The slow reopen: Retail visits edge up, broader economic measures still unmoved

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. continued its cautious reemergence from a coronavirus-linked shutdown over the past week, with measures of retail foot traffic slowly increasing but broader indexes of economic activity still stalled.

Data from cellphone location firms Unacast and SafeGraph through last weekend both showed a continued slow rise in visits to retail stores. Data on around 55,000 small businesses from time management firm Homebase showed a few more firms open and more workers on the job.

The latest numbers are in line with both the gradual lifting of coronavirus-related restrictions across the country, and what many analysts expect to be a measured response among households and entrepreneurs until it is clear the virus is controlled.

In some cases, businesses are being allowed to open, but with capacity limits or other regulations to keep the virus in check.

A handful of major retailers have said sales recently have been helped by government emergency relief payments to U.S. households and those who have lost work.

Walmart Inc (WMT.N) executives said on a conference call on Tuesday that stimulus checks have helped deliver a good start to the second quarter, but they did not expect spending to continue at the same pace.

Broader real-time measures of the economy showed little evidence yet of a macroeconomic rebound.

Another 2.4 million people filed for unemployment benefits, though the number dropped from last week.

Consumer and industrial activity measures from Goldman Sachs were unchanged. A New York Fed index tracking growth in gross domestic fell slightly. An Atlanta Fed rolling estimate of current-quarter gross domestic product remained at what’s hoped to be its bottom, showing an annualized drop of more than 40%.

Any good news remained narrowly focused. Unacast data showed foot traffic among home improvement stores recently crept above 2019 levels, and pet stores were attracting more visitors.

Estimated activity moved up faster in the midwest and south – Wyoming and South Dakota saw retail traffic above 2019 levels recently — while coastal states, some still under relatively tight restrictions, remained far below last year.

For more on the real time data referenced here, see:

Unacast here here Safegraph www.safegraph.com/dashboard, NYFed here ATLFed here

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U.S. weekly jobless benefits to stay elevated as coronavirus layoffs widen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The global novel coronavirus crisis continues to batter the U.S. labor market, with millions more Americans, including white collar workers, expected to have filed for unemployment benefits last week as the hit from the pandemic spills over into a broader swath of the economy.

Thursday’s weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department, the most timely data on the economy’s health, would cement economists’ expectations for a third straight month of massive job losses in May. The report would come a day after Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned of an “extended period” of weak growth and stagnant incomes.

The economy lost a staggering 20.5 million jobs in April, the steepest plunge in payrolls since the Great Depression of the 1930s, as businesses were locked down to slow the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

“We are on the back end of the first wave of layoffs, but now we are transitioning from the natural-disaster phase to the recession phase,” said Josh Wright, chief economist at Wrightside Advisors in New York. “That’s why so many white collar jobs are still being lost. We effectively amputated a large section of the economy, and we are going to limp along afterwards.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits likely totaled a seasonally adjusted 2.5 million for the week ended May 9, according to a Reuters survey of economists. While it still would be an astoundingly high number, that would be down from 3.169 million in the prior week. Claims have been gradually decreasing since hitting a record 6.867 million in the week ended March 28.

Last week’s filings would lift the number of people who filed claims for unemployment benefits to about 36 million since March 21, nearly a quarter of the working age population. Still, April was probably the trough in job losses during this downturn, which has also been marked by the sharpest decline in output since the 2007-09 Great Recession.

APPLICATION BACKLOGS

In addition to workers in industries and jobs not initially affected by the coronavirus shutdowns, economists attribute the continued elevation in claims to the processing of application backlogs, which accumulated as state unemployment offices were overwhelmed by the unprecedented wave of applications.

Many parts of the country are reopening and states and local governments are laying out plans to restart their economies. But with businesses and factories operating well below capacity, and fears of a second round of COVID-19 infections, economists do not anticipate a dramatic improvement in the labor market.

Some businesses have accessed loans from an almost $3 trillion fiscal package, which could be partially forgiven if they used the credit for employee salaries. But many small enterprises are expected to close permanently, leaving some of the 21.4 million people who lost their jobs in March and April out of work.

