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Amid the shock of the assault of the US Capitol on Wednesday it was easy to overlook the other significant development of the day: wins in the Georgia Senate run-offs mean Democrats will control both houses of Congress, making it possible for president-elect Joe Biden to push through his agenda, including a new coronavirus recovery plan.
A Biden stimulus could mean more direct payments to Americans, an extension of the jobless benefits due to end in March and more help for local administrations. Some analysts expect stimulus worth another $600bn on top of the $900bn agreed late last year. Incoming Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said increasing aid money to $2,000 for each citizen was “one of the first things we want to do once our new senators are seated”.
Global markets welcomed the end to the uncertainties created by the long general election and expectations that the new government would put more support into the economy. Longer-term goals for the Biden administration include increased spending in infrastructure and clean energy, paid for by higher taxes.
But if anyone thought the task ahead was straightforward, they would have been quickly disabused by today’s disappointing employment report, which showed the US economy losing jobs for the first time since April as a resurgent coronavirus continued to be a major drag on the country’s recovery, especially in sectors such as leisure and hospitality.
The latest medical data further underline the scale of the challenge ahead: rising cases and hospitalisations over the Christmas period culminated yesterday with a death toll of more than 4,000 — the deadliest day of the pandemic so far.
New York-based Element Capital, one of the world’s biggest macro hedge funds, gained almost 19 per cent during 2020, and is returning $2bn cash to clients. The move is the latest attempt by a top fund to slim down or limit investor access after a profitable pandemic performance.
Senior editorial columnist John Plender warns of the danger to markets of being driven principally by economic policy and sounds the alarm on growing levels of debt. “Investors’ most pressing financial concern should be the reality that the world economy is hostage to debt and wayward monetary policy,” he writes. “There will, in the end, be a reckoning.”
Reasons to be fearful: Many investors may be glad to see the back of 2020 but has the optimism engendered by the arrival of vaccines gone too far? Markets editor Katie Martin ponders this and other reasons to remain cautious in the year ahead.
Demand for computer chips and flat panels, turbocharged by the shift to homeworking and online learning, fuelled a jump in quarterly profits for South Korea’s Samsung. US west coast editor Richard Waters warned that pandemic tech bubbles carried stark reminders of the dangers of the dotcom era such as the rise of special purpose acquisition companies and too much money looking for a home. “Much like squeezing a balloon full of water, the excess cash in the system is causing bulges that are becoming impossible to suppress,” he writes.
Strong food sales over Christmas helped balance some of the pain caused by store closures for large UK retailers such as Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury’s, helped by robust online business. One analyst said the latter’s year-on-year increase in ecommerce capacity was “an amazing advancement” and noted that “this route to market is now demonstrably profitable, something for sector sceptics to note”.
How seriously will the pandemic force us to rethink and revalue the way we work? Supporters of “alternative hedonism” advocate more balanced lives with reduced workloads and more time for cultural and community activities that can improve self-esteem and wellbeing.
There were mixed signals on the state of the eurozone recovery. Germany recorded strong manufacturing and export performances in November but retail sales across the bloc were worse than expected, albeit tempered by encouraging data on jobs. The European Commission’s economic sentiment survey showed the mood picking up in December thanks to good news on vaccine approvals.
India forecast an economic hit of 7.7 per cent for the year to the end of March, the biggest in almost 70 years. Private forecasters expect a bigger shrinkage of up to 10.6 per cent, following the 24 per cent plunge in the three months to June as a result of the country’s strict lockdown.
Our colleagues at Nikkei offer their “optimists’ guide” for Asia, in 2021, highlighting the positive changes brought on by the pandemic in health, tech and the world of work.
The most comprehensive study of transmission ever carried out for any disease indicated that coronavirus came to the UK mainly from southern Europe, rather than China.
Some positive developments to end the week. Early tests indicate that the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine is effective against the worrying variants of coronavirus found in the UK and South Africa, while Moderna’s jab today became the third vaccine to be approved for use by British regulators, following initial approval from the EU on Wednesday.
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