Shock Waves Hit the Global Economy, Posing Grave Risk to Europe

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the continuing effects of the pandemic have hobbled countries around the globe, but the relentless series of crises has hit Europe the hardest, causing the steepest jump in energy prices, some of the highest inflation rates and the biggest risk of recession.

The fallout from the war is menacing the continent with what some fear could become its most challenging economic and financial crisis in decades.

While growth is slowing worldwide, “in Europe it’s altogether more serious because it’s driven by a more fundamental deterioration,” said Neil Shearing, group chief economist at Capital Economics. Real incomes and living standards are falling, he added. “Europe and Britain are just worse off.”

Several countries, including Germany, the region’s largest economy, built up a decades-long dependence on Russian energy. The eightfold increase in natural gas prices since the war began presents a historic threat to Europe’s industrial might, living standards, and social peace and cohesion. Plans for factory closings, rolling blackouts and rationing are being drawn up in case of severe shortages this winter.

The risk of sinking incomes, growing inequality and rising social tensions could lead “not only to a fractured society but a fractured world,” said Ian Goldin, a professor of globalization and development at Oxford University. “We haven’t faced anything like this since the 1970s, and it’s not ending soon.”

Other regions of the world are also being squeezed, although some of the causes — and prospects — differ.

Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy company, said this week that it would not resume the flow of natural gas through its Nord Stream 1 pipeline until Europe lifted Ukraine-related sanctions.Credit…Hannibal Hanschke/EPA, via Shutterstock

Higher interest rates, which are being deployed aggressively to quell inflation, are trimming consumer spending and growth in the United States. Still, the American labor market remains strong, and the economy is moving forward.

China, a powerful engine of global growth and a major market for European exports like cars, machinery and food, is facing its own set of problems. Beijing’s policy of continuing to freeze all activity during Covid-19 outbreaks has repeatedly paralyzed large swaths of the economy and added to worldwide supply chain disruptions. In the last few weeks alone, dozens of cities and more than 300 million people have been under full or partial lockdowns. Extreme heat and drought have hamstrung hydropower generation, forcing additional factory closings and rolling blackouts.

A troubled real estate market has added to the economic instability in China. Hundreds of thousands of people are refusing to pay their mortgages because they have lost confidence that developers will ever deliver their unfinished housing units. Trade with the rest of the world took a hit in August, and overall economic growth, although likely to outrun rates in the United States and Europe, looks as if it will slip to its slowest pace in a decade this year. The prospect has prompted China’s central bank to cut interest rates in hopes of stimulating the economy.

Understand the Decline in U.S. Gas Prices

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Understand the Decline in U.S. Gas Prices

Gas prices are falling. In August, U.S. gas prices retreated to their lowest level since March, providing relief for Americans overwhelmed by high prices at the pump. Here is what to know:

Understand the Decline in U.S. Gas Prices

Demand is pushing prices down. As gas prices rose, people adjusted their driving habits to accommodate prices, which reached an all-time high in June. Fewer drivers on the road has made gasoline more affordable, and some states have also suspended taxes on gasoline to bring prices down.

Understand the Decline in U.S. Gas Prices

Oil prices have fallen. Just two months ago, oil prices, which are tied to gas prices, surpassed $120 a barrel, helping to push the national average price of gasoline to about $5 a gallon. But prices have steadily decreased with increased oil production, helping to bring gas prices down and easing broader recession fears.

Understand the Decline in U.S. Gas Prices

Gas prices vary. Despite the overall decline, the cost of gas can vary considerably at the state level. In California, regulations to limit pollution make driving more expensive, so gas prices will be higher than in a state like Georgia, which has lower gas taxes.

Understand the Decline in U.S. Gas Prices

A political boost for Joe Biden. The cheaper prices are a political win for President Biden, especially as falling fuel costs have brought down overall inflation. But experts are unsure that the low prices will last, as oil prices are volatile and determined by myriad forces, many of which are hard to predict.

“The global economy is undoubtedly slowing,” said Gregory Daco, chief economist at the global consulting firm EY- Parthenon,but it’s “happening at different speeds.”

In other parts of the world, countries that are able to supply vital materials and goods — particularly energy producers in the Middle East and North Africa — are seeing windfall gains.

And India and Indonesia are growing at unexpectedly fast paces as domestic demand increases and multinational companies look to vary their supply chains. Vietnam, too, is benefiting as manufacturers switch operations to its shores.

A factory in Changzhou, China. China’s policy of freezing all activity during Covid-19 outbreaks has affected its economy and added to worldwide supply chain disruptions.Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

Even so, China, the eurozone and the United States together account for roughly two-thirds of the planet’s economic activity, and if those powerhouses all slow down, it will be hard for any country to remain insulated from the fallout.

