Anxiety grips companies across the world as virus spreads

ap photo A worker cleans the signage of a fast food restaurant as businesses slowly restart in Beijing on Sunday.

WASHINGTON — Since breaking out of China, the coronavirus has breached the walls of the Vatican. It’s struck the Iranian holy city of Qom and contaminated a nursing home in Seattle.

And around the world, it’s carrying not just sickness and death but also the anxiety and paralysis that can smother economic growth.

From Florida, where the CEO of a toy maker who can’t get products from Chinese factories is preparing layoffs, to Hong Kong, where the palatial Jumbo Kingdom restaurant is closed, businesses are struggling. The virus has grounded a British airline, and it’s sunk a Japanese cruise-ship company.

The cumulative damage is mounting.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this week slashed its forecast for global growth for this year to 2.4% from 2.9%. It warned that Japan and the 19 European countries that share the euro currency are in danger of recession. Italy may already be there.

Capital Economics expects the Chinese economy to shrink 2% in the January-March quarter and to grow as little as 2% for the year. That would be a disastrous and humiliating comedown for an economy that delivered a sizzling 9% average annual growth rate from 2000 through last year.

The bleak outlook and nagging uncertainties about how severe the damage will be have shaken financial markets. The Dow Jones industrial average, gyrating wildly from day to day, has plummeted nearly 12% over the past month.

“The virus is going to go on, and it’s going to impact a lot of countries and economies,” said Sondra Mansfield, who owners Chalk of the Town in New York City, which makes T-shirts and tote bags that children can write on with chalk.

With global supply chains disrupted by quarantines and travel restrictions, Mansfield worries about maintaining access to the supplies she needs — T shirts from India and Honduras and markers from Japan.

“I think it will get worse before it gets better,” she said.

When COVID-19 emerged in China a few weeks ago, many economists envisioned something like what happened when SARS hit China and Hong Kong in 2003: A short-lived interruption of Chinese economic growth, one that left the global economy largely unscathed.

Yet the new virus has spread far faster and more widely than expected. Between November 2002 and early August 2003, SARS infected 7,400 people in 32 countries and territories and killed 916. By contrast, COVID-19 has infected more than 100,000 people and killed more than 3,400 in 90 countries. And the toll is growing.

“This is not a China issue anymore,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Business travel in the United States has slowed sharply in the face of the outbreak. Numerous large companies, including Amazon and Google, are restricting non-essential travel. The result is a dire financial blow for the travel and tourism industries — from airlines and hotels and restaurants to cruise ship companies and conference centers.

Some airlines, including United, have cut back on flights both within the United States and internationally. The industry, already reeling from the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max, stands to be severely damaged by the viral outbreak, especially if travelers stay away for months to come.

In Europe, Germany’s largest airline, Lufthansa, says it will cut up to 50% of its flights in the next few weeks, having suffered a drastic drop in reservations. The struggling British airline Flybe collapsed last week as the outbreak quashed ticket sales. Air France and Scandinavian Airlines are freezing hiring and offering unpaid leave and shorter work hours as they endure a drop in passengers and cargo.

The pullback in air travel has led to the cancellations of high-profile conferences, from the Geneva auto show to a global health conference in Orlando, Florida, to South by Southwest, the annual festival of music, film and technology in Austin, Texas. Those cancellations, in turn, are dealing financial setbacks to the cities that normally host them and count on the financial windfalls they bring.

Amusement parks are being hurt by the sudden reluctance of people to travel and mingle with crowds. Disney’s Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland remain closed. Other theme park companies, like Six Flags and SeaWorld Entertainment, will likely suffer, too.


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