Swiss spooked by using debt to prop up economy

Swiss spooked by using debt to prop up economy
With Swiss firms struggling through another lockdown, the federal government last week finally loosened its purse strings a bit. (File/AFP)
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Updated 21 February 2021

Swiss spooked by using debt to prop up economy

Swiss spooked by using debt to prop up economy
  • Some 10 billion francs in debt will have to be paid off within six years according to a constitutional debt brake rule

ZURICH: Germany, which is known for strict budgets, has tapped debt markets to prop up its virus-hit economy, while neighboring Switzerland has consistently curbed borrowing despite calls to change course.
With Swiss firms struggling through another lockdown, the federal government last week finally loosened its purse strings a bit, doubling emergency aid to 10 billion Swiss francs ($11.2 billion, 9.3 billion euros) as part of a program to boost the economy.
But when he presented the package for companies worst hit by the latest Covid restrictions, Finance Minister Ueli Maurer again lamented that Switzerland had to borrow to boost the economy.
Some 10 billion francs in debt will have to be paid off within six years according to a constitutional debt brake rule, Maurer warned.
He promised to present various options to do so as soon as the economic outlook cleared a bit.
Despite mounting criticism that the wealthy Alpine nation isn’t doing enough to support companies, Maurer has repeated time and again that the Swiss government has “no money.”
The government is already borrowing “150 million francs a day, or six million per hour, or 100,000 a minute,” he notes.
In 2020, Switzerland’s federal government spent 15 billion francs ($16.7 billion, 13.8 billion euros) to support the economy, and preliminary data shows it ended the year with a deficit of 15.8 billion ($17.6 billion, 14.5 billion euros).

Some have called for Switzerland to put balanced budget dogma aside during the crisis, to protect against potential long-term economic damage.
“Switzerland could be much more generous,” said Michael Graff, an economics professor at ETH Zurich, a public research university.
He believes the country could borrow what it needed to boost business activity without a problem.
A study published by Graff in January argued the nation’s post-crisis finances would remain healthy even if borrowing rose, primarily because the country entered the pandemic with one of the world’s lowest debt ratios.
National debt stood at 25.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) at the end of 2019.
That was less than half the European Union’s widely breached target of 60 percent.
According to Graff, if the Swiss debt ratio rose by 10 percentage points, or even 20, and “if things take a turn much worse than expected” the country would still be at a level that is “extremely low, compared to other nations, once the crisis is overcome.”
If Switzerland is in some ways a very liberal nation, Graff pointed to a “public debt phobia” which he said was a cultural trait.
After debt soared at the end of the 1990s owing to a crushing real-estate crisis, Switzerland became a champion of fiscal rectitude, introducing a debt brake into its constitution in 2003.

“This fear of going into debt is something irrational,” argued Cedric Tille, an economics professor at Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.
This is especially so, he said, because Switzerland currently benefits from negative interest rates, which means investors are willing to lose money to own Swiss 10-year bonds.
Former Swiss central bank vice president Jean-Pierre Danthine believes the country’s debt brake rule should be suspended when the economy is facing a crisis.
With negative rates, Switzerland can borrow “all it needs for its economy,” he said in a recent interview with Leman Bleu television.
The country did not suffer as badly as some European neighbors during the first wave of the pandemic moreover, and its economy has fared better.
It was able to ease restrictions faster and count on strong pharmaceutical exports.
The Swiss government rapidly implemented economic support measures and allocated 70 billion francs ($78 billion, 64 billion euros) to finance partial unemployment benefits for workers and short-term business loans.
After falling by 8.6 percent in the first half of the year, Swiss GDP rebounded with a 7.2-percent gain in the third quarter.
But after infections surged again, cafes, restaurants, theaters, cinemas, museums and sports clubs were closed in mid-December and all non-essential shops followed a month later.
Shops are slated to reopen on March 1, but some fear the shutdown will lead to a wave of bankruptcies at small- and medium-sized businesses.
“For the second wave, they should have distributed aid much earlier to cover lost revenue,” remarked Rafael Lalive, an economics professor at the University of Lausanne.


American business group warns China boycotts spooking investors

American business group warns China boycotts spooking investors
Updated 12 May 2021

American business group warns China boycotts spooking investors

American business group warns China boycotts spooking investors
  • Brands including Swedish retailer H&M, Adidas and Nike have been targeted by demands online for consumer boycotts

BEIJING: An American business group warned Tuesday that government-instigated consumer boycotts of foreign shoe, clothing and other brands in China are making companies less willing to invest.

That is adding to anxiety over Beijing’s plan for a list of “unreliable entities” that might be punished for actions deemed to run counter to Chinese interests, the American Chamber of Commerce in China said in an annual report on business conditions.

The report reflects growing unease among American and other foreign companies about the impact of economic and strategic tensions between Beijing and their home countries.

Brands including Swedish retailer H&M, Adidas and Nike have been targeted by demands online for consumer boycotts. That came after state media criticized them for expressing concern about reports of possible forced labor by ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region of China’s northwest.

FASTFACT

The report reflects growing unease among American and other foreign companies about the impact of economic and strategic tensions between Beijing and their home countries.

