Business / Economy

Executives raise global growth alarm on risks from China and trade to Brexit

by Enda Curran and David Goodman

Bloomberg

Corporate executives are increasingly nervous about the global economic outlook as they see threats multiplying from China to trade to Brexit.

While few see recession looming, louder warnings from semiconductors to logistics signal that waning confidence among businesses and consumers is sapping activity. The more downbeat mood was underscored recently by U.S. power-tool maker Stanley Black & Decker Inc., whose shares plunged after saying profit will miss estimates and warning about a global slowdown.

Concerns are rising as investors, bankers and former policymakers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said the expansion is weakening. Under a deluge of disappointing numbers, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said risks to the eurozone outlook have moved to the downside, a key acknowledgment of the changed backdrop.

It’s a cause for concern, particularly given the slowdown in the world’s second-biggest economy. China said Jan. 21 that gross domestic product grew 6.6 percent last year, the slowest pace since 1990, creating a lack of demand that is cascading down supply chains in the technology and automotive industries. Economists expect further deceleration through 2020.

The mood darkened the same day as the International Monetary Fund cut its global growth forecasts and a survey found 30 percent of business leaders expect growth to weaken, about six times more than a year ago.

Much of the uncertainty is pinned on the ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China as both sides negotiate for a deal ahead of a March 1 deadline, after which President Donald Trump has threatened an escalation of tariffs on Chinese goods.

Trinseo SA, a U.S. producer of synthetic rubber for tires, plunged after warning that slowing auto demand in China had reduced fourth-quarter earnings, while Nidec Corp., the Japanese maker of micro-motors used in hard drives and other electronic devices, said third-quarter profit fell and cited the slowing Chinese economy for weighing on some segments.

Apple Inc.’s main chipmaker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., forecast the worst revenue growth in at least a decade. In Europe, Apple chip supplier STMicroelectronics NV forecast a drop in sales in the first part of the year, though expects a return to growth further out. Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group, the biggest iPhone assembler, says it may slow the pace of hiring at its $10 billion manufacturing facility in Wisconsin.

But China and trade aren’t the only concerns. Germany’s huge manufacturing sector is faltering, and uncertainty about Brexit is continuing to weigh on U.K. firms. Airbus SE is the latest company to warn of the damage a no-deal split from the European Union could do.

“Where we see more worries is in Europe, where the geopolitical situation has some impact on the business,” Alain Dehaze, chief executive officer of Swiss recruitment firm Adecco Group AG, said in a Bloomberg Television interview from Davos. “With uncertainty, people are stopping to hire and invest, and it has repercussions.”

In the U.S., the longest government shutdown in the country’s history could temporarily curtail growth in the world’s largest economy, though Trump said Friday that a deal had been reached to end the impasse for at least three weeks. Meanwhile, consumer sentiment tumbled this month to the lowest since October 2016, a University of Michigan report showed.

The warnings come as data showed Japan’s exports fell in December, with shipments to China down 7 percent. South Korea’s exports — a bellwether for tech demand — fell 15 percent from a year earlier the first 20 days of January, the most since September 2016.

In Davos, Dubai-based global ports operator DP World Ltd. said the U.S.-China trade war is weighing on its ability to invest as banks grow more cautious in lending. While infrastructure hasn’t been affected as much as other industries, ripple effects from the spat are affecting short-term decisions, Chief Executive Officer Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem said in an interview.