Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the continuing effects of the pandemic have hobbled countries around the globe, but the relentless series of crises has hit Europe the hardest, causing the steepest jump in energy prices, some of the highest inflation rates and the biggest risk of recession.
The fallout from the war is menacing the continent with what some fear could become its most challenging economic and financial crisis in decades.
While growth is slowing worldwide, “in Europe it’s altogether more serious because it’s driven by a more fundamental deterioration,” said Neil Shearing, group chief economist at Capital Economics. Real incomes and living standards are falling, he added. “Europe and Britain are just worse off.”
Other regions of the world are also being squeezed, although some of the causes — and prospects — differ.
China, a powerful engine of global growth and a major market for European exports like cars, machinery and food, is facing its own set of problems. Beijing’s policy of continuing to freeze all activity during Covid-19 outbreaks has repeatedly paralyzed large swaths of the economy and added to worldwide supply chain disruptions. In the last few weeks alone, dozens of cities and more than 300 million people have been under full or partial lockdowns. Extreme heat and drought have hamstrung hydropower generation, forcing additional factory closings and rolling blackouts.
A troubled real estate market has added to the economic instability in China. Hundreds of thousands of people are refusing to pay their mortgages because they have lost confidence that developers will ever deliver their unfinished housing units. Trade with the rest of the world took a hit in August, and overall economic growth, although likely to outrun rates in the United States and Europe, looks as if it will slip to its slowest pace in a decade this year. The prospect has prompted China’s central bank to cut interest rates in hopes of stimulating the economy.
Understand the Decline in U.S. Gas Prices
“The global economy is undoubtedly slowing,” said Gregory Daco, chief economist at the global consulting firm EY- Parthenon, but it’s “happening at different speeds.”
In other parts of the world, countries that are able to supply vital materials and goods — particularly energy producers in the Middle East and North Africa — are seeing windfall gains.
And India and Indonesia are growing at unexpectedly fast paces as domestic demand increases and multinational companies look to vary their supply chains. Vietnam, too, is benefiting as manufacturers switch operations to its shores.
Poorer people, who spend much more of their total incomes on food and energy, are being hit hardest.
In Europe, anxiety about frigid living rooms, shuttered production lines and head-spinning energy bills this winter ratcheted up this week after Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy company, declared it would not resume the flow of natural gas through its Nord Stream 1 pipeline until Europe lifted Ukraine-related sanctions.
Daily average electricity prices in Western Europe have reached record levels, according to Rystad Energy, surging past 600 euros ($599) per megawatt-hour in Germany and €700 in France, with peak-hour rates as high as €1,500.
In the Czech Republic, roughly 70,000 angry protesters, many with links to far-right groups, gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague this past weekend to demonstrate against soaring energy bills.
The German, French and Finnish governments have already stepped in to save domestic power companies from bankruptcy. Even so, Uniper, which is based in Germany and one of Europe’s largest natural gas buyers and suppliers, said last week that it was losing more than €100 million a day because of the rise in prices
The European Commission, which has scheduled an emergency meeting of energy ministers for Friday, is calling for a cap on wholesale gas prices and an overhaul of how electricity is priced. And in recent days, Germany, Sweden, France and Britain all announced sweeping billion-dollar relief programs to ease the strain on households and businesses, along with rationing and conservation plans.
Still, a pitiless and unyielding reality remains: a lack of energy that countries can afford.
At current prices, there is simply not enough to produce the steel, lumber, microchips, glass, cotton, plastic, chemicals and electricity that go into making the food, home heat, garage doors, tampons, bicycles, baby formula, wine glasses and more that consumers want.
The root of the shortage predates the Ukraine war.
Commodity prices started rising in 2020 as countries began emerging from pandemic restrictions, noted Sven Smit, a senior partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. In the United States alone, consumers were, in effect, buying $1 trillion more goods than expected, based on spending patterns before coronavirus hit.