The American Chamber said 78 percent of companies that responded to its survey cited “rising tensions” between Beijing and Washington as their top concern.

Beijing announced plans for its “unreliable entities” list in 2019 after then-President Donald Trump blocked access to US components and technology for Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Ltd. Officials have yet to say which companies might be on the list or disclose the criteria for being included.

Concern about the list is “aggravated by consumer boycotts instigated by official organizations and through Chinese media,” the Chamber said. It said one in five companies expressed concern, while 7 percent said it was decreasing their willingness to invest.

Despite that, half the companies surveyed said China’s investment environment is improving, while 38 percent said it stayed the same. The Chamber said only 12 percent reported conditions had deteriorated, the lowest level since 2015.

The Chamber noted that 27 percent of information and computer technology companies said investment conditions were deteriorating, the highest level of any industry. That finding comes at a time when the ruling Communist Party is using subsidies, market barriers and informal pressure on companies to try to develop its own high-tech industries.

 


Rising consumer appetite for digital payments in Saudi Arabia

Rising consumer appetite for digital payments in Saudi Arabia
Updated 12 May 2021

Rising consumer appetite for digital payments in Saudi Arabia

Rising consumer appetite for digital payments in Saudi Arabia
  • The survey found that 94 percent of respondents are comfortable with digital payment systems such as biometrics, digital wallets and QR codes

RIYADH: Statistics released this week have highlighted the massive surge in the uptake of digital payments in the Kingdom, especially in light of pandemic restrictions on shopping and travel.

According to monthly data issued by the Saudi Central Bank, there were 25.84 million online sales transactions through the Mada system in March. The total value of sales during the month was SR 5.31 billion ($1.4 billion), a year-on-year increase of 196 percent.

The Small and Medium Enterprises General Authority (Monshaat) also reported that the e-commerce sector received an investment of around SR 250 million during the first quarter of 2021, according to an article by the Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper.

With shoppers having few alternatives when it comes to getting basic necessities, it is no surprise that the first-ever Mastercard New Payments Index for the Kingdom found widespread acceptance of digital payments among Saudi consumers.

The survey found that 94 percent of respondents are comfortable with digital payment systems such as biometrics, digital wallets and QR codes.

A year into the pandemic, research from Mastercard showed that the adoption of new payment technologies is rising and consumer appetite for it growing fast.

According to the index, 68 percent of respondents tried a new payment method they would not have tried under normal circumstances.

In addition, 92 percent of Saudi consumers said they have access to more ways to pay compared to this time last year.

Three-quarters of respondents said digital payment methods help them save money, while the same amount also said they are more loyal to retailers who offer multiple payment options. Sixty-nine percent of Saudi consumers said using biometrics to verify purchases made them feel safer.

“More than ever, consumers in Saudi Arabia are adapting and embracing payment innovations. Businesses, both big and small, must respond to this evolving trend. We are closely working with our partners and retailers to deliver secure and diverse payment technologies for the omnichannel generation,” J.K Khalil, country manager, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Levant at Mastercard, said in a press statement.


Latest reforms will boost KSA real estate, says analyst

Latest reforms will boost KSA real estate, says analyst
Updated 12 May 2021

Latest reforms will boost KSA real estate, says analyst

Latest reforms will boost KSA real estate, says analyst
  • The support for the housing sector will help the government achieve one of its core Vision 2030 goals to reach 70 percent homeownership by the end of the decade

RIYADH: The Saudi government’s recent announcements in the real estate sector, including providing more than 53,000 new homes in Riyadh and relaxing the ban on ownership by non-Saudis in Makkah and Madinah, will help to overhaul the sector and reach the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 home ownerships goals, according to an industry figure.

“The announcement of the allocation of 20 million square meters of land in the northern Riyadh suburb of Al-Jawan, effectively trebling the size of this neighborhood, to housing developments will certainly aid the government’s home ownership targets,” Faisal Durrani, head of Middle East research at real estate consultancy firm Knight Frank, told Arab News.

He added that the announcement by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “follows the December announcement by Roshn to develop 30,000 residential units in Riyadh — 4,000 in the first phase — as part of a national program to deliver 1 million new homes by 2030.”

The move is also in line with the city’s aim to become one of the 10 largest economic cities in the world and to increase its population from 15 to 20 million by 2030.

The support for the housing sector will also help the government achieve one of its core Vision 2030 goals to reach 70 percent homeownership by the end of the decade, up from 47 percent four years ago and around 60 percent at present.

The decision late last week to allow companies listed on the Saudi Stock Exchange to own properties in Makkah and Madinah was also seen as a major move by the government to encourage foreign investment and to permit non-Saudi investor ownership in the prime markets.

“Opening ownership in Makkah and Madinah to international companies is a clear indication of the direction of travel of the Saudi economy and is perfectly aligned with Vision 2030,” Durrani said, adding: “The landmark change is likely to pave the way for a boost in demand for commercial real estate over the medium to long-term, as businesses are drawn to the emerging economic opportunities.”

