Transcript of the Press Conference on the Release of the World Economic Outlook Update


Gita Gopinath, IMF Economic Counsellor and Director, Research Department

Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretti, Deputy Director, Research Department

Malhar Nabar, Division Chief, Research Department

Raphael Anspach, Senior Communications Officer, Communications Department

MR. ANSPACH: Welcome to the Conference on the World Economic Outlook update, which we are releasing today. With us to talk about the report are Gita Gopinath, she’s our Economic Counsellor and Director of the IMF Research Department; Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretti, Deputy Director of the IMF Research Department; and Malhar Nabar, Division Chief in the Research Department.

Gita will have introductory remarks and then we’ll be happy to take your questions. I encourage you all to send those questions to With that, Gita, the floor is yours.

MS. GOPINATH: Thank you, Raphael. Welcome everyone to this update of the World Economic Outlook. The covid-19 pandemic pushed economies into a great lockdown that saved lives but also triggered the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Over 75 percent of countries are now reopening at the same time as the pandemic intensifies in many emerging and developing economies. Several countries have started to recover. However, in the absence of medical solution, the strength of this recovery is highly uncertain, and the impact across sectors and countries highly uneven.

Compared to our April World Economic Outlook, we are now projecting a deeper recession in 2020 and a slower recovery in 2021. Global output is projected to decline by minus 4.9 percent in 2020, which is 1.9 percentage points below our April forecast. Followed by a partial recovery with growth projected at 5.4 percent in 2021. You can see that on the slide here.

Now these projections imply a cumulative loss to the global economy over two years of over $12 trillion from this crisis. The downgrade from April reflects worse than anticipated outcomes in the first half of this year and expectation of more persistent social distancing into the second half of this year, and damage to supply potential.

Now a high degree of uncertainty surrounds this forecast with both upside and downside risks. On the upside, better news on vaccines and treatments and further policy support could trigger a faster recovery. On the downside, further waves of infections can reverse increased mobility and spending and rapidly tighten financial conditions, triggering debt distress.

Geopolitical tensions and trade tensions could damage fragile global relations at a time when trade is projected to collapse by 12 percent.

Now this crisis is a crisis like no other and will have a recovery like no other. First, the unprecedented global sweep of this crisis hampers recovery prospects for export-dependent economies and jeopardizes the prospects for income convergence between developing and advanced economies.

We are projecting a synchronized deep downturn in 2020 for both advance economies and emerging market and developing economies with over 95 percent of countries projected to have negative per capita income growth in 2020. A cumulative hit to GDP growth over 2021 for emerging markets and developing economies, excluding China, is expected to exceed that in advanced economies.

Now second, as countries reopen the pick-up is uneven. On the one hand pent up demand is leading to a surge in spending in some sectors, like retail. On the other hand contact-intensive sectors, like hospitality, tourism, and travel, remain depressed. So countries that are heavily reliant on these sectors are likely to be deeply impacted for a prolonged period.

Third, the labor market has been severely hit and at record speed. And particularly so for low income workers, and semi-skilled workers who do not have the option of teleworking. With activity in labor in terms of sectors like tourism and hospitality expected to remain subdued, a full recovery in the labor market may take a while, worsening inequality and raising poverty.

Now on the positive side the recovery is benefitting from exceptional policy support, particularly in advanced economies, and to a lesser extent in emerging market and developing economies that are more fiscally constrained.

Global fiscal support now stands at over $10 trillion and monetary policy has eased dramatically. In many countries these measures have succeeded in improving livelihoods and preventing large scale bankruptcies, plus helping to reduce lasting scars and aiding a recovery.

Now this exceptional support, particularly by major Central Banks, has also driven a strong recovery in financial conditions despite grim real outcomes.

Equity prices have rebounded, credit spreads have narrowed, and portfolio flows in many emerging and developing economies have stabilized, alongside some currencies appreciating that were previously depreciating.

So by preventing a financial crisis, policy support has helped avert worse real outcomes. At the same time the disconnect between real and financial markets raises concerns of excessive risk taking, and this is significant vulnerability.

So we are definitely not out of the woods, we have not escaped the great lockdown. Given this tremendous uncertainty, policy makers should remain vigilant and adapt policies as the situation evolves. Substantial joint support from fiscal and monetary policy will need to be continued, especially in countries where inflation is projected to stay low.

At the same time, countries should ensure proper fiscal accounting and fiscal transparency and ensure that Central Bank independence is maintained.

Now a priority is to manage health risks as countries reopen. This requires continuing to build health capacity, widespread testing, tracing, isolation, and practicing safe distancing. These measures help contain the spread of the virus, reassure the public that new outbreaks can be dealt with in an orderly fashion, and minimize economic disruptions.

The international community must further expand financial assistance and expertise to countries with weaker health capacity. Much more needs to be done to ensure adequate and affordable production and distribution of vaccines and treatments when they become available.

Now in countries where activities are being severely constrained by the health crisis, people directly impacted should receive income support through unemployment insurance and cash transfers. And impacted firms should also be supported for loans, credit guarantees, and grants.

Now to more effectively reach the unemployed in countries with large informal sector, the digital payment system should be expanded and complemented with in-kind support for food and medicine and other household staples channeled through local governments and community organizations.

In countries that have begun to reopen and where the recovery is under way, policy support will need to gradually shift towards encouraging a return to work and to facilitating a reallocation of workers from sectors that are shrinking to those that are growing.

Now this could take the form of spending on worker training and hiring subsidies that are targeted at workers that are at the greatest risk of becoming long-term unemployed.

Now supporting a recovery would also involve actions to repair balance sheets and address debt overhang. This will require strong insolvency frameworks and mechanisms for restructuring and disposing of distress debt. The policy support should also gradually shift from being targeted to being more broad-based. Where fiscal space permits, countries should undertake green public investment to accelerate the recovery and support longer-term climate goals. To protect the most vulnerable in society expanded social safety nets will have to remain in place for a long time.

Now the international community must ensure that developing economies have the financing that they need to undertake critical spending. This should take the form of concessional financing, debt relief, and grants. And also that emerging and developing economies have access to international liquidity via ensuring financial stability, financial market stability, Central Banks swap lines, and deployment of a global financial safety net.

