy have put the country on the brink of collapse,” the officers wrote on Facebook.

Pashinyan later fired the chief of the general staff, Onik Gasparyan, ordered police to secure government buildings in Yerevan and told his supporters in the capital’s Republic Square to avoid violent clashes.

Demonstrators at an opposition rally in Yerevan demand the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan. They cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead © Artem Mikryukov/Reuters

Describing the situation as “manageable” the prime minister denied he was planning to flee the country and said the army’s statement was an “emotional reaction” to a dispute over the defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“We have no enemies in Armenia. I am calling for calm,” Pashinyan said, according to Russian news agency Interfax. “Of course, the situation is tense, but we need dialogue, not confrontation.”

He later took to the streets with several thousand supporters and a megaphone — an echo of the 2018 “velvet revolution” that swept him to power following a march across the country that galvanised popular support. A few thousand opposition supporters gathered at a different square and cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead.

Pashinyan has fought off calls for his resignation since signing a Moscow-brokered peace deal in November that cemented territorial gains for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous enclave in the South Caucasus is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but is populated by ethnic Armenians who seized control after a war that broke out in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country and a close ally of Turkey, launched an offensive in September with the aim of retaking the entire enclave. Armenia’s army was ill prepared for oil-rich Azerbaijan’s modern drone fleet and significant backing from Ankara.

More than 3,300 Armenian soldiers died in the conflict, with a further 9,000 wounded. Thousands of civilians were displaced, including some who set their own homes on fire as they fled land now under control of Azerbaijan.

Russia, the traditional regional power broker and Armenia’s most important ally, remained neutral even as several previous ceasefires failed and has deployed 2,000 peacekeepers to secure the region.

Pashinyan admitted the terms were “unbelievably painful for me and my people” but argued the concessions were necessary to prevent further losses.

The devastating defeat sparked fury among Armenians who stormed the country’s parliament and attacked its speaker, demanding the prime minister’s resignation.

Pashinyan backtracked on a pledge to step down after snap elections earlier this month and remained in office in the face of opposition from Armenia’s ceremonial president, three parliamentary opposition parties, and key church leaders.

The Kremlin said on Thursday it was “following events in Armenia with caution” but considered them “exclusively Armenia’s internal matter”.

Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told reporters Russia was “calling on everyone to be calm” and said “the situation should remain within constitutional limits,” according to Interfax.



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