To gauge the depth of the unemployment problem, attention will shift to the number of people staying on jobless benefits rolls.

Thursday’s claims report is expected to show the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid raced to a record 25.1 million in the week ended May 2 from 22.647 million in the prior week, according to the Reuters survey.

The so-called continuing claims data is reported with a one-week lag.

“We would expect a peak should arrive sometime in late May or June, with continuing claims falling as rehiring resumes,” said Andrew Hollenhorst, an economist at Citigroup in New York. “The speed of the decline will indicate how fast rehiring is occurring.”

The unemployment rate jumped to 14.7% in April, breaking the post-World War Two record of 10.8% touched in November 1982, from 4.4% in March.

A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, surged to 22.8% last month from 8.7% in March.

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Exclusive: Biden allies told to attack Trump's stimulus as 'cronyism'

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Allies of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are being told to sharpen attacks on President Donald Trump’s stimulus efforts as thinly veiled “cronyism,” according to a memo being sent to Democratic officeholders and supporters on Friday.

The memo, which was seen by Reuters, gives Biden campaign representatives new language to use in their attacks on Trump and shows a campaign honing an increasingly aggressive tone ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

The strategy document says Trump’s post-pandemic stimulus contains “the largest corporate bailout in American history,” a kind of “cronyism,” that is “systematically rigged in favor of big businesses, the wealthy, and the financial sector – and against the working people and middle class families who are enduring the worst economic losses the country has faced in modern memory.”

A Biden campaign spokesman declined to comment on the memo, which was written by two of the campaign’s top policy advisers, Stef Feldman and Jake Sullivan.

A Trump campaign spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, characterized the argument as “pathetic.”

“The president has been hard at work protecting the safety of Americans and also safeguarding the economy, while Joe Biden sits in his basement lobbing political hand grenades in a desperate plea for relevance,” Murtaugh said.

Biden and Trump are both retooling economic plans after the coronavirus pandemic put more than 33 million Americans out of work and ended the longest recorded boom in U.S. history.

Each candidate is also searching for a winning message on the economy for the election that political strategists increasingly see as a single-issue campaign – how to deal with the health and economic consequences of the pandemic.

The novel coronavirus has infected more than 1.25 million Americans and killed more than 75,000, the world’s highest number of cases and deaths.

TWO THEMES

With the new attacks, Biden is attempting to court not just moderate and independent voters but also liberals in his own party, some of whom favored the tough-on-corporation message of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, his former rivals for the Democratic nomination.

Even though Biden has strong union ties and touts working-class values, some left-wing voters find his policies not progressive enough and also dislike his use of high-dollar fundraisers to finance his campaign.

While Democrats in Congress supported nearly $3 trillion compromise stimulus legislation, Biden’s team is asking allies to attack various faults that have emerged in the program, the memo shows.

The campaign cited media reports and research suggesting that small businesses with ties to the administration received aid, that banks may be prioritizing wealthy clients when making loans under the emergency program and that Democratic-led states that did not support Trump’s re-election might not be getting sufficient support.

Government officials have said they are prioritizing oversight as they manage the programs.

A Reuters analysis on Thursday showed that some U.S. companies that took in emergency government loans had months of cash on hand to cover expenses.

Biden’s team also took issue with the Federal Reserve for backstopping the “junk” bond market with too-few conditions attached, the memo showed.

Trump’s campaign has been refining its message too after the strong economy it was overseeing withered under the coronavirus pandemic.

Several Trump aides say their 2020 campaign will now be chiefly defined by two themes: Trump is the only candidate who can resurrect the economy and that Biden will not be as tough on China, a country Trump is blaming for the pandemic.

Reuters/Ipsos polling this week showed that 45% of Americans said Trump was better suited to create jobs, while 32% said Biden was the better candidate for that task.

The former vice president was due to deliver an economic policy speech on Friday on NowThis, a left-leaning news platform aimed at younger audiences. It was not clear if his speech would match the tone or content of the memo.

