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COVID-19 – continued global growth of cases; shift continues to Latin America, parts of Asia and the Middle East

Four months after COVID-19 peaked in China, where the virus started, the world continues to stagger under an expanding case load of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Indeed, in the last two weeks new cases around the world have increased by 1.567 million to reach a current global total since the end of December of 6.835 million as of June 7. These number compare to less than 55,000 global cases (nearly all in China) in early February. During the last two weeks, new confirmed cases increased 22.32% from the prior two weeks and continue a chain of unbroken increases since the beginning of March.

As much of the developed world has seen a peak in the number of cases, the continued growth in new cases reflects shifting centers or hot spots generally to developing countries. In looking at 25 countries that have accounted for more than 80% of all cases through June 7, ten of these countries have not yet reached a peak — Brazil, Chile, Egypt, India, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa — while the other fifteen have peaked and seen declines from peak of between 10% and 99%. These fifteen countries are Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States. Still these 25 countries saw a combined increase in total new cases of 18.7% in the last fourteen days. All other countries saw a much larger increase in new cases, 39.61% from 220,812 cases the previous 14 days to 308,293. Some countries of note in this “all other” grouping include Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Nepal, Oman, Qatar, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. See https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases. June 7th report embedded below.

COVID-19-situation-update-worldwide-as-of-7-June-2020

The shifting focus of cases to developing and least developed countries raises increased concerns about access to medical goods, including personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other goods. The WTO’s list of measures applied by Members dealing with COVID-19 either to restrict exports of medical goods or food products or to improve market access , shows dozens of countries applying export restraints on various medical goods (masks, gloves, etc.) including countries where new cases are well past peak (indeed where new cases may be 90% below peak). The WTO information is current as of May 29, 2020. There are also a large number of countries reducing tariffs or streamlining importation of medical goods. https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/trade_related_goods_measure_e.htm.

Moreover, health care infrastructure is often weaker in many of these countries facing growing COVID-19 cases, and the structure of their economies may complicate the ability of governments to address the pandemic even if medical goods are available. A recent article reviews the challenges in Latin America. See https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/06/americas/latin-america-coronavirus-intl/index.html.

Some major players like the United States, the European Union and its member states, and China are both investing large amounts in research and development and also securing early access to any vaccines developed through early commitments and other actions. https://www.biospace.com/article/eu-using-2-7-million-emergency-fund-to-buy-promising-covid-19-vaccines/. With the number of R&D projects ongoing around the world and the efforts of companies and governments to get manufacturing geared up early on promising products, the likelihood of earlier availability of large quantities of vaccines should there be breakthroughs has improved.

The question of equitable and affordable availability for all peoples is certainly there for a global pandemic where major players are funding research and have the resources to get early commitments for supplies. But greater manufacturing capacity earlier should improve global availability. So too the efforts of many countries, organizations and businesses to ensure both availability of vaccines and the distribution of such products to those in need is a major factor in ensuring greater access at affordable prices. As the news from the June 4 GAVI conference in London demonstrates, many are uniting to ensure that small children who have been unable to receive various immunizations against other diseases are able to do so yet this year as well as meet the needs of the pandemic for many developing and least developed countries. See https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/world-leaders-make-historic-commitments-provide-equal-access-vaccines-all.

Conclusion

The pandemic is continuing to worsen on a global basis even as parts of Asia, Western Europe, Oceania, Canada and the United States are post-peak and starting a process of reopening. The tremendous growth in the number of cases is in developing and least developed countries, those least prepared to handle the health and economic fall out.

The trade news is mixed. Many countries are liberalizing imports of medical goods during the pandemic which is obviously a positive. However, dozens of countries have introduced export restrictions in an environment in which global supply has lagged global demand, and countries have scrambled to protect access to what supplies they can. Many of these restrictions should be removed at this point, at least by countries that are well past peak demand situations.

