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Lockdown is blow to hopes of UK recovery

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If anyone was still harbouring hopes that the UK economy was on a steady path to recovery, this weekend’s announcement of a further month of national lockdown will have been a bitter blow.

A month ago, Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, urged people not to sink into a “contagious pessimism” that would do unnecessary damage to the economy. But now, all three of the risks he acknowledged at the time — a worsening of the virus and the consequent restrictions, rising unemployment and a disorderly Brexit — appear to be crystallising.

When the monetary policy committee meets later this week, its new forecasts are likely to show that the summer’s rebound in growth was weaker than the BoE expected in August; that output will at best barely grow in the fourth quarter; and that the scars left on the economy by the pandemic will be deeper and longer-lasting than hoped.

The new stay-at-home order will reinforce the case for the MPC to launch a fresh round of quantitative easing on Thursday — with analysts predicting it could add a further £50bn to £150bn to its target stock of asset purchases. But economists say this will do very little to boost growth at present — although it may ease the government’s issuance of gilts to fund further fiscal stimulus.

“Anything the MPC does now will do little to prevent a renewed recession if virus cases continue to rise and the government ramps up restrictions,” said Ruth Gregory, at the consultancy Capital Economics, while adding that monetary easing would still help keep companies afloat and limit job losses.

“For many firms, national lockdown marks the start of a bleak midwinter,” Carolyn Fairbairn, the outgoing CBI director-general, said in a tweet after the government announced the renewed national closure of hospitality, leisure and non-essential retail businesses.

The timing will be especially punishing for retailers, coming at the height of the crucial pre-Christmas season. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said the spring lockdown had cost non-essential retailers £1.6bn a week in lost sales, but that the new closure would cause “untold damage”, since in the run-up to Christmas, “these losses are certain to be much bigger”.

Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association, said the timing could not be worse for small shops, since “Christmas shopping was already starting and will now end up being carried out online”.

But while the impact on some sectors will be acute, the overall hit to GDP will not be as severe as in the first national lockdown, with education set to continue, and the government making it clear that manufacturing and construction sites should remain open.

Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s managing director, said last week she did not expect a second wave of the virus to lead to the “dramatic drop” in output seen in March, because “most of the negative impact on contact-dependent industries has already happened”, other sectors had adapted to doing everything virtually where possible, and policymakers had taken extraordinary steps to “put a floor under the economy”.

But the IMF’s latest forecasts for the UK — issued after tiered regional measures were introduced, but before the new national lockdown — are still bleak: the fund expects UK output to have shrunk 10.4 per cent over the course of 2020, far worse than the BoE forecast in August, and to remain between 3 and 6 per cent below pre-pandemic levels in the medium term. 

Julian Jessop, former chief economist and head of the Brexit unit at the Institute for Economic Affairs, has been more upbeat than many about the prospects for the UK labour market, but still struggled to find sources of optimism after the new lockdown. With schools open, businesses better prepared and a clearer exit strategy, the economic hit should be less severe than in the spring, he said — but even if it were only a fifth as bad, this would still mean a hit to GDP of at least 5 per cent.

And if the new restrictions on activity are less stringent than those imposed in March, so too is the extent of government support on offer for businesses and workers.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been forced to reinstate the UK’s furlough scheme, just days after its expiry, subsidising 80 per cent of wages for any hours that employees do not work (much to the outrage of observers in the north of England, where local leaders’ demands for this increase in generosity were ignored two weeks ago).

He has also announced new grants for businesses that are required to close; provided a further £1.1bn for local authorities to offer one-off support to businesses; and extended mortgage holidays that had been set to expire at the weekend.

However, there is no new help for the self-employed — who will receive a lower level of help than furloughed employees even if they qualify for grants under the government’s Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. Many are not eligible for this scheme and are already reliant on benefits — and some could see these cut later in November, unless the government extends its suspension of the so-called minimum income floor, which limits payments to self-employed people with low earnings.

Nor is there any additional help yet for renters, who are more likely than homeowners to have run up arrears with their landlord, or fallen behind on other debts, since the start of the pandemic.

“The government should have acted decisively much sooner and now families face a grim winter,” said Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC. “Ministers must do more to protect jobs and prevent poverty.”



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Analysis

Rising inflation complicates Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis

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After seven months in lockdown, Michele Marques received some unwelcome news when she returned to work: while she was away the prices of almost all the products she uses as a hairdresser had soared.

“A box of gloves rose 200 per cent. Colouring products increased at least 100 per cent,” said the 37-year-old from São Paulo, underlining how costs were rising while her revenue had collapsed. “I had to raise the price of my services, too.”

