We have made a few changes to the newsletter to highlight more prominently the big themes of 2021: the rollout of vaccines and the state of the global economy. We will also feature more data from our range of Covid-19 trackers.
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The World Health Organization today outlined the major threats to Covax, its project to ensure developing countries get their fair share of coronavirus vaccines.
The chief obstacle is a funding gap of $27bn which threatens the viability of its plan to distribute tests and treatments as well as vaccines. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made clear his frustration: “The longer this gap goes unmet, the harder it becomes to understand why, given this is a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars that have been mobilised for stimulus packages in G20 countries.”
Perhaps we should not be surprised that richer countries such as the US and the UK have forged ahead while many of their poorer peers have yet to administer first doses. As our Big Read explains, the developing world has often lacked timely international support when faced with great public health crises. The battle against Aids is the most striking recent example.
In the meantime, the effect of the pandemic on places such as Africa, where Covid-19 deaths have surged 40 per cent in the last month, is alarming. As Africa editor David Pilling explains, the continent’s vaccination plans have experienced an additional setback because of conflicting advice on the efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab: South Africa has already halted its rollout. Much of the developing world has pinned its hopes on this particular vaccine because of AstraZeneca’s pledge not to make a profit and for the ease of its storage and transportation.
The outlook is not completely negative. New vaccines should come on stream shortly, drugmakers are adapting jabs for new variants of the virus at record speeds and the new US administration has joined the Covax scheme. And while global co-ordination is still minimal, countries such as China and India — the world’s largest supplier of vaccines — have taken the opportunity to step up help in displays of soft power.
New data showed the UK economy shrank 9.9 per cent in 2020 — the biggest fall in 300 years, albeit with a better than expected performance in the fourth quarter. The Bank of England expects another hit from the latest lockdown in the first quarter but there are hopes that a successful vaccination campaign will raise prospects for recovery from the spring. Data from the country’s financial regulator underlined the stress on the country’s households.
There were some signs of improvement in the US labour market as new jobless claims dipped last week, but data showing coronavirus cases back above 100,000 on Thursday underlined that the crisis was still far from over. Federal Reserve chief Jay Powell emphasised his focus on jobs in a landmark speech on Wednesday.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” said the European Commission after predicting that EU output would bounce back to pre-pandemic levels by the middle of next year rather than its previous forecast of 2023, thanks to the introduction of vaccines. Our Brussels Briefing newsletter discusses a new study that argues the EU recovery fund will have lasting consequences for the bloc’s economic governance.
L’Oréal, the world’s biggest cosmetics maker, forecast a 1920s-style boom for beauty products once the pandemic is over. “Putting on lipstick again will be a symbol of returning to life,” it argued, reporting better than expected sales in the fourth quarter, driven by demand in China and strong online growth.
The travel industry’s woes continue. Lastminute.com is facing legal action from the regulator over its failure to issue refunds to customers whose holidays were cancelled. Rival Expedia reported a fourth consecutive quarterly loss as revenues plunged two-thirds compared with the previous year. Jet2, the package holiday provider which this week extended a suspension of operations, has had to tap investors for fresh funds.
Booming demand during the pandemic has driven a doubling of revenues at Coupang, the South Korean ecommerce group, ahead of its stock market listing in New York. It is expected to be the largest initial public offering by a foreign company in the US since Alibaba in 2014.
New stock market listings in Europe had their best start to the year since 2015 thanks to investor enthusiasm for the tech sector, one of the clear winners from lockdown. “We have witnessed some tectonic shifts in the ecommerce landscape as a result of Covid — things we thought would take five years have taken five months,” said a Citigroup capital markets chief, causing a “significant re-rating of tech company valuations”.
US editor-at-large Gillian Tett says the US Federal Reserve needs to puncture assumptions that cheap money is here to stay indefinitely. The current level of “forward guidance” and indications that policy will stay the same until late 2022 is giving investors a false sense of security and could end up in a damaging market tantrum once the Fed makes a move.
Video: US finance editor Robert Armstrong considers the global boom in commodities from energy to materials and food. Unlike some market assets, there is logic behind investors’ enthusiasm, he explains in this video. “Commodity prices look less like a bubble than an excellent set-up for one,” he concludes.
Expat workers unable to return home because of the pandemic or stuck longer than planned in a foreign jurisdiction face serious financial implications. FT Money explains how tax residency rules work and how best to handle potential problems.
Vaccines Q&A: FT science editor Clive Cookson and US pharma correspondent Hannah Kuchler have been answering readers’ questions today on everything from efficacy rates to the safety of vaccines for pregnant women.
Eightyfour comments on UK consumer spending slumps during latest lockdown:
With the demand for office space likely to dwindle after the pandemic, city skylines and structures are being reimagined as entertainment, writes architecture critic Edwin Heathcote. London’s Illuminated River, lighting up bridges across the Thames, is the latest showstopper example.
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