Skip to content

Illustration by Security Management

It’s Official: Japan and Germany Already Sinking into Recession

The world’s third and fourth largest economies announced over the weekend that they are officially in recession—defined as two successive quarters of negative growth. Japan, the third largest, announced a 3.4 percent decrease for the first quarter of 2020, which is on the heels of a 7.3 percent decline in the final quarter of 2019. Germany revised 2019 Q4 to -0.1 percent and a further decline of 2.2 percent. Both countries expect the second quarter of 2020 to be far worse, although they are hardly alone as every nation is expecting the COVID-19 pandemic to wreak havoc on its economy.

The world’s two largest economies—the United States and China—are, of course, also ailing. The United States is most assuredly headed for recession, with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell saying Sunday he could see a second quarter decline of 30 percent in the U.S. economy. That would be a steeper decline than any quarter in the Great Depression of the 1930s. China’s commerce minister on Monday also sounded the alarm, saying “China faces unprecedented challenges in foreign trade this year” due to the epidemic.

Governments across the globe have enacted aid and stimulus packages, see the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Dashboard on COVID-19 Government Policies for a country-by-country look at stimulus packages, reopening strategies, and travel restrictions. And they continue to consider extreme measures, such as an additional $3 trillion plan which passed the U.S. House of Representatives late last week, and the Bank of England again considering negative interest rates.

One positive sign is that U.S. crude oil has regained a bit of ground and stability at around $30 per barrel. U.S. oil producers cannot be profitable at that price, so “positive” is a relative description based on a comparison to the last time monthly contracts came due and investors had to pay $38 for someone to take the oil of their hands (aka, U.S. crude was trading at minus $38 per barrel).

The hopes for a so-called “V”-shaped economic bounce back have mostly vanished, with the most optimistic positions looking into 2021 and beyond for recovery. This outlook cuts across industries, including tourism and entertainment, mining, and shipping, as well as regions, everywhere from the United Kingdom to Japan to South America.

Bloomberg Markets recently interviewed Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, authors of This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financially Folly, a widely quoted book that put the 2008 Great Recession in context. On what to expect in our economic future, Reinhart said:

The shock has disrupted supply chains globally and trade big-time. The World Trade Organization tells you trade can decline anywhere between 13 percent and 32 percent. I don’t think you just break and re-create supply chains at the drop of a hat. There are a lot of geographic changes that are being necessitated because, if the economic downturn has been synchronous, the disease itself hasn’t been synchronous.

Another reason I think the V-shape story is dubious is that we’re all living in economies that have a hugely important service component. … When this crisis began to morph from a medical problem into a financial crisis, then it was clear we were going to have more hysteresis, longer-lived effect.

As for where this is all headed—according to Reinhart and Rogoff at least—do not trust predictions from anyone. The title of their book on the Great Recession is irony: their thesis being that economic crises tend to be lookalikes of each other. This time really is different, and there are no good precedents to use as reference points. The Great Depression of the 1930s was the last worldwide collapse of the magnitude currently faced—but the world economy is entirely different now than it was then.

“I liken the incident we’re in to The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy got sucked up in the tornado with her house, and it’s spinning around, and you don’t know where it will come down,” Rogoff said in the interview. “That’s where our social, political, economic system is at the moment. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and it’s probably not in the pro-growth direction.”