It is a dynamic that is playing out across Brazil, adding an extra layer of complexity to the country’s coronavirus crisis, which has already claimed the lives of almost 350,000 individuals and pushed hospital services to the brink.

With much of Latin America’s largest economy being shuttered, inflation is surging to its highest level in years, fuelling a silent scourge of hunger among poorer citizens that has run in parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The high price of staple foods — rice and beans, for example — has led to the disappearance of these items from the table of millions of Brazilians,” said Ana Maria Segall, a researcher at the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security. In the 12 months to the end of March, the price of rice increased 64 per cent and black beans 51 per cent.

“In Brazil currently food inflation has penalised the very poorest, preventing them from having adequate access to food and in many situations leading to hunger,” she said, adding that rising unemployment and the curtailment of social programmes were also contributing factors.

Volunteers hand out food in São Paulo © Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Less than half of Brazil’s population of 212m now has access to adequate food all the time, with 19m people, or 9 per cent of its inhabitants, facing hunger, according to a recent report by Segall’s group.

“I’m doing some odd jobs, but it’s not enough to keep us going,” said Jonathan, a 28-year-old who lost his job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in São Paulo when the pandemic began. He said he now struggles to provide enough food for his three young children and pregnant wife.

On a 12-month basis, inflation in June is expected to surpass 8 per cent, far above earlier estimates. In the 12 months to March, food prices jumped 18.5 per cent, while the price of agricultural commodities in local currency surged 55 per cent and the cost of fuel increased almost 92 per cent.

Line chart of Percentage increase over past 12 months showing The price of rice in Brazil is soaring

The developments pose a fresh challenge to President Jair Bolsonaro, who is already under fire for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Across Brazil’s biggest cities, graffiti has sprung up labelling the populist leader “Bolsocaro” — a portmanteau of his name and the Portuguese word for expensive.

The rising prices are also likely to provide useful ammunition to leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who returned to the political fray last month and may challenge Bolsonaro in elections next year.

“Bolsonaro is to blame for the increase in food prices, he is to blame for everything. They have to remove this guy,” said Maria Izabel de Jesus, a retiree from São Paulo.

Armando Castelar, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Economics, said the government had underestimated inflation both in terms of the numbers and also “how much a concern it should be”.

He attributed the rising prices to the devaluation of the Brazilian currency, triggered in part by the stimulus packages passed by the US government — which helped to bolster the dollar and led to higher Treasury yields — and the brighter economic outlook outside Latin America.

“You have a situation where commodity prices are going up because the global economy is going to grow a lot this year. With the growth in the US, interest rates are going up and the dollar is strengthening. This puts a lot of pressure on the exchange rate in Brazil and emerging markets in general,” he said.

As the spectre of inflation loomed last month, the Brazilian central bank raised its key interest rate by 75 basis points, higher than the half-percentage point many economists had expected. A further rate rise is expected next month.

“The central bank acted correctly, but it cannot stop there. It is important not to be too lenient in dealing with this,” said Castelar.

Silvia Matos, a co-ordinator at the Brazilian Economy Institute, also pointed to Brazil’s weakening currency as a contributing factor to inflation. But she said the slide in the real was triggered by investor concerns over Brazil’s deteriorating public finances.

Following the creation of two separate stimulus packages to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, government debt has risen to about 90 per cent of gross domestic product, a high level for an emerging market economy.

The rollout of the second of these packages began this month, with 45m Brazilians set to receive $50 a month for four months.

Critics said, however, these stipends were not nearly enough to keep people both fed and at home in lockdown.

“It is essential that the emergency aid is of a greater value, so that people do not leave the house but no one also stays at home starving,” said Marcelo Freixo, a federal lawmaker with the leftwing PSOL party.

“We need to reduce the circulation of the disease. Brazil is already experiencing 4,000 deaths per day. We will reach 500,000 total deaths by the middle of the year.”

Matos says that inflation had hit poorer citizens much harder than middle-class and rich Brazilians because a larger portion of their income was dedicated to food, the price of which has increased substantially.

“The only thing that could help right now is to get out of this pandemic,” she said.

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Can CVC pull off a $20bn ‘deal of the century’ at Toshiba?

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Proposed management buyout looks like an improbable win for the Japanese conglomerate’s embattled CEO



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‘We’re running towards a cliff edge’: UK electric bus makers face survive-or-die moment

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The commute on the number 43 bus past the Bank of England between London Bridge and Friern Barnet highlights the critical challenge facing the UK bus industry.

The sleek double-decker is one of the capital’s 450 electric buses, but no more than a third of the seats are full during midweek rush hour as the industry struggles with the collapse in passenger numbers.

