Omicron may be less severe than Delta, but it could hit the global economy even harder in 4 painful ways
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If the COVID-forecasting models are correct, Omicron will peak in most places in Europe and the United States as soon as mid-January, and then the case numbers will improve—slowly at first, then dramatically.
“Omicron was fast and furious in its growth and will be fast—hopefully not furious—but very fast also in its decline,” Alessandro Vespignani, director of the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University and a specialist in data science and computational epidemiology, predicted last week. “It should be receding sooner than other waves that we experienced in the past.”
But don't be fooled: the pronounced up-down spike in cases that we're all hoping for doesn't mean Omicron won't do a fair bit of damage. Here are four areas in which economists and Wall Street pros fret that the world economy is vulnerable to an Omicron hit.
Growth prospects for 2022 looked stellar as recently as a few months ago. In October, the International Monetary Fund penciled in global growth at 4.9% for this year, with the U.S. and China outperforming. And then Omicron hit in late November, sending economists back to their calculations.
The IMF in December warned Omicron would almost certainly impact the global recovery. It will release its next update on Jan. 25, a week later than scheduled as it assesses just how badly Omicron will impact global trade.
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The reason? Yep, Omicron.
After the new year, a steady trickle of growth-downgrades became a torrent. Berenberg chief economist Holger Schmieding told investors last week that the highly-contagious variant would shave as much as 1% off the eurozone and United Kingdom GDP growth rates. The worst-case scenario, he said, would be one in which Omicron caused "significant if temporary economic damage on top of potentially serious strains on medical systems.”
The stock market
With Omicron pummeling the world's most advanced economies last week, the stock markets from Frankfurt to New York tanked. The benchmark S&P 500 limped out of the week on a four-day losing streak, its worst rout since September, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq had its worst one-week decline since February.
It wasn't just Omicron weighing on investors, but the rising case numbers added to the risk-off mood hanging over global markets, convincing investors to sell out of their high-priced holdings in exchange for safe-havens.
Out went high-flying growth stocks—and crypto—and so-called "cyclicals," stocks that tend to rise and fall with big macroeconomic jolts. "Uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant, elevated inflation, and waning monetary and fiscal policy drove a rotation from cyclicals into defensives," David Kostin, Goldman Sachs' chief U.S. equity strategist wrote in an investor note.
Goldman sees the uncertainty theme continuing throughout the year. It forecasts the S&P 500 will climb to 5,100 by year-end, implying 7% growth. That's far off last year's stellar 28.7% (on a "total return" basis) gains.
Friday's dud of a jobs report carried an unsettling warning: don't pay any heed to the headline number of 3.9% unemployment. That looks really strong on the surface, but it masks bigger issues elsewhere. If employers thought the labor market was tight at the end of 2021, try finding talent during the current spike in Omicron cases.
"Looking ahead to January, Omicron will probably impact the labor market similar to Delta," predicts Stephen Juneau, U.S. economist for Bank of America Securities, "reducing both the supply of labor and the demand for labor, so the unemployment rate will continue to drop. It will also have a big 'quarantine effect' with a big jump in people absent from work but still employed. That means constrained supply, but doesn't impact the headlines stats."
BofA estimates there will be more than four million frontline U.S. workers under quarantine at the peak of the Omicron wave.
Year one of COVID was marked by a collapse in demand as lockdowns kept consumers at home. Last year, we had almost the opposite effect: a consumer flush with cash and anxious to spend. That triggered a surge in demand that factories could not possibly meet. The big hope was that global supply chains would catch up to this great imbalance in the first half of 2022, if not by the end of Q1.
That now seems remote. BofA Securities sees a global wave of sick-outs and forced quarantines buffeting global supply chains once again.
"At the global level," writes BofA Securities global economist Ethan S. Harris, "this should lead to rolling disruptions in different sectors, as the Omicron wave rolls from one region to the next. One thing to note is that Omicron has not yet set in in the Asian countries most heavily involved in global supply chains, namely China, Japan, Korea and the ASEAN region. This means that we could see further disruption in supply chains in the spring, even as the health care outlook in the US and Europe (likely) improves significantly."