Now this crisis will also generate medium-term challenges. Public debt is projected this year to reach the highest level ever, even past the World War II peak, in both advanced and emerging market and developing economies. So countries will need sound fiscal frameworks for medium-term consolidation through cutting back on wasteful spending, widening the tax base, minimizing tax avoidance, and greater progressivity in taxation in some countries.

At the same time this crisis also presents an opportunity to accelerate the shift to a more productive, sustainable, and equitable growth, to investment in new green and digital technologies, and wider social safety nets.

Global cooperation is ever so important in this truly global crisis. All efforts should be made to resolve trade and technology tensions, while improving the multilateral rules based trading system.

The IMF will continue to do all it can to ensure adequate international equity, provide emergency financing, support the G20 debt service suspension initiative, and provide advice and support to countries during this unprecedented crisis. Thank you.

MR. ANSPACH: We have a number of questions that have already come here. So, let me start with the first question from the Daily Mail in the UK. The question is whether this is the sharpest recession since the Great Depression?

MS. GOPINATH: This is an unprecedented crisis, and this is indeed the worst recession since the Great Depression. It was already the worst recession since the Great Depression in April when we had projected growth for 2020 to be at minus 3 percent, but now at minus 4.9 percent that is even more strongly true. And no country has been spared. Both emerging markets, developing economies, advanced economies, have all been very badly hit during this crisis.

MR. ANSPACH: Moving on to a next question here from Eric Martin of Bloomberg. The question is, the WEO highlights the disconnect between financial markets and economic fundamentals. Stock markets in particular are often several months ahead of the real economy. To what extent do you think the disconnect between financial markets and economic fundamentals may be explained by investors looking ahead on an economic rebound?

MS. GOPINATH: This crisis has called for exceptional policy support both from fiscal policy and monetary policy, and that has been delivered this time around.

Central Banks, especially major Central Banks in the world have undertaken extraordinary steps to ensure smooth market functioning, keep interest rates low, provide liquidity. Now what that has meant is that that has led to a substantial improvement in financial conditions since our last April outlook, and that seems somewhat disconnected by real outcomes.

So I would say the two important factors we think of as being important for this rebound of financial conditions is one, the extraordinary policy support, and second, that in the face of tremendous uncertainty about where the world economy is headed, I think markets are taking a more positive outlook for the future. I think the combination explains what we are seeing right now.

MR. ANSPACH: Moving to a question from Yicai, and moving to the recovery. The question is, what kind of recovery are you expecting? Is it more likely to be V, U, or W shape? What is the major challenge down the road for the recovery?

MS. GOPINATH: So the worst for the global economy was what we saw in the first and second quarter of this year, and especially in the second quarter for most economies. So that was the definite collapse. Now since then, if you look at recent data that’s coming in, you do see signs of improvement. In some places there’s still a contraction, but it’s small -- but in others we're actually seeing signs of expansion in those who have opened up for a while.

Now we describe the recovery as still highly uncertain in terms of the strength of the recovery.

So, while we could say that maybe the world has bottomed out for now, and we are in a recovery phase. But still the strength of the recovery is highly uncertain because there is no solution yet to the health crisis.

So, outcomes could be on the plus positive or the negative side. You could have better news in treatment and vaccines and the improvement could be even faster. But it could also be worse if indeed the virus cannot be contained and you have second waves.

In addition, you have concerns about escalating trade tensions, geopolitical tensions and also, a reversal in financial conditions. So, a tightening in financial conditions could trigger that distress. So, this is highly uncertain and it's uneven because some sectors are recovery much faster than contact intensive sectors like hospitality and tourism.

MR. ANSPACH: Maybe one last question before we move on to country and region specific questions. This question is from La Tribune and it's on debt. The question is, governments are going in for massive fiscal stimulus globally in response to the pandemic. How concerned are you about the risk in the long term of rating downgrades or buildup of debt, especially for emerging market countries?

MS. GOPINATH: So, this is a crisis that calls for substantial support across all countries. And that is what we have seen happening in many countries of the world. In the absence in that support to protect livelihoods and to prevent large scale bankruptcies, if that was not in place then we would have ended up with a recovery that will be much weaker and would have taken much longer to get back up to pre-crisis trends.

So, this is an investment that countries had to make now but keeping that in mind, indeed when the recovery is stronger. We are in a better place with the health crisis, better able to manage it, then countries will have to undertake a medium fiscal management and through a combination of expenditure and revenue measures.

And as of now, countries should make sure that they are following best practices. That they are putting proper safeguards in place using, you know, making sure there's proper fiscal accounting and fiscal transparency. But as of now, the need of the hour is for this kind of policy support.

MR. ANSPACH: So, moving on to some country specific questions. Here is a question from EFE. Given that the cases are growing in the U.S. and Latin America, could growth forecasts for both be downgraded in the near future?

MS. GOPINATH: This is an important downside risk. Indeed, like I said, we're not out of the woods. The health crisis is not over and so we could see a potential second wave. What we've assumed in our baseline number is that there could be an increase in the number of infections. However, we are not going to see the kind of stringent lockdowns that were needed in the first half of this year.

Now, if that changes and indeed, you need the same kind of stringency of containment going forward, then that is a significant downside risk. And something we've explored in the WEO when we've looked at the impact of a second wave that hits in say early 2021. In that case, instead of growth in 2021 being 5.4 percent it would be 0 percent so this would be a dramatic hit.

MR. ANSPACH: I'm going to stay with Latin America. I have a question on Brazil from Agencia Estado. And the question is, is the huge increase in Coronavirus cases in Brazil the major factor that led the IMF to change its forecast for the GDP drop in 2020?

MS. GOPINATH: The rise in Coronavirus cases and the difficulties in containing the pandemic is indeed one of the factors for downgrades in many countries. Now Brazil has the same challenges as many emerging markets do in terms of having to deal with this virus when you have a very dense population. And that is one important factor for the downgrade. But let me also bring in Gian Maria here if you'd like to add something.

MR. MILESI-FERRETTI: I will just add that in addition to the, you know, the measures to contain the spread of the virus that take a toll on economic activity. You have an overall worsening of our global forecast which, of course matters for the prospects of the region as a whole and more generally for the prospects of Brazil's main markets. So, those factors play in too.

MR. ANSPACH: Moving on now to Asia, I have a question on Japan from Asahi Shimbum. The question is, could you expand on the reason for the downward revision of Japan's growth.

MS. GOPINATH: In the case of Japan, we've had a downgrade, it's a very small downgrade. But that reflects the impact of containment measures which somewhat offsets the additional policy support that has come through. So, that is one of the main reasons for it. In addition, of course, given that the global economy is expected to do worse and we have downgrades for the global economy, countries that depend on exports, countries that depend on tourism are being negatively impacted. However, just to point out that the downgrades that we had, relatively speaking, Japan is a small one.

MR. ANSPACH: Staying in Asia, moving now to India. This is a question from CNBC India. Why has India's forecast been cut by a sharp 6.4 percent to -4.5 percent for 2020. Does the IMF think the government's fiscal stimulus response has been inadequate?

MS. GOPINATH: There are two main reasons for the downgrade for India. One, the partial lockdown has lasted much longer than we had assumed in our April numbers. And second, because we are still seeing a rise in cases in India, we are projecting a slower recovery. But let me also bring in Malhar here if you would like to add, especially on the fiscal side.

MR. NABAR: Sure, thank you. Good morning everyone. Just to add to Gita's points here. We have seen a fiscal response there in India, liquidity support, we've seen support to effected households and farmers. And this has, of course, helped avert an even worse downturn. Going forward, there's scope for, especially on the monetary side, we see scope for monetary policy support.

The RBI, Reserve Bank of India, has also come in quite aggressively with interest rate cuts with liquidity support actions. All of these are helping to shore up sentiment to keep liquidity -- the provision of credit going in the system and this should help prevent an even deeper slide. But with further room for support there from the monetary policy side, we could see that this could be activated in a way that actually prevents and even deeper slide.

MR. ANSPACH: A question now on sub-Saharan Africa. And the question is from Today News Africa. Could you talk a bit more about the situation in sub-Saharan Africa?

MS. GOPINATH: In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, we also have significant downgrades and especially for the larger economies South Africa, Nigeria. There is considerable heterogeneity in terms of the impact of the pandemic itself. But we have the large economies that have very large domestic disruptions. And also, we have the fact that many oil exporters have seen a big drop in oil prices, though there's been a recovery recently but is still well below the pre-crisis levels.

On top of that, you have a big drop in exports, a reduced demand for tourism. So, different countries are being affected differentially by this crisis. But again, sub-Saharan Africa has also been hit very badly in this crisis.

MR. ANSPACH: Thank you, Gita. Now moving onto the Middle East. I have a question here which states, what are your views for oil producing countries in the Middle East? And do you see a need for more support from central banks in the region?

MS. GOPINATH: In the case of the countries in the Middle East, they've been hit doubly. One of course by the health crisis like everybody else and the general collapse in economic activity everywhere else in the world. But also, the sharp drop in oil prices which has also necessitated a cut in production. There's been a drop in demand but also a cut in production by (inaudible). And so, the combination has led to a downgrade of their focus. Let me also bring in Gian Maria here if you'd like to add something.

MR. MILESI-FERRETTI: Yes. Clearly very big hit to oil exporters. And in terms of monetary policy support, of course, for a number of countries in the regions have exchange rate pegs, have fixed exchange rates and hence have much more limited scope for monetary policy to support economic activity through interest rate cuts for that reason.

I would also emphasize that unfortunately, the hit is not just to oil exporters. You have, of course, the pandemic has been aggressive elsewhere as well, even in importers. And some of the oil importers are hit very heavily by sharp decline in remittances as activity in oil exporters where many of these expatriates from these countries live has taken a heavy hit. So, you have an external demand hit, reduced demand for exports and you have as well, lower remittances. So, it's a very difficult situation for many countries in the region.

MR. ANSPACH: So, I'm not going to move back to Asia and China. Could you tell us the reasons for the downgrade of China's GDP growth and how do you see China's recovery pace?

MS. GOPINATH: So, for China, we are projecting growth at 1 percent for 2020. We've had a downgrade but it's a small downgrade of .2 percentage points. The main reason for the downgrade is the slower recovery in private consumption which has offset to some extent the better news that you got in terms of investment spending and services sectors outcomes.

For 2021, we also have a slight downgrade which reflects the fact that we expect the global economy to be recovering but to recovery slowly. So, the negative impact with the export channel has an impact on China.

In the case of China for the speed of the recovery, we do think the worst as of now is behind for the case of China. We are seeing a recovery which is really well under way and has strength to it. So, we should expect to see the economy being much better in the coming months.

MR. ANSPACH: Now a more broader question on global supply chains and trade and this is from the People's Daily. Some countries call for the back flows of manufacturing. How do you see the pandemic's impact on the global supply chain or which industries will shift?

MS. GOPINATH: So, the pandemic has affected global supply chains just by the nature of the crisis. You have had factories shutting down in many parts of the world and that has of course led to disruptions in trade flows around the world. The question though is what happens as the recovery takes hold and we actually move past the health crisis. And there, it is very important for countries to continue to keep open trade channels to improve the trading system as needed.

In terms of which countries and sectors are going to get affected, I think it's very early to say at this point because these chains don't move that quickly. But we can see some countries deciding to localize production and that would be expected to some extent. But again, in terms of seeing the overall impact, I think we'll have to wait for some more data.

MR. ANSPACH: This is a clarification question from Reuters. Could you talk about why the IMF views this recession since as the worst since the Great Depression while the World Bank calls it the worst since the 1945-46 recession at the close of World War II.

MS. GOPINATH: I mean, so we are looking here at just overall GDP growth. I know that the World Bank was looking at some per capita numbers. But I think the real relevant benchmark is that if you look at the overall impact on global growth during the Great Depression, it was around -10 percent and we are now at -4.9 percent. So, this is certainly not as bad as the Great Depression. We are also not expecting it to last as long as the Great Depression is because we're expecting to see recoveries much faster. But again, this is quite a remarkable crisis.

MR. ANSPACH: A question from South China Morning Post. The question is, you have suggested that fiscal supports are likely to remain at current levels but at the number of possible scenarios suggested that this support may need to be increased in size. Just what are the ultimate limits on such support given the extremely accommodating attitude of central banks and the suggestion that modern -- monetary theory has somehow eliminated constraints on government debt?