For the producers of electric and hydrogen vehicles, the coronavirus crisis came just at the wrong time as they prepared to overhaul Britain’s fleet of 38,200 buses and take advantage of diesel falling out of favour.

The ambition to transform the market to green powertrains remains — but now the primary concern is how it can stagger back to health after passenger numbers dived more than 80 per cent at one point during the crisis last year.

“We’re running towards a cliff edge, if we don’t start getting orders,” said Andy Palmer, chair of Leeds-based bus maker Switch Mobility and former Aston Martin chief executive. “The key point is speed. The industry needs to get back on its feet and manufacture at scale.”

To get those orders, manufacturers need government help, which ministers recognised with a promise of £5bn for buses and other transport in early 2020.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson’s national bus strategy is the biggest transformation of the sector since deregulation in 1986 © Steve Parsons/Pool/AFP/Getty

This was narrowed down in England’s national bus strategy — the biggest transformation since the sector was deregulated in 1986 — to £3bn in March, specifically for buses and the reaffirming of support for building 4,000 low-emission vehicles.

As part of this strategy, the government launched the tender for the first tranche to support 500 buses at the end of March.

Still, some operators worry government money may be as slow in arriving as some of the country’s buses, undermining their desire to pump money into the electric sector.

“It’s only through making profits that we can invest,” said David Brown, chief executive of Newcastle-based Go-Ahead. He points out that electric buses cost twice as much upfront as diesel.

It means the big operators, which include National Express, Stagecoach and FirstGroup as well as Go-Ahead, need the subsidies soon if they are going to invest in orders for battery-powered vehicles.

Paul Davies, president of the UK’s largest bus and coach manufacturer Alexander Dennis Limited, ADL, said orders were about 1,000 units lower than expected in 2020, almost half of pre-pandemic expectations.

Other groups needed intervention to survive. Northern Ireland-based Wrightbus was on the verge of collapse before being rescued by businessman Jo Bamford, the heir to JCB, Britain’s construction equipment manufacturer, known for its yellow diggers.

Bamford, however, is upbeat, saying orders for electric buses will come, helped by moves towards low-emission street regulations in cities and operators such as National Express committing to a zero-emission bus fleet by 2030.

But, even on optimistic forecasts, the UK’s three main electric bus manufacturers — ADL, Switch and Wrightbus — face big challenges from overseas rivals.

China’s Yutong Bus, the world’s largest producer, is way ahead of them, having sold 15,300 low-emission buses globally last year.

Its sights are also firmly set on exporting globally, selling 130 buses in the UK in the past 12 months and receiving an order in March for 55 more from Scotland’s McGill’s Buses.

ADL is attempting to meet this challenge by joining forces with Chinese battery maker BYD, while Bamford has turned to hydrogen as a way to get an edge. He owns Ryse, a hydrogen fuelling company.

A Yutong bus
Leicester’s E12 electric buses, built by China’s Yutong Bus

“When someone has 73 per cent market share [of the global automotive electric battery market], it’s difficult to knock them off their perch,” he said, explaining his bet on hydrogen.

That bet was given a boost in March with a £11.2m government subsidy to create a hydrogen technology centre in Northern Ireland, where Bamford’s Wrightbus is based.

Even with government backing, the challenges for UK producers remain great, with groups such as Yutong on its third-generation of fuel cell buses in China, according to its UK boss Ian Downie.

In contrast, Britain’s biggest producer ADL is still on its second-generation and, like Wrightbus, which says it is constantly updating its technology, is reliant on fuel cells from Canada’s Ballard.

The UK government could also run into trouble with the World Trade Organization if it explicitly advocates supporting local procurement, said a person familiar with Department for Transport discussions on the policy.

On top of this, the British groups face a challenge from Arrival, which listed in the US in March through a special purpose acquisition company and is backed by South Korea’s Hyundai. It aims to start producing buses from its “microfactory” by the end of the year.

In the view of Palmer at Switch, the UK groups will need to develop overseas markets to achieve the economies of scale to make profits.

“Can you survive on the basis of the UK alone? Our conclusion is you can’t,” said the chair of Switch, which is owned by Indian auto group Ashok Leyland. He pointed to India’s ambition to order 7,000 low-emissions buses by the end of its 2022 fiscal year that could benefit Switch.

However, before looking to expand overseas, the UK’s manufacturers need to get through the pandemic, which still hangs ominously over the sector, clouding its outlook.

The government must help UK groups “get us over this valley of death” to ensure their survival, said Nigel Base, commercial vehicle manager at lobby group the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.



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