Ramp up in global production of many medical goods has occurred, though it is unclear if demand/supply balance has been achieved or how/if the world will build the necessary national and regional inventories to handle a second wave or future pandemics. Moreover, without knowing how much larger the number of new cases will become before there is a global peak, it is hard to know if expansion of production of medical goods will be adequate to meet demand in the coming months. Efforts by the G-20 in the trade and investment area are a start but limited in terms of likely actual effect.

Factually, there have substantial declines in global trade flowing from the lock down situation in large parts of the world over the last few months. Trade flows should increase in those parts of the world where reopening is occurring but will likely further decrease in countries where the pandemic is picking up its infection rate. The economic toll on many countries who have come through the worst of the pandemic has been unprecedented and will present challenges to their ability to rebound quickly and to their willingness to increase financial assistance to others.

While success in finding vaccines or therapeutics is never guaranteed (indeed no vaccine for HIV has been found despite efforts for 40 years), there has never been the global focus on R&D and the willingness to risk large amounts of capital to be ready to produce large volumes of doses for any products demonstrating effectiveness. While the global community is not unified in its support of the WHO or in cooperating to achieve equitable and affordable access for all, there has been important support for both which should improve achieving a global solution if vaccines are developed that are effective.

Finally, it is hard to imagine significant forward movement at the WTO on its current negotiations or on WTO reform (including of the dispute settlement system) while Members are struggling to address the fallout from the pandemic. And, of course, with the WTO turning its attention to the selection of a new Director-General in light of DG Azevedo’s departure at the end of August, achieving focus on the normal work of the WTO will be that much harder until a new DG has been selected.

Bottom line – a continued difficult 2020 in the second half of the year.

Shifting Trade Needs During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As of April 28, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world is over three million. The EU/UK and U.S. have dominated the number of cases and number of deaths to the present time after the start of the pandemic in China. The EU and UK have more than one million cases and more than 120,000 deaths. The United States will likely surpass one million cases by the end of April 28th with deaths above 55,000. . Together they accounted for roughly 70% of cases through April 27 and 84% of deaths.

But the rate of growth is expanding in other parts of the world while number of new cases is shrinking in Europe and flatlining in the United States. The data below look at the number of cases on April 27 and the percent growth of new cases measuring a fourteen day period ending on April 27 compared to a fourteen day period ending on April 11. What the table makes clear is that Europe has been going through a period of declining numbers (percentage less than 100%), North America (based on the US) is close to zero growth (though Mexico’s 14 day numbers more than tripled) , while parts of Africa, Central and South America and some countries in Asia are experiencing rapid growth, albeit generally from low levels. China has largely gotten through the first wave and so numbers for both fourteen day periods are quite low even though the ratio is close to 100%.

Country/Area Number of cases April 27 ratio 14 day cases 4-27/4-11

EU27 908,316 59.65%

UK 152,840 123.03%

4 (Switz., Nrwy, Icel, Lich) 38,358 31.70%

United States 965,910 102.89%

Canada 46,884 128.99%

Mexico 14,677 320.31%

Japan 13,385 159.30%

South Korea 10,738 20.68%

Singapore 13,624 942.40%

China 84,199 93.57%

India 27,892 285.06%

Iran 90,481 52.41%

Turkey 110,130 128.65%

Russia 80,949 599.02%

21 African countries 29,479 185.71%

8 South & Central America 146,515 249.48%

World Total 2,914,507 104.44%

Source; European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, situation update worldwide, as of 27 April 2020 and 11 April 2020.

As the growth in the number of new cases slows in many developed countries while ramping up in other countries, there will be increasing needs for medical supplies (medicines, equipment, personal protective equipment and other supplies) in countries or territories that heretofore have not had large supply needs.

At the same time, needs for some types of equipment may be reduced in countries that have gotten past the worst of the first wave. Ventilators would be a case in point. In the United States, as hard hit areas like New York see lower hospitalization rates, the state has been able to forward some ventilators to other states with growing case loads. Similarly, the United States has moved from a situation of buying ventilators abroad to being able to send ventilators abroad. That ability is presumably increasing as expanded U.S. production of ventilators kicks into higher gear as we get to the end of April.

