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The global economy buckles up for another uncertain winter

<i>Stinger/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Customers visit a Christmas-decorated shopping center in Leipzig
AFP via Getty Images
Stinger/AFP/Getty Images
Customers visit a Christmas-decorated shopping center in Leipzig

By Julia Horowitz, CNN Business

Economists around the world are closely watching a resurgence of coronavirus cases across Europe for signs of what may be to come this winter.

What’s happening: The spike in cases is feeding fears that the region’s strong economic recovery from the pandemic could be in jeopardy.

So far, the new Covid-19 wave has had only a limited impact on business activity in the 19 countries that use the euro. The Purchasing Managers’ Index from IHS Markit, a key gauge of the economy, rose in November after slipping to a six-month low in October, according to data released Tuesday.

But expectations for the future are darkening. Austria announced last week that it’s going back into a national lockdown. Skyrocketing infections in Germany have also sparked questions about whether the region’s largest economy could reimpose sweeping restrictions.

“A stronger expansion of business activity in November defied economists’ expectations of a slowdown, but is unlikely to prevent the euro zone from suffering slower growth in the fourth quarter, especially as rising virus cases look set to cause renewed disruptions to the economy in December,” said Chris Williamson, IHS Markit’s chief business economist.

France could announce further Covid-19 rules as well after it reported more than 30,000 new infections on Tuesday, a level last seen in early August. Government officials are expected to discuss new measures on Wednesday.

Ruben Segura-Cayuela, Europe economist at Bank of America, told me that more data is needed to assess what restrictions in Europe could mean for the region’s economy. He noted that with each wave of Covid-19 infections, the economic impact has declined as businesses and consumers learn to cope.

“We know there will be a reaction, we just don’t know if it’s going to be the same magnitude,” he said. “I would assume, based on what we’ve seen over the last few months, it’s going to be smaller.”

Much now depends on how the situation unfolds in Germany, said Jessica Hinds, Europe economist at Capital Economics. She told me it’s “plausible” that Europe could stagnate at the end of the year if its biggest economy enters a lockdown.

“We are likely to see some hit to economic activity just as rising case numbers make consumers more fearful and governments require more stringent Covid pass [screening] for various activities,” Hinds said.

Around the world: Uncertainty in Europe comes as officials in China consider fresh stimulus measures to fight stagnation at a shaky moment for the economy, given the sharp uptick in prices. Shortfalls of workers and supply chain delays are also weighing on output in the United States, where the PMI from IHS Markit is at a two-month low, though expectations for the future are improving on hopes for more stability next year.

The global recovery from the pandemic remains intact. Consumer spending is still elevated as shoppers tap pent-up savings.

“The US economy continues to run hot,” Williamson said. “Despite a slower rate of expansion of business activity in November, growth remains above the survey’s long-run pre-pandemic average as companies continue to focus on boosting capacity to meet rising demand.”

But more than 20 months into the pandemic, reading the direction of the economy remains a difficult task, making it essential to keep close watch on fresh numbers.

Watch this space: A US data dump is coming Wednesday ahead of Thanksgiving. Shortly, we’ll get the second estimate of third quarter GDP, jobless claims for last week, personal income and spending details, a crucial inflation measure and minutes from the Federal Reserve.

Market shrugs off the release of millions of barrels of oil

The announcement from the White House this week that China, India, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom are all joining the United States in the first coordinated emergency oil release in a decade hasn’t eased gas prices ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

The latest: US oil prices are flat on Wednesday after gaining 2.3% on Tuesday. The average price of gasoline across the United States remains stubbornly at $3.40 per gallon compared to $2.11 one year ago.

What gives? First, investors had been anticipating the move. US oil dropped about 10% from late October as chatter about tapping strategic reserves grew. Prices are still about 7% below the levels they reached toward the end of last month.

Investors also started pricing in a hit to oil demand over the winter due to a rise in coronavirus cases, said strategist Damien Courvalin at Goldman Sachs.

Additionally, the number of barrels to be put on the market — estimated at between 70 million and 80 million — is smaller than the 100 million barrels or more that had been expected, per Courvalin.

What next: Gasoline prices may still start to drop in the near-term. The “best case” is that prices slide by 15 to 20 cents a gallon, Bob McNally, president of Rapidan Energy Group told my CNN Business colleague Matt Egan.

But the coordinated release isn’t expected to make a lasting difference, given the overarching market dynamics.

Oil supply hasn’t kept up with surging demand as the global economy recovers from Covid-19. There’s a finite amount of oil in reserves, which can’t be tapped indefinitely. And oil companies aren’t ramping up production as quickly as they might have in the past. Some are prioritizing giving money back to shareholders over new investment; others are lowering output to refocus on renewable energy as pressure builds to tackle the climate crisis.

The latest headache for supply chains? Disappearing ships

Just as some of the problems clogging up global supply chains start to ease, another complicating factor has cropped up: ships in Chinese waters are disappearing from industry tracking systems.

Analysts told my CNN Business colleague Laura He that they started noticing the drop-off in shipping traffic toward the end of October, as China prepared to enact legislation governing data privacy.

Usually, shipping data companies are able to track ships worldwide because they are fitted with an Automatic Identification System, or AIS, transceiver. This system allows ships to send information — such as position, speed, course and name — to stations that are based along coastlines using high-frequency radio.

But that’s not happening in the world’s second-largest economy, a critical player in global trade. In the past three weeks, the number of vessels sending signals from the country has plunged by nearly 90%, according to data from the global shipping data provider VesselsValue.

Analysts believe the culprit is China’s Personal Information Protection Law, which took effect Nov. 1. It requires companies that process data to receive approval from the Chinese government before they can let personal information leave Chinese soil — a rule that reflects the fear in Beijing that such data could end up in the hands of foreign governments.

The law doesn’t mention shipping data. But Chinese data providers might be withholding information as a precaution.

Why it matters: With Christmas approaching, a loss of information from mainland China — home to six of the world’s 10 busiest container ports — could create more problems for an already troubled global shipping industry.

Up next

Deere reports results before US markets open.

Also today:

  • The second estimate of US third quarter GDP, initial jobless claims for last week and durable goods orders for October post at 8:30 a.m. ET.
  • That’s followed by personal income and spending data at 10 a.m. ET, along with the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation and new US home sales.
  • Minutes from the Fed’s November meeting arrive at 2 p.m. ET.

Coming up: US markets are closed for Thanksgiving and will shut early on Friday. We’re taking a break for the holiday, and hope you can, too. Before the Bell will be back in your inbox on Sunday.

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