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Great Depression-like U.S. job losses, unemployment rate expected in April

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. economy likely lost a staggering 22 million jobs in April, in what would be the steepest plunge in payrolls since the Great Depression and the starkest sign yet of how the novel coronavirus pandemic is battering the world’s biggest economy.

A report that is closely watched in any given month but especially so now with non-essential businesses in mandatory shutdowns nationwide to contain the coronavirus, the Labor Department’s monthly employment report on Friday is also expected to show the jobless rate surging to at least 16% last month. That would shatter the post-World War Two record of 10.8% touched in November 1982.

The numbers will likely strengthen analysts’ expectations of a slow recovery from the recession caused by the pandemic. It would add to a pile of bleak data on consumer spending, business investment, trade, productivity and the housing market in underscoring the devastation unleashed by lockdowns imposed by states and local governments in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

The economic crisis spells trouble for President Donald Trump’s bid for a second term in the White House in November’s election. After the Trump administration was criticized for its initial reaction to the pandemic, Trump is eager to reopen the economy, despite a continued rise in COVID-19 infections and dire projections of deaths.

“Our economy is on life support now,” said Erica Groshen, a former commissioner of the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. “We will be testing the waters in the next few months to see if it can emerge safely from our policy-induced coma,” added Groshen, who is now a senior extension faculty member at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

The historic dive in April nonfarm payrolls predicted in a Reuters survey anticipates job losses in nearly all sectors of the economy, with larger layoffs in the leisure and hospitality industry – mainly restaurants and bars. It would follow the shedding of 701,000 jobs in March, which ended a record streak of employment gains dating to October 2010.

Estimates in the survey ranged to as much as a loss of 35 million. Forecasts for April’s unemployment rate, which was at 4.4% in March, were as high as 22%.

There is great uncertainty surrounding last month’s estimates because of the nature and speed of the job losses.

A total of 26.5 million people had filed claims for jobless benefits and 16.2 million were on unemployment rolls through the week of April 12, when the government canvassed establishments and households for payrolls and the unemployment rate.

Eligibility for unemployment benefits has been greatly expanded to include contractors and gig workers among others, overwhelming local employment offices with applications and leading to backlogs. Economists believe the numbers of people applying for unemployment aid and those continuing to receive benefits are understated.

Meanwhile, some people might be filing more than one claim, and workers whose hours have been cut because of COVID-19 can also seek unemployment benefits.

GREAT UNCERTAINTY

Some workers who have filed claims have likely since found employment, with companies like Walmart and Amazon hiring workers to meet huge demand in online shopping. Truck drivers are also in demand, while supermarkets, pharmacies and courier companies need workers.

According to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles the employment report, a person has to be looking for work and available to do it to be considered unemployed.

“This means many workers who lose their job as a result of the virus will be counted as dropping out of the labor force instead of as unemployed because they are unable to search for work due to the lockdown, or because they are not available to work because they are, for example, caring for children whose school has closed,” said Heidi Shierholz, a former chief economist at the Labor Department.

Furloughed workers and others who expect to return to their jobs within 6 months are counted as unemployed on temporary layoff.

A drop in the labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, could blunt some of the anticipated surge in the unemployment rate in April.

To get a clearer picture, economists will focus on a broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment.

April could, however, mark the trough in job losses as more small businesses access their portion of an almost $3 trillion fiscal package, which made provisions for them to get loans that could be partially forgiven if they were used for employee salaries. The Federal Reserve has also thrown businesses credit lifelines and many states are also partially reopening.

Still, economists do not expected a quick rebound in the labor market.

“Given the expected shift in consumer behavior reflecting insecurities regarding health, wealth, income, and employment, many of these firms will not reopen or, if they do reopen, hire fewer people,” said Steve Blitz, chief economist at TS Lombard in New York. “This is one reason why we see the underlying recession extending through the third quarter.”

Economists say the economy entered recession in late March, when nearly the whole country went into COVID-19 lockdowns.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, the private research institute regarded as the arbiter of U.S. recessions, does not define a recession as two consecutive quarters of decline in real gross domestic product, as is the rule of thumb in many countries. Instead, it looks for a drop in activity, spread across the economy and lasting more than a few months.