Countries like China that have largely gotten through the first wave of COVID-19 have moved from being large importers of medical supplies to being able to export significant quantities of various supplies, including personal protective equipment. They have also ramped up production of some medical supplies and so should be able to both handle any internal needs and continue to expand exports to the world.

However, for countries that have gotten into a period of declining new cases or even flat growth, needs for personal protective equipment, disenfectant, testing equipment and supplies will continue to grow as these countries deal with both ongoing needs for hospital care and the significant increase in testing and tracing needed for a safe reopening of countries and the likely change in protective gear needed for citizens freed from stay at home orders.

Prior posts have reviewed efforts by the multilateral organizations like the WHO, IMF, World Bank, FAO, WCO and WTO to facilitate transparency, financial and other needs of the world during the pandemic as well as efforts at coordinated actions by the G20.

Faced with the worst pandemic in more than a century, the world was generally caught flat footed and without adequate supplies to address the needs of individual countries or the world as a whole.

Transparency and efforts to keep markets open are two of the trade focuses of governments and the WTO. However, a health crisis during a time of grossly inadequate medical supplies has resulted in many countries taking at least temporary actions to secure medical supplies needed for domestic demand. This has occurred through export restraints, commandeering domestic production, using laws aimed for national emergencies and other actions which favor the large and wealthy over other parties.

There appears to be little or no international efforts to coordinate expansion of critical supplies or to monitor demand vs. supply availability to maximize utilization of the scarce supplies that are available in areas hardest hit. If in fact, the pandemic is gaining steam in developing and least developed countries, there is an increasing need for coordinated action in supporting these countries in the weeks and months ahead.

In that regard, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff provided virtual remarks on April 20th to an event hosted by the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing on the role of the WTO in assisting in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The link to the presentation is here and the materials off of the WTO webpage are embedded below. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_20apr20_e.htm.

WTO-_-2020-News-items-Speech-DDG-Alan-Wolff-DDG-Wolff_-Policy-coordina

While DDG Wolff recognizes that any action by the WTO is based upon initiatives from Members, he includes a series of “[a]genda items for a WTO COVID 19 Response”. Some of the agenda items have been pursued by individual WTO members as well as being part of an agreement between Singapore and New Zealand. These would include tariff suspensions on relevant medical supplies and enhanced trade facilitation for medical supplies. The WTO membership has already authorized transparency on actions taken, although Members have at best a spotty performance in providing the transparency agreed to.

The proposed agenda includes items that appear to be more aspirational in nature, at least during the current pandemic, including an agreement on codes of conduct on topics such as “guidelines on allocating scarcity”, “an accord on export controls and equivalent measures (including, e.g., pre-emptive purchasing in whatever form)”. Such issues will likely have greater likelihood of success after the pandemic has passed.

Of great interest to me is the last posting under “Codes of conduct, best practices and international understandings resulting in” which is “Coordinated efforts to enhance manufacturing of medical equipment and supplies”. It is possible that there are efforts within the WTO or the OECD or other groups to gather information on current capacities and planned expansions. Such an effort if not currently occurring should be made a priority during the pandemic and going forward. As China’s experience demonstrated (where demand in China for masks exceeded China production by ten-to-one during the peak increase in cases), supply is unlikely to meet demand in individual countries without better coordination amongst countries and without a greater global inventory buffer to address extraordinary demand surges.

The last agenda item proposed by DDG Wolff is the “Formation of a WTO Member Emergency Covid 19 Response Committee (ERC) or Task Force”. One would hope that an ERC could be quickly created within the WTO although many Members have shown reluctance during the pandemic (at least during the time where in-person meetings are not possible) to agree to any substantive decisions, although being open to collect information. It is also unclear how quickly an ERC, if created, would be