MS. GOPINATH: So, this again, is a crisis that requires all hands on deck and both emerging and developing countries, and advanced economies needing to spend and ensure that livelihoods are maintained, and firms are in shape to recover. To know what the extent of it is?

Of course there is substantial space in many in some advanced economies, especially reserve currency issuers, you have the expectation that interest rates are going to stay low for a very long time. That gives you space.

And again, monetary policy has space because there is a lot more that can be done in terms of asset purchases as and when needed to satisfy their mandate. But I would just like to caution the point that there is no constraint on governments, and that governments can indiscriminately print money and finance spending.

That is certainly not a given. We are in this world because a very strong monetary policy frameworks and fiscal frameworks that have helped countries be able to borrow at very low rates, but if we give up on that, then we can certainly move to a different state of the world where borrowing costs can go up quite dramatically for countries.

MR. ANSPACH: Thanks, Gita. Another question from the Daily Mail here, and the question is, Japan looks to have thrown more resources at combating the COVID-19 economic scarring than any other advanced economy on a proportional basis. Would you recommend other advanced economies to do the same?

MS. GOPINATH: Advanced economies around the world are actually doing very large amounts of fiscal support. You know, if you look at it compared to the global financial crisis, it is the order of (inaudible), it's many multiples of what we saw then. I think what governments have to now keep in mind that it is important to remain vigilant, it's important not to back off very quickly, but to do so only gradually, because this crisis is not over, there will be need for support for firms and for households.

And also as the crisis was, as the recovery evolves, it's important to move the instruments towards supporting return to work, towards supporting a reallocation of workers, and capital towards sectors that have better growth prospects than the ones that don't. So the nature of the policy intervention will have to change over time but, you know, more will be needed, and many countries are doing a lot already.

MR. ANSPACH: We are coming to the end of the press conference, so I may take two or three more questions. So, this question, again, on the recovery and financial conditions. The question is, given the current pace of recovery, when do you expect the easing financial conditions to be tightening?

MS. GOPINATH: I think here's tremendous uncertainty about what will happen with financial markets. We are seeing a recovery now. Like we said, there are both upside risks to this recovery, you could have better news for the medical front, and things could get better much faster. People might decide that they don't need to social distance as much, because they have greater confidence.

On the other hand, you could have second waves that would trigger tightening financial conditions. So it's very hard to see which way that will go. I think what we do know from what major central banks have said, is that they intend to keep rates low for long, and so that they will do their best possible to ensure orderly financial market conditions.

MR. ANSPACH: I've got another question here: On the role of China in the global economy, what kind of role do you see China playing in the recovery?

MS. GOPINATH: China is one of the countries that went into lockdown first and reopened first, and so they've had a longer period when they have been recovering, that itself -- better growth in China, would itself would be good for the rest of the world. But, you know, there are many other things that China could be involved in, we certainly need to ensure there's enough medical supplies around the world, and China has been playing an important role in there.

We also need to make sure that there are no escalating U.S. and China trade tensions, and China play a very important role there. Similarly, in terms of debt service relief already put out on the table. So there are many things that can be done. Let me bring in Malhar, if he would like to add anything.

MR. NABAR: Just perhaps one brief observation that if we look at emerging Asia, and I think this applies to China as well, the recovery that we're seeing in part reflects the importance of technology, the tech sector, which is more amendable to the work from home aspects under which we've all been operating over the past few months.

China perhaps, China could use a key -- perhaps plays a key role in these global supply chains with technology. And just to reinforce the point that Gita was mentioning, that to the extent that grievances can be address on multiple fronts, including on technology, this would really help with spurring the recovery and guaranteeing that the global economy gets back on its feet soon.

MR. ANSPACH: Here's a follow-up question from colleagues at Today's News Africa , and they're asking: whether we could be more specific about the Sub-Saharan Africa, and how much has or will be lost in the region in the 12.5 trillion [dollars] that you mentioned.

MS. GOPINATH: I don't have the exact number in terms of the trillions that will be lost, but I can tell you that our projection for Sub-Saharan Africa is -- overall is neagative-3.2 percent in 2020, with a recovery in 2021 of 3.4 percent.

So this is a downward revision, it is a significant downward revision, and we have some very large negative growth forecast, for instance with South Africa it's minus-8 percent, for Nigeria it's minus-5.4 growth. So these economies are being hit very hard.

We should also keep in mind that it's not just the reduction in the growth rate, but for many countries that are starting out at lower per capita income levels, when you have a growth hit, of even 3 or 4 percentage points, even 5 percentage points, the distress that it causes to people's lives is an order of magnitude bigger than a similar decline for, say, an advanced economy. So, these are very difficult times.

MR. ANSPACH: I have two questions here on the U.K. and maybe we will end on those questions. The question is from ITV News, how high do you expect the level of unemployment to get in the U.K., and would the U.K. face an unemployment crisis on the scale of the 1980s?"

MS. GOPINATH: So in the case of the U.K., we have a significant downgrade from April. We have growth projected at around minus-10 percent for 2020, and then only a partial recovery of 6.3 percent in 2021. What that means is that even by the end of 2021, the level of GDP in the U.K. will be lower than the pre-crisis level, so this is a prolonged hit.

And as we know, the sectors that are getting hit in this crisis are the ones that employ low-skilled workers, they also tend to be more labor intensive, and so the effect on employment can be substantial. And maybe Gian Maria, would you like to come in and add?

MR. MILESI-FERRETTI: Yes. I mean, some of these calculations are really very difficult because at the moment you have schemes like the job retention and self-employment schemes that fundamentally retain a link between the worker and the firm, and prevent unemployment from rising, even though others were -- you know, are dropping very sharply.

The issue will be what happens when these programs are wound down, how fast they're wound down and, you know, how fast the recovery is so as to be able to absorb these workers back in proper employment.

A related issue is what is going to happen to labor force participation, because as you know the unemployment, to be counted as unemployed, you have to be actively looking for work. A lot of people, given the situation, have dropped out of the labor force, and the strength of the recovery will be one of the factors driving them back into the labor force.

So, the forecast is clearly for an increase in the unemployment rate, as these schemes are wound down in October, where we have our full World Economic Outlook, with more details set of projections on a variety of economic variables, including unemployment, we will be more precise about our forecast on that front.

MR. ANSPACH: Thanks, very much, Gian Maria. Thanks very much, Gita. Thanks very much, Malhar. Thank you for joining us today. Let me just remind you that tomorrow we'll be launching the Global Financial Stability Report Update. On Friday, our Managing Director will be participating in a number of events. And then on Friday, we also have the Economic Outlook for Latin America, and on Monday for Africa.

With that, thank you again. Stay safe and stay well. Thank you.

IMF Communications Department

The next catastrophe

Politicians ignore far-out risks: they need to up their game

Preparedness is one of things that governments are for

IN 1993 THIS newspaper told the world to watch the skies. At the time, humanity’s knowledge of asteroids that might hit the Earth was woefully inadequate.

Like nuclear wars and large volcanic eruptions, the impacts of large asteroids can knock seven bells out of the climate; if one thereby devastated a few years’ worth of harvests around the globe it would kill an appreciable fraction of the population.

Such an eventuality was admittedly highly unlikely. But given the consequences, it made actuarial sense to see if any impact was on the cards, and at the time no one was troubling themselves to look.

Asteroid strikes were an extreme example of the world’s wilful ignorance, perhaps—but not an atypical one. Low-probability, high-impact events are a fact of life. Individual humans look for protection from them to governments and, if they can afford it, insurers. Humanity, at least as represented by the world’s governments, reveals instead a preference to ignore them until forced to react—even when foresight’s price-tag is small. It is an abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of the future.

Covid-19 offers a tragic example. Virologists, epidemiologists and ecologists have warned for decades of the dangers of a flu-like disease spilling over from wild animals. But when SARS-CoV-2 began to spread very few countries had the winning combination of practical plans, the kit those plans required in place and the bureaucratic capacity to enact them. Those that did benefited greatly. Taiwan has, to date, seen just seven covid-19 deaths; its economy has suffered correspondingly less.

Pandemics are disasters that governments have experience of. What therefore of truly novel threats? The blazing hot corona which envelops the Sun—seen to spectacular effect during solar eclipses—intermittently throws vast sheets of charged particles out into space. These cause the Northern and Southern Lights and can mess up electric grids and communications.

But over the century or so in which electricity has become crucial to much of human life, the Earth has never been hit by the largest of these solar eructations.

If a coronal mass ejection (CME) were to hit, all sorts of satellite systems needed for navigation, communications and warnings of missile attacks would be at risk. Large parts of the planet could face months or even years without reliable grid electricity.

The chances of such a disaster this century are put by some at better than 50:50. Even if they are not that high, they are still higher than the chances of a national leader knowing who in their government is charged with thinking about such things.

The fact that no governments have ever seen a really big CME, or a volcanic eruption large enough to affect harvests around the world—the most recent was Tambora, in 1815—may explain their lack of forethought. It does not excuse it. Keeping an eye on the future is part of what governments are for.

Scientists have provided them with the tools for such efforts, but few academics will undertake the work unbidden, unfunded and unsung. Private business may take some steps when it perceives specific risks, but it will not put together plans for society at large.

Admittedly, neither the Earth’s volcanoes nor the Sun’s corona can be controlled. But early-warning systems are possible, and so is thought-through preparedness. Historically active volcanoes near large cities, such as Fuji, Popocatépetl and Vesuvius, are well monitored, and there are at least plans for evacuation should it seem necessary. It would not be that hard to extend this sort of care to all potentially climate-altering volcanoes.
Governments could also ensure that grid operators have plausible plans for what to do if DSCOVR, a satellite that hangs between the Earth and the Sun, provides a half-hour warning that a CME is on its way, as it is designed to do. Ensuring that there are offline backups for some vital bits of grid equipment would be more expensive than a volcano-alarm, and would reduce, not eliminate, risk. But it would be worth the effort.

Nor would it be that hard to provide better early warning of possible pandemics. Stopping all transmission of new pathogens from wild animals is a fool’s errand—though putting a limit on the most intensive farming and egregious exploitation of wild ecosystems would help. But, again, risk can be reduced.

Monitoring the viruses found in animals and people where such transfers seem most likely is eminently feasible (see article). For countries to trust each other to do so might be a challenge; so would achieving the sort of transparency which would make such trust unnecessary.

But if there were ever to be a moment to try, it is surely today. Before the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 there were few early-warning systems for tsunamis. Now, thankfully, there are many.

It might seem quixotic to insist on esoteric preparedness when there are greater threats staring the world in the face, including catastrophic climate change and nuclear war. But this is not an either/or.

The structural changes needed to reduce climate risks—changes many countries are now pursuing, if with insufficient urgency—are of a different order from those needed under other headings. What is more, the approaches which make sense for arcane threats have implications for more familiar ones, too.

Thinking about risk reduction, rather than elimination, should encourage steps such as taking nuclear weapons off continuous alert and new approaches to arms control. Taking environmental monitoring more seriously could help provide an early warning for sudden shifts in the patterns of climate disruption, just as it could detect rising magma under faraway mountains of which the world knows little.

Scanning the future for risks and taking proper note of what you see is a mark of prudent maturity. It is also a salutary expansion of the imagination. Governments which take seriously ways the near future could be quite unlike the recent past might find new avenues to explore and a new interest in sustaining their achievements well beyond a few turns of the electoral cycle.

That is exactly the sort of attitude that stewardship of the environment and the containment of armed conflict require. It can also be a relief.

Almost all the large asteroids which can come close to the Earth have now been found. None is a near-term threat.

The world is not just a demonstrably safer place than it seemed. It is also a better place for having found it out.

Race and social change

The power of protest and the legacy of George Floyd

Don’t waste a rich chance for social reform

GEORGE FLOYD was not famous. He was killed not in the capital of the United States, but on a street corner in its 46th-largest city. Yet in death he has suddenly become the keystone of a movement that has seized all of America.

Still more remarkably, he has inspired protests abroad, from Brazil to Indonesia, and France to Australia. His legacy is the rich promise of social reform. It is too precious to waste.