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UPDATE 2-Norway central bank cuts rates to zero to soften coronavirus impact

* Norges Bank cuts to record low

* Third rate cut in less than two months

* Expects rates to stay at zero for several years

* Crown currency weakens against euro (Adds background)

By Terje Solsvik and Victoria Klesty

OSLO, May 7 (Reuters) – Norway’s central bank has cut its key interest rate to a record-low zero percent from 0.25%, it said on Thursday in a surprise move, seeking to cushion an economy reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most economists polled by Reuters had predicted rates would stay on hold.

It was Norges Bank’s third rate cut in less than two months, slashing the cost of borrowing from 1.5%, and rates are likely to stay at zero for the next several years, its forecasts showed.

“We do not envisage making further policy rate cuts,” Governor Oeystein Olsen said in a statement.

Norges Bank now predicts the mainland economy, which excludes oil and gas output, will contract by 5.2% in 2020, down from a March 13 forecast of 0.4% growth. It expects growth of 3.0% in 2021, up from 1.3% seen earlier.

The crown currency, which has weakened from the twin impacts of the novel coronavirus and a crash in oil prices, fell to trade against the euro at 11.14 at 0811 GMT, down from 11.07 just before the 0800 GMT rate announcement.

“This decision comes unexpected, and is not in line with consensus,” Nordea Markets said in a note to clients.

RECORD LOW

Until March, Norway’s key policy rate had never been lower than 0.5%, the level which it stood at from 2016 to 2018.

“So it was one more cut, we are down to a nil key policy rate! At the same time Norges Bank is clear that the effective lower limit for the rate is reached,” said Kjersti Haugland, chief economist at DNB, Norway’s largest bank.

“The probability of a negative rate in Norway is thus significantly reduced,” she said.

The government has invoked emergency powers to restrict travel and shut many public and private institutions, although steps are now taken to gradually open up society.

April unemployment surged to more than 15%, the highest level on record, amid mass layoffs by corporations, data from Norway’s Labour and Welfare Agency (NAV) show.

The government has offered business loans, tax deferments and spending worth 360 billion crowns ($35 billion), while the central bank pumped money into the financial industry and said it may intervene in the currency market.

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UPDATE 1-German industrial orders slide to record low as virus hits

(Adds details from economy ministry, economist)

BERLIN, May 6 (Reuters) – Orders for German industrial goods collapsed in March to their lowest level since records began in 1991, data showed on Wednesday, as the coronavirus slashed domestic and foreign demand for goods from Europe’s biggest economy.

Statistics Office figures showed a 15.6% dive in orders for Made in Germany goods, far worse than a Reuters poll of analysts for a 10.0% fall.

Germany is braced for its deepest recession since World War Two, the economy minister has warned as a lockdown has shuttered shops, businesses and factories, although a gradual easing of restrictions has started.

The economy ministry blamed the dramatic fall in orders on the global economic shock of the coronavirus and the steps taken to slow down its spread.

“It is to be expected that production will decline sharply from March onwards due to corona,” the ministry said in a statement.

Domestic contracts slumped by 14.8% and orders from abroad were down by 16.1%, a huge blow for an export-oriented economy.

“The significance of the figures on incoming orders can hardly be topped,” said Thomas Gitzel, Chief Economist at VP Bank Group, adding the scale of the decline does not bode well.

“They show how strong the effects of the corona crisis will still be on manufacturing industry … Even during the financial market crisis, orders did not collapse as sharply,” he said.

Demand for capital goods was hit particularly hard, down 22.6%, the data showed. (Reporting by Madeline Chambers Editing by Riham Alkousaa and Paul Carrel)

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Fishing outrage: Dutch trawlers plunder British waters with UK boats unable to sail

Their activities are causing untold damage to the fragile ecosystem, with Jeremy Percy, director of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association (NUFTA), which represents fishermen who use boats of less than ten metres in length, is concerned their activities endanger the lives of whales and dolphins as well. The movements of the vessels are recorded in a series of GPS maps released by the environmental campaigners, spending weeks fishing waters on the west coast of Scotland.