Poorer people, who spend much more of their total incomes on food and energy, are being hit hardest.

In Europe, anxiety about frigid living rooms, shuttered production lines and head-spinning energy bills this winter ratcheted up this week after Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy company, declared it would not resume the flow of natural gas through its Nord Stream 1 pipeline until Europe lifted Ukraine-related sanctions.

Daily average electricity prices in Western Europe have reached record levels, according to Rystad Energy, surging past 600 euros ($599) per megawatt-hour in Germany and €700 in France, with peak-hour rates as high as €1,500.

In the Czech Republic, roughly 70,000 angry protesters, many with links to far-right groups, gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague this past weekend to demonstrate against soaring energy bills.

The German, French and Finnish governments have already stepped in to save domestic power companies from bankruptcy. Even so, Uniper, which is based in Germany and one of Europe’s largest natural gas buyers and suppliers, said last week that it was losing more than €100 million a day because of the rise in prices.

A housing complex under construction in Dongguan, China, in July. A troubled real estate market has added to the economic instability in China.Credit…Jade Gao/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The European Commission, which has scheduled an emergency meeting of energy ministers for Friday, is calling for a cap on wholesale gas prices and an overhaul of how electricity is priced. And in recent days, Germany, Sweden, France and Britain all announced sweeping billion-dollar relief programs to ease the strain on households and businesses, along with rationing and conservation plans.

The cost of all these measures would be enormous, at a time when government debt levels are already staggering. The worry about perilously high debt prompted the International Monetary Fund this week to issue a proposal to reform the European Union’s framework for government public spending and deficits.

Still, a pitiless and unyielding reality remains: a lack of energy that countries can afford.

At current prices, there is simply not enough to produce the steel, lumber, microchips, glass, cotton, plastic, chemicals and electricity that go into making the food, home heat, garage doors, tampons, bicycles, baby formula, wine glasses and more that consumers want.

The root of the shortage predates the Ukraine war.

Commodity prices started rising in 2020 as countries began emerging from pandemic restrictions, noted Sven Smit, a senior partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. In the United States alone, consumers were, in effect, buying $1 trillion more goods than expected, based on spending patterns before coronavirus hit.

Read More About Oil and Gas Prices

  • Prices Drop: After peaking in mid-June, U.S. gas prices have tracked a global decline in oil prices and are back where they were in March. But weather, war and demand will influence how long it lasts.
  • The Next Chapter: Even though oil prices are now lower than they were when the war began,  it would be premature to celebrate: Energy prices can spike as easily as they can plummet.
  • A New Economic Scorecard: President Biden has grown fond of boasting about the prolonged streak of falling gasoline prices. But embracing the economic indicator carries some risks.

And the sudden switch in spending on products like new kitchen tiles and cars rather than services like restaurant dining and entertainment added to the problem because more energy and materials are needed to make them.

About 70,000 protesters gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague this past weekend to demonstrate against soaring energy bills.Credit…Martin Divisek/EPA, via Shutterstock

There is a “depleted supply chain,” more than a broken one, Mr. Smit said. “This is a physical crisis rather than a psychological crisis,” which is different from those that most people remember.

In the past, “you got scared of something, you stopped spending, and then you got more comfortable and spending came back,” Mr. Smit said. “That’s not what’s happening right now. To solve this puzzle, we have to restore supply.”

That puzzle is complicated by the need to produce energy that not only is quickly available and affordable, but also won’t aggravate the calamitous climate change already endangering the planet.

Achieving that goal will take years, rather than months.

In the short term, a limit on energy prices could offer struggling households and businesses relief, but economists are concerned that caps blunt the incentive to reduce energy consumption — the chief goal in a world of shortages.

Central banks in the West are expected to keep raising interest rates to make borrowing more expensive and force down inflation. On Thursday, the European Central Bank is set to again raise interest rates. The U.S. Federal Reserve is likely to do the same when it meets this month. The Bank of England has taken a similar position.

The worry is that the vigorous push to bring down prices will plunge economies into recessions. Higher interest rates alone won’t bring down the price of oil and gas — except by crashing economies so much that demand is severely reduced. Many analysts are already predicting a recession in Germany, Italy and the rest of the eurozone before the end of the year. For poor and emerging countries, higher interest rates mean more debt and less money to spend on the most vulnerable.

“I think we’re living through the biggest development disaster in history, with more people being pushed more quickly into dire poverty than has every happened before,” said Mr. Goldin, the Oxford professor. “It’s a particularly perilous time for the world economy.”

The European Commission headquarters in Brussels. The commission is calling for a cap on wholesale gas prices and an overhaul of how electricity is priced.
Credit…Dia Takacsova for The New York Times
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