The focus is rightly on America. The protests there, in big cities and tiny towns far from the coasts, may be the most widespread in the country’s long history of marching. After an outburst of rage following Mr Floyd’s death, the demonstrations have, as we hoped last week, been overwhelmingly peaceful. They have drawn in ordinary Americans of all races.

That has confounded those who, like President Donald Trump, thought they could be exploited to forge an electoral strategy based on the threat of anarchy. What began as a protest against police violence against African-Americans has led to an examination of racism in all its forms.

The marches outside America are harder to define. In Mexico and South Africa the target is mainly police violence. In Brazil, where three-quarters of the 6,220 people killed by police in 2018 were black, race is a factor too. Australians are talking about the treatment of aboriginals.

Some Europeans, used to condemning America over race, are realising that they have a problem closer to home. Angela Merkel has asked Germans to take the chance to “sweep outside their own front doors”. Several countries are agonising over public monuments.

It is hard to know why the spark caught today and not before. Nobody marched in Paris in 2014 after Eric Garner was filmed being choked to death by officers on Staten Island—then again, hardly anyone marched in New York, either. Perhaps the sheer ubiquity of social media means that enough people have this time been confronted with the evidence of their own eyes.

The pandemic has surely played a part, by cooping people up and creating a shared experience, even as it has nonetheless singled out racial minorities for infection and hardship.

The scale of the protests has something to do with Mr Trump, too. When Mr Garner was killed, America had a president who could bring together the nation at moments of racial tension, and a Justice Department that baby-sat recalcitrant police departments. Today they have a man who sets out to sow division.

But most fundamentally, and most happily, the protest reflects a rising rejection of racism itself. The share of Americans who see racial discrimination in their country as a big problem has risen from 51% in January 2015 to 76% now.

A YouGov poll last week found that 52% of Britons think British society is fairly or very racist, a big rise from similar polls in the past. In 2018, 77% of the French thought France needed to fight racism, up from 59% in 2002. Pew Research found last year that in most countries healthy majorities welcome racial diversity.

America is both a country and an idea. When the two do not match, non-Americans notice more than when an injustice is perpetrated in, say, Mexico or Russia. And wrapped up in that idea of America is a conviction that progress is possible.

It is already happening, in three ways. It starts with policing, where some states and cities have already banned chokeholds and where Democratic politicians seem ready to take on the police unions.

On June 8th Democrats in the House of Representatives put forward a bill that would, among other things, make it easier to prosecute police and limit the transfer of armour and weapons from the Pentagon to police departments.

Congressional Republicans, who might have been expected to back the police, are working on a reform of their own. Although the general call for “defunding” risks a backlash, the details of redirecting part of the police budget to arms of local government, such as housing or mental health, may make sense.

There is also a recognition that broader change is needed from local and federal government. The median household net wealth of African-Americans is $18,000, a tenth of the wealth of white Americans. The ratio has not changed since 1990.

An important cause of this is that many African-Americans are stuck in the racially monolithic neighbourhoods where their grandparents were allowed to settle at a safe distance from whites. Houses in these places are very cheap.

This separation helps explain why inequality endures in schooling, policing and health. The government has a role in reducing it. Federal spending worth $22.6bn already goes on housing vouchers. Schemes to give poor Americans a choice over where they live have Republican and Democratic backing in Congress. With better schools and less crime, segregated districts become gentrified, leaving them more racially mixed.

Business is waking up to the fact that it has a part, too, and not just in America (see article).

The place where people mix most is at work. However, just four Fortune 500 firms have black chief executives and only 3% of senior American managers are black. No wonder anxious CEOs have been queuing up to pledge that they will do better.

Firms have an incentive to change. Research suggests that racial diversity is linked to higher profit margins and that the effect is growing—though it is hard to be certain which comes first, diversity or performance. It has also become clear that a vocal share of employees and customers will shun companies that do not deal with racism.

Platitudinous mission statements are unlikely to provide much protection. A first step is to monitor diversity at all levels of recruitment and promotion, as do Goldman Sachs and Intel—hardly known for being sentimental.

Large-scale social change is hard. Protest movements have a habit of antagonising the moderate supporters they need to succeed. Countries where the impulse for change is not harnessed to specific reforms will find that it dissipates. Yet anyone who thinks racism is too difficult to tackle might recall that just six years before George Floyd was born, interracial marriage was still illegal in 16 American states.

Today about 90% of Americans support it. When enough citizens march against an injustice, they can prevail. That is the power of protest.

A new global crisis is looming in east Asia

China’s pride and paranoia are a dangerous mix for the world

Gideon Rachman

Panda Noir
© James Ferguson

What is China up to?

From Hong Kong to Taiwan and from the South China Sea to the Indian border, the Chinese government, led by President Xi Jinping, is pursuing more aggressive policies.

There is growing concern about Beijing’s behaviour, not just in Washington but in Delhi, London, Tokyo and Canberra.

The Chinese government may feel that coronavirus makes this a good time to act, while the world is looking away. The turmoil on the streets of America has further divided and distracted the west. But democracies cannot afford to lose focus on east Asia.

A new global crisis could easily break out there, with even graver long-term consequences than the pandemic.

Beijing’s growing assertiveness reflects both pride and paranoia. After 40 years of rapid economic growth, China is now — by some measures — the world’s largest economy.

Its navy has more warships and submarines than that of the US.

Its internet bubbles with nationalistic chatter about the inexorable rise of the nation. The biggest grossing film in Chinese history is Wolf Warrior 2 — a Rambo-style action movie, released in 2017, that features heroic Chinese soldiers battling against mercenaries, led by a racist American.

A promotional poster for the film featured the slogan, “Anyone who insults China — no matter how remote — must be exterminated”.

When Chinese diplomats respond to criticism of Beijing with threats and insults, they are often said to be practising “wolf-warrior diplomacy”.

But, alongside the pride, there are plenty of reasons for paranoia at the top levels of government in Beijing. The past 12 months have presented Mr Xi with an unprecedented range of threats and challenges.

The pandemic has seen China widely accused of responsibility for a global calamity.

A regime that used to believe it needed 8 per cent growth a year to maintain social stability now has to deal with a deep economic contraction — compounded by a trade war with the US.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have continued for more than a year and represent a severe challenge to Communist party authority.

And in January, Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, won a crushing re-election victory — a humiliation for Beijing, which had worked hard to undermine her.

All of this seems to be creating a siege mentality in government. In response, Beijing has intensified its appeal to nationalism.

The propaganda goal is to rally the people against external threats and deflect anger about Covid-19 outwards, to the world beyond China.Beijing’s external and internal policies are increasingly bold and aggressive.

A new national security law is to be imposed on Hong Kong, which threatens to inflict mainland-style censorship on a free city.

Military exercises and rhetoric aimed at intimidating Taiwan have been stepped up.

Confrontational naval activity in the South China Sea has also increased, aimed at rival claimants such as Malaysia and Vietnam.

Thousands of Chinese troops have skirmished with the Indians at their disputed border — albeit without known fatalities. Some hawks in Delhi claim China has seized some 40-60 square kilometres of Indian territory.

Countries that dare to criticise China over Covid-19 are getting a dose of wolf-warrior diplomacy — Beijing even imposed tariffs on some Australian exports, after Canberra called for an international inquiry.

The Xi government may genuinely be convinced that hostile “outside forces” are plotting against China. But understanding how the world looks from Beijing’s perspective cannot slide into acquiescence.

Even if Mr Xi and his cohorts firmly believe that China’s actions are “defensive” in nature, the system they are defending is a one-party state that seeks to repress criticism at home and abroad — while pushing forward with a series of unreasonable international demands.

Beijing will argue its case on legal, diplomatic and historical grounds. But it will never convince democratic countries in Asia and the west to be anything but horrified by the sight of China threatening the freedoms of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The fact that China is the rising power of the 21st century means Beijing’s actions now have global implications. Countries around the world watch the wolf-warrior diplomacy — and wonder if they might be next in line for coercion.

China’s policy has always been to make an example of countries that displease it. Foreign nations or leaders that upset Beijing find themselves shut out of meetings and business deals.

These tactics are often effective because the global response is so divided. Critics of Beijing can be singled out for punishment — as has just happened with Australia. Over the years, China has learnt that an aggressive response often works, persuading foreign critics to back down.

Changing that pattern of behaviour will require a more unified and principled response from the world’s democracies, perhaps through the formation of a permanent contact group to discuss policy towards China. Given the paranoia and nationalism in Beijing, there is clearly a danger that a tougher, more co-ordinated response will spark an even more aggressive reaction.

But the bigger danger is that the outside world is too distracted, divided and intimidated to respond coherently. That may persuade Beijing to take one risk too many — plunging the world into a new and dangerous crisis.

America and Europe

NATO sets its sights on China

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, envisages a more global Alliance

EVEN AS IT grapples with short-term troubles, among them another spat between America and Germany, NATO is starting to plan for the next ten years: how to adapt to the rising power of China?

Finding an answer may be vital if the alliance is to retain a sense of purpose in 2030.

The source of the latest turbulence, as so often in recent years, is President Donald Trump. On June 5th the Wall Street Journal reported that Mr Trump had decided to reduce the number of American forces in Germany by 9,500 by September, more than a quarter of the 34,500 currently stationed there.

A memorandum said to have been signed by the president’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, would cap the number of American troops who could be in Germany at any time (swelling through exercises or rotations) at 25,000, compared with the present limit of 52,500.

Mr Trump has long complained about Germany’s failure to come close to honouring its promise to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. Some of the troops could be relocated to Poland, which does achieve that target, though whether Poland ends up with more American forces than envisaged under an agreement reached with America last autumn remains unclear.

There is as yet no official confirmation of the move. Some doubt whether it will really happen—on June 9th the Journal reported that 22 Republican members of Congress had written to the White House urging it to reconsider.

But the reports have already caused dismay in Germany, not least because “nobody in Washington thought about informing its NATO ally Germany in advance,” as Peter Beyer, who serves as co-ordinator for transatlantic co-operation at the foreign ministry, put it. NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, who spoke with Mr Trump on June 8th, refused to comment, pointing instead to America’s increased military presence in Europe in recent years.

“The US presence in Europe is good for Europe, but it’s also good for the United States,” Mr Stoltenberg stressed, noting that America’s operations in Germany, such as the air base at Ramstein and military hospital at Landstuhl, are used to project force beyond Europe, into the Middle East and Africa.

More turbulence currently comes from covid-19. NATO is working on preparedness for a possible second wave of the pandemic. Although the alliance has had to cancel some exercises, Mr Stoltenberg insists that it has maintained operational readiness. NATO’s headquarters, indeed, had updated its plans for a pandemic in December.

Beyond these immediate concerns, NATO is starting to look ahead to its priorities for the longer term. At their London summit last December NATO leaders gave Mr Stoltenberg the task of considering how the alliance should prepare for the next decade. His conclusions will feed into a summit next year. As a start, on June 8th he launched his “reflection on NATO 2030”.

He outlined three ways in which the alliance must adapt. One is to ensure that it stays strong militarily, investing in new technologies. Second, it needs to become more united politically (something that may become easier beyond Mr Trump’s time in office), bringing a broader range of policies together to strengthen NATO’s 30 members.

The experience of covid-19, for example, suggests there needs to be a wariness of over-reliance on Chinese supplies, something NATO will no doubt consider as it updates its “baseline requirements” for national resilience, to ensure members have the necessary robustness in telecoms and other infrastructure, as well as the ability to deal with mass casualties. Third, and most strikingly, Mr Stoltenberg envisages the alliance taking a more global approach—in particular, adjusting to China’s rise.

Founded to stand up to the Soviet Union in Europe, NATO has suffered repeated bouts of angst about its relevance. It was increasingly drawn into “out-of-area operations” after the cold war, initially in the Balkans and ultimately as far away as Afghanistan. More recently it has focused again on the threat of a more aggressive Russia. Forming a coherent response to the challenge of China is thus new.

In reality, China has become hard for the alliance to ignore. Mr Stoltenberg sees “China coming closer to us” in all sorts of ways, from the Arctic to Africa, and from cyberspace to 5G networks and other infrastructure investment in Europe, not to mention intensified joint exercises with Russia.

China is the world’s second-largest military spender, Mr Stoltenberg points out, and is deploying cruise missiles that can reach the whole of NATO. Just as important, if unstated, is that NATO needs to shape up on China if it is to continue to matter to America, which is ever more concentrated on its great-power challenger and, under Mr Trump, worryingly ambivalent about the alliance.

What might NATO’s stance on China look like in practice? Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, suggests the alliance could establish a NATO-China Council, along the lines of the talking-shop it has with Russia.

He urges deeper consultation and more robust military exercises with partners in the Pacific.

Mr Brzezinski would also like to see NATO establish one of its “centres of excellence” in the region, and a small military headquarters there to co-ordinate exercises and contribute to regional awareness. (Already, Japan has joined NATO’s cyber centre of excellence, based in Tallinn in Estonia.)

Mr Stoltenberg is not yet ready for such details. He cautions that the new focus on China is “not about moving NATO into the South China Sea”. But he sees closer collaboration with like-minded countries in the region, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

As an early sign of this, Australia’s defence minister will attend the meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels next week—the first participation in a general meeting of this type, unrelated to discussion of a specific mission, such as the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.

It is still early days for NATO’s thinking on the challenge of China’s growing power. But one idea will guide its emerging strategy: that the alliance itself offers a key advantage. Even though China’s GDP may before long outweigh America’s, the alliance has nearly a billion people and half the world’s military and economic might.

One of Joe Biden’s main foreign-policy advisers, Tony Blinken, last month stressed the importance of working with other democracies in Asia and Europe. On its own, he said, America is about 25% of the world economy; “when China is engaged in practices that are unfair, and we want them to change, it’s a lot harder for them to ignore 60% of the world’s GDP than it is to ignore a quarter of it.”

Mr Trump may be unimpressed by that argument, but his potential successor clearly sets a lot of store by it.

It’s Time to Plan for a Messy U.S.-China Divorce

By Christine Loh and Christopher Tang

Ina Fassbender/Getty Images

The U.S.-China conflict has widened from trade and technology to finance and education. Judging from the White House’s recent actions, it wants to decouple the U.S. from China. But the connections between these intertwined economies took decades to build and won’t be easy to sever. That means it’s time for careful divorce planning in case the separation becomes permanent.

Covid-19 struck just as a measure of stability seemed to be returning to U.S.-China relations after a mid-January phase-one trade deal lowered some tariffs. The pandemic has stoked fears that the U.S. ceded too much critical manufacturing capacity to China. A significant proportion of antibiotics, painkillers, active pharmaceutical ingredients, and personal protective equipment are manufactured there. Public opinion quickly turned. A recent survey by McLaughlin and Associates found more than half of the respondents supported outright withdrawal of manufacturing from China in light of U.S. overdependence.

In technology, the U.S. administration has not been satisfied with China’s progress on the enforcement of protections for intellectual property. The case against Huawei, a Chinese telecoms equipment supplier, symbolizes the issues surrounding the tech race. China seems to be advancing too fast for U.S. companies to compete, especially in 5G development. The Trump administration has attempted to stall by limiting Huawei and its suppliers’ access to American technology and software.

In finance, Congress and the White House are raising concerns that Chinese companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges don’t provide enough accounting transparency. The demand for change is legitimate, but U.S. regulators have long acquiesced to China’s corporate opacity.

An economic divorce also affects the young. The U.S. is looking to revoke several thousand Chinese student visas on the basis that some postgraduates have or had connections to China’s military, in what could be the start of broad limits on Chinese students studying in the U.S.

The administration needs a plan and the time to execute its intent to move both sourcing and manufacturing out of China and to bring some operations back onshore. It won’t happen quickly, especially not during a pandemic and nation-wide protests. But it’s essential the planning starts soon. These are the steps that need to be thought through.

The first sis to collect accurate supply-chain information about strategic and critical products. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration lacks visibility about the supply chain. It knows that 13% of manufacturers of APIs are based in China, but it does not know the volume China produces or how much enters the U.S. market. Getting this information is a top priority before any decoupling decisions are made.

The second step is to make alternate supply-chain arrangements. The U.S. needs to decide what should be domestically produced or made elsewhere and imported. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement signed in January could be leveraged to develop new regional supply chains within North America, which would improve supply-chain responsiveness.

The U.S. may also revisit the Trans-Pacific Partnership it dropped too hastily in 2017. It involved 11 other countries and was once seen as a potential counterweight to China’s influence over the Pacific. The others have gone ahead to create a mostly identical deal without the U.S. It may be pragmatic to be part of a multilateral trade pact that improves supply-chain resilience.

The third step is to develop end-to-end competencies in manufacturing and engineering, along with research and development, in order to ramp up production at critical times. Those capabilities allowed Taiwan to become the second-largest producer of medical masks in just one month, while a hollowed-out U.S. manufacturing sector has struggled.

Indeed, many aspects of supply chains need to be reset. China supplied 80% of the rare earths imported by the U.S. from 2014 to 2017, materials vital for producing smart phones, electric-vehicle batteries, medical-imaging machines, and advanced defense weaponry. The U.S. will need to be prepared to ramp up domestic rare earths production by developing efficient and cleaner extraction.

The U.S. government must also engage the private sector and university research centers to help. The federal government can augment the funding for the National Science Foundation Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers Program. State governments can provide subsidies for firms to bring back their offshore factories, like Texas and South Carolina are offering. There is no way around subsidies if that is truly a priority.

A divorce will likely involve deep and wide collateral damage, affecting U.S. corporate interests in China. The U.S. will need a plan. Companies like Apple, Boeing,McDonald’s, Tesla, and Walmartwill suffer if Chinese consumers boycott them to show loyalty to the Chinese government. It has happened before: Apple’s iPhones sales in China fell 30% in the first quarter of 2019 as a result of a consumer reaction to the U.S. campaign against Huawei.

Just like a regular divorce, a U.S.-China decoupling requires time and money. China did not become the world’s factory in a day. The U.S. cannot turn the clock back without serious planning.

Christine Loh is visiting professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management, and chief development strategist, Institute for the Environment at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Christopher Tang is a distinguished professor and holds the Edward W. Carter Chair in Business Administration at UCLA Anderson School of Management.