Chris Thorne, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told Express.co.uk: “In the last month, while the entire world is in lockdown, we’ve seen the supertrawler fleet relentlessly fishing in and around UK waters, with some boats leaving port during the lockdown and heading straight to fishing grounds off the coast of Scotland.

“Since arriving in early April the first supertrawlers to show up, the Willem van der Zwan, Afrika and Frank Bonefaas have been joined by yet more supertrawlers, exploiting UK waters while local fishers are largely stuck at home, unable to work.

“We must address the unfair fishing system, which favours unsustainable, industrial fishing fleets over local, more sustainable fleets.

“The situation in the UK is far from unique.

“We’ve seen industrial fleets illegally fishing off the coast of Argentina, and a significant increase in fishing activity here according to Global Fishing Watch data.

“While the world is at home, fishing continues.

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“Some people might think the lockdown is allowing nature to heal, but that certainly isn’t true for our oceans.”

Mr Percy told Express.co.uk he was concerned not only of what he termed the “supertrawler pack” but also about the activities of Belgian beam trawlers and French trawlers which he said were also regular visitors.

He added: “Our main concern is that the Marine Management Organisation are not authorising physical inspections of any of these vessels during the pandemic.

“With the supertrawlers, a primary concern of ours is the massive impact they can have in a very short time if not adequately policed.

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“And we have been urging the UK authorities to insist on cameras on these boats, not only with regard to fisheries activities but also to record any impacts on cetaceans.”

Mr Percy added: “The owners of the Margiris insist that she has a zero bycatch in this and other regards but the evidence from industrial pelagic fishing generally strongly suggests otherwise.

“Reports for the winter of 2019 in the Bay of Biscay suggest 11,000 dolphins were killed by industrial trawlers.

“When these vessels were fishing the confined waters of the English Channel some months ago, the incidence of dead cetaceans washed up on beaches along their fishing track was notable.

“In terms of Belgian and French effort, I counted over a dozen Belgian beamers in our waters together with a number of French and Dutch operators.”

Last year a similar Greenpeace analysis revealed another Dutch vessel, the Margiris, had been spotted in an area designated as a Marine Conservation Zone.

Then-Brexit Party MP June Mummery described the 136-metre vessel as a “factory” ship capable of killing “hundreds of dolphins”

A Defra spokeswoman said: “We know this is a challenging time for fishermen and fish processors and we are working urgently with the industry.

“Furthermore the Marine Management Organisation continues to work hard to monitor and inspect trawlers in English waters.

“At the end of the Transition Period, we will have the right to decide who fishes in our waters and on what terms. Any decisions about giving access to fish for vessels from the EU, or any other coastal states will be a matter for the UK to decide.”

Express.co.uk has also contacted Marine Scotland to ask for a response to Greenpeace’s analysis.

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Many U.S. businesses unlikely to seek government aid: NABE survey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A majority of U.S. companies expect to stay afloat for more than six months without government assistance, according to a survey on Monday, even though the novel coronavirus outbreak has severely disrupted economic activity and hit cash flow.

The National Association for Business Economics (NABE) business conditions survey also found that a third of firms expected to resume normal business operations within five to eight weeks. State and local governments have shut or limited operations of nonessential businesses, to control the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, grounding the country and throwing millions out of work.

The federal government is making loans available to mostly small businesses, through a nearly $3 trillion rescue package.

The survey of 107 NABE members ranging from single-person companies to large corporations with more than 1,000 employees was conducted from April 13 through April 16.

“Respondents report that last quarter was the worst since the global financial crisis for sales, profit margins, prices, and capital spending,” said Megan Greene, chair of NABE business conditions survey and senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. “A third of respondents say their firms’ operations have been severely impacted, including a few firms that have had a full suspension of operations.”

Still, three-quarters of respondents expected their firms could survive for over six months without federal assistance. Some 46% of all respondents said they would not seek government assistance through the stimulus package, while 31% in the service sector said they would.