Such moves by the government are likely to be a catalyst for a post-pandemic rebound in the Kingdom’s real estate sector, which are already up 25 percent year-on-year (Y-o-Y) in Riyadh during the first quarter of this year, and 34 percent Y-o-Y in Jeddah and 11 percent Y-o-Y in the Dammam Metropolitan Area.


Airbus tells suppliers to plan for 18% output hike in 2022

Airbus tells suppliers to plan for 18% output hike in 2022
Updated 12 May 2021

Airbus tells suppliers to plan for 18% output hike in 2022

Airbus tells suppliers to plan for 18% output hike in 2022
  • The tentative new goal would lift output of the workhorse domestic and medium-haul jet

PARIS: Europe’s Airbus is asking suppliers to get ready for a further 18 percent increase in A320-family jet output during 2022, on top of existing targets for this year, as airlines ready for a partial return to normal travel, industry sources said.

The tentative new goal would lift output of the workhorse domestic and medium-haul jet, which competes with Boeing’s partially grounded 737 MAX, to 53 a month, they told Reuters.

The number being floated for end-2022 remains informal and Airbus has only committed so far to raising output in two steps to 45 a month by end-2021 from 40 now.

But it is the first concrete indication of the shape of recovery Airbus hopes to achieve for its main single-aisle jets next year as it restores coffers depleted by the pandemic.

“We do not comment on speculation regarding the longer-term trajectory,” a company spokesman said.

“We see the market recovering to pre-COVID levels in the 2023-2025 time frame, with single-aisle recovering first,” he said, adding, “uncertainties remain.”

Airbus, which had been enjoying record jet demand before the virus triggered widespread travel bans, cut output of its best-selling model by a third to 40 a month around a year ago.

In January, it announced plans to increase output to 43 a month in the third quarter and 45 a month in the fourth.

CEO Guillaume Faury said last month Airbus aimed for a “steep ramp-up” in 2022 and 2023, without elaborating.

Some suppliers have warned of bumps ahead in restoring pre-pandemic production as smaller parts makers struggle with cash shortages. Airbus must also address industrial snags that held up dozens of deliveries even before COVID-19, they say.

Output of larger wide-bodied jets remains depressed by travel restrictions and is not expected to recover soon.


Lebanese drivers queue for hours as fuel crisis worsens

Lebanese drivers queue for hours as fuel crisis worsens
Updated 11 May 2021

Lebanese drivers queue for hours as fuel crisis worsens

Lebanese drivers queue for hours as fuel crisis worsens
  • Some stations rationed the amount of fuel sold to customers, mostly taxi drivers

BEIRUT: Motorists queued for hours at gas stations across Lebanon on Tuesday as fears of an imminent end to the country’s subsidy on fuel increased demand for a commodity already in short supply.

Payment delays are also keeping urgent oil stocks on offshore tankers, meaning that many gas stations are facing critical supply shortages.

Queues extended into streets as drivers waited to fill their cars. Some stations rationed the amount of fuel sold to customers, mostly taxi drivers. Other stores closed down entirely.

However, Fadi Abu Shakra, representative of the union for fuel distributors and gas stations in Lebanon, said that the confusion and fear surrounding gas supply was “unjustified.”

He denied news reports that oil companies have notified distributors of an end to fuel subsidies.

Georges Brax, a member of the gas station owners’ syndicate, said: “The fact is, some stations have been running on very low fuel stocks due to the rationing of credits, which has forced some of them to close.”

He added that more stations will open their doors as soon as importing companies begin distribution, warning that the problem is not with importing companies or station owners, but with the Central Bank of Lebanon.

“It is necessary to speed up the opening of credits for ships that have reached regional waters, which have prior approval so that they can unload their cargo, thus easing market tension,” he said.

Brax added: “We have to get used to this reality, because for weeks we have been facing the same problem and the fuel has not been cut off.”

However, he added that, given the complexity of the issue, “in the short term, subsidies will not be lifted.”

But the panic of the Lebanese seems justified as subsidies on food and over-the-counter medicines are being gradually lifted.

Caretaker Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni has warned that Lebanon will “run out of money” to afford basic imports by the end of May if its remaining foreign currency reserves are not rationed.

According to Wazni, delays in launching the plan are costing the government about $500 million per month.

Bechara Asmar, head of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, said that there is “chaos in the markets and in all sectors,” and that “citizens are standing in queues in front of bakeries, fuel stations, supermarkets, shops and pharmacies to secure their daily needs.”

He added: “There is no plan yet to protect low-income people who can no longer afford their basic needs. Who is responsible? Is the Bank of Lebanon solely responsible? Or is it collusion between some merchants, importers, mafias, money whales and officials?”

Some of Lebanon’s fuel supply is also being smuggled to Syria.

An investigation by North Lebanon First Investigative Judge Samaranda Nassar revealed that “smuggling of fuel from the north into Syria in large commercial quantities through several smuggling lines has been going on for about two weeks.

“The new line passes through the town of Baino toward old Akkar, Al-Qamou’a, Hermel and then into Syria,” a report said.

Nassar issued 15 arrest warrants in absentia in six cases relating to fuel smuggling.

A gas station in the border area of Al-Arida was also closed after it was established that the owners “had filled tanks with fuel to be smuggled into Syria.”