Manufacturers in Europe, Japan and the United States suffered in March as surveys showed trade tensions had left their mark on factory output, a setback for hopes the global economy might be turning the corner on its slowdown.
Factory activity in the 19-country euro zone contracted at the fastest pace in nearly six years.
In Japan, manufacturing output shrank the most in almost three years, hurt by China’s economic slowdown.
And a measure of U.S. manufacturing was its weakest since June, 2017, while forecasters at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia slashed their estimate for economic growth in early 2019.
German 10-year bond yields, which plunged on Thursday after the U.S. Federal Reserve signalled no more rate hikes this year, dived again to fall below zero.
In New York, the U.S. 10-year Treasury note yield plunged to a 14-month low as growth worries further weighed on inflation expectations.
That benchmark yield dropped below the yields on all maturities of T-bills for the first time in 12 years, what’s called a yield-curve inversion that is often a harbinger of economic recession.
“While such an inversion has traditionally been an indicator of a recession, this time around it may be less about the prospects for the U.S. economy and more about spillovers from what is happening in Europe and the bond market there, together with the effects of the Fed’s surprising decision to be very dovish again with its unconventional policy tools,” said Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz in Newport Beach, Calif.
U.S. stocks, European shares and the euro also fell on Friday. The benchmark S&P 500 was off by 1.6 per cent and on pace for its biggest drop in nearly three months.
Global trade tensions continue to be among the main culprits behind the gloom.
“No other factor shapes the euro zone business cycle more than the ups and downs of global trade,” economists at Berenberg, a bank, said.
The United States and China are due to resume face-to-face talks next week, but it is unclear if the two sides can narrow their differences and end the trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
European officials are also worried about the risk of U.S. tariffs on car imports from Europe.
RISKS – U.S.-CHINA TENSIONS, BREXIT, ITALY
The drop in the euro zone’s manufacturing purchasing managers index to a 71-month low of 47.7 from 49.4 in February raised the risk trade flows could turn even more negative in the short term, the Berenberg economists said.
The manufacturing downturn was partly offset by stable – but relatively weak – growth in the euro zone’s dominant services industry.
But the surveys suggested the bloc’s economy had a poor start to 2019.
IHS Markit, which published the surveys, said the PMIs pointed to first-quarter economic growth of 0.2 per cent in the euro zone, below the 0.3 per cent predicted in a Reuters poll last week.
The euro zone grew 0.2 per cent in the final three months of 2018, its slowest pace in four years.
Earlier this month, the European Central Bank changed tack by pushing out the timing of its next rate increase until 2020 at the earliest and said it would offer banks a new round of cheap loans to help revive the economy.
“We highlight downside risks mainly stemming from the external side – e.g. trade tensions, a Chinese-led global slowdown,” Barclays economists Radu-Gabriel Cristea and François Cabau said about the euro zone.
“The protracted weakness in manufacturing remains a lingering risk, and overall growth concerns are likely to intensify should the industrial backdrop further deteriorate. At the same time, Italy and Brexit woes remain non-negligible, the uncertainty a further drag on sentiment.”
In the U.S. series, Markit’s measure of manufacturing activity slipped to 52.5 in March from 53 in February, falling short of economists’ forecasts for a modest rebound. Markit’s manufacturing output index was the weakest since June, 2016.
“The survey is consistent with the official measure of manufacturing production falling at an increased rate in March and hence acting as a drag on the economy in the first quarter,” Markit’s chief business economist, Chris Williamson, said.
U.S. GDP is forecast to expand at an annualized rate of 1.6 per cent this quarter, down from the 2.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to a Reuters poll of more than 100 economists released last week. In last month’s poll, first-quarter growth had been pegged at 1.9 per cent.
The headline Flash Markit/Nikkei Japan Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) was a seasonally adjusted 48.9, the same as February’s final reading.
The index was below the 50 threshold that separates contraction from expansion for the second consecutive month.
“Concern of weaker growth in China and prolonged global trade frictions kept business confidence well below its historical average in March,” said Joe Hayes, an economist at IHS Markit.
The flash index for total new orders – domestic and foreign – fell to its lowest since June, 2016, the survey showed.
Japan is exposed to the dispute between Washington and Beijing as it ships to China big volumes of electronics items and heavy machinery used to make finished goods destined for the United States.