Companies in the goods producing and services industries led the 31% of all respondents who said they had furloughed workers. Just under two-thirds reported freezing hiring, spread across all sectors.

Respondents from the goods-producing sector were more optimistic about reopening businesses, with half suggesting that normal operations will resume in six weeks or less, compared to less than one-third of respondents from other sectors. Sixteen percent of respondents indicated normal operations would require longer than six months.

The coronavirus disruptions are expected to have resulted in the sharpest decline in gross domestic product in the first quarter since the Great Recession, according to a Reuters survey of economists, effectively ending the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. The Commerce Department will publish its snapshot of first-quarter GDP next Wednesday.

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China set to cut benchmark rate after first GDP contraction on record – analysts

SHANGHAI, April 17 (Reuters) – China is widely expected to cut its benchmark lending rate on Monday to provide further support for the coronavirus-hit economy, which shrank for the first time on record in the first quarter, a Reuters survey of traders and analysts found.

All 52 participants in the survey expected a reduction in the Loan Prime Rate (LPR) in its monthly fixing on Monday to lower financing costs for companies as they struggle to get back on their feet after unprecedented economic disruptions.

A cut would be the second to the lending benchmark rate this year. Most new and outstanding loans are based on the LPR.

Forty-six respondents believed the one-year LPR would be reduced by 20 basis points (bps), mimicking a cut in the central bank’s medium-term funding costs this week. Six expected a more modest 10 bps cut to 3.95% from the current 4.05%.

For the five-year LPR, which influences the pricing of mortgages, 21 respondents forecast a 10 bps cut, 24 saw a marginal 5 bps cut and one person said it would not be changed. Some traders said they would pay more attention to the five-year rate for clues on whether Beijing may ease curbs on the property sector to boost economic growth.

The overwhelmingly high expectations for a cut to the lending benchmark rate came after the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) lowered the interest rate on its medium-term lending facility (MLF) for financial institutions to the lowest level on record this week. That gauge serves as the guide to the LPR.

Bleak economic data on Friday reinforced expectations that Beijing will ramp up policy support in coming months to help keep cash-starved companies afloat until demand recovers.

China’s economy shrank 6.8% in the first quarter from a year earlier, the first contraction since at least 1992 when the government began publishing quarterly records.

Despite some signs of improvement in March as Beijing restarted its economic engines, analysts say a recovery will take time. Analysts in a separate Reuters poll said full-year growth could be the weakest in over 40 years.

“Judging from high frequency economic data and progress of work resumption in April, we believe the central bank will continue its easing stance for the time being despite some signs of loose liquidity in the banking system,” said Jacqueline Rong, senior China economist at BNP Paribas in Beijing.

Rong expects a 20-bps reduction in one-year LPR and a 5-bps to the five-year tenor on Monday.

She also sees another half a percentage point cut to banks’ reserve requirement ratio (RRR), on top of one announced this month, and an additional 10 bps points decline in policy rates in the remainder of the current quarter.

The LPR is a lending reference rate set monthly by 18 banks. The PBOC revamped the mechanism to price LPR in August 2019, loosely pegging it to the MLF rate.

All 52 responses in the survey were collected from selected participants on a private messaging platform.

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China's Q1 GDP posts first decline on record as virus shuts down economy

BEIJING, April 17 (Reuters) – China’s economy shrank 6.8% in January-March from a year earlier, official data showed on Friday, the first such decline since at least 1992 when quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) records began.

The historic slump in the world’s second-largest economy comes after efforts to contain the coronavirus, which first emerged in China late last year, shut down factories, transport and shopping malls.

Similar shutdowns now in effect in major economies elsewhere have devastated global trade and suggest an immediate Chinese recovery is likely to be some way off.

The decline was larger than the 6.5% forecast by analysts in a Reuters poll and reverses a 6% expansion in the fourth quarter of 2019.

On a quarter-on-quarter basis, GDP fell 9.8% in the first three months of the year, the National Bureau of Statistics said, which compared with expectations for a 9.9% contraction and 1.5% growth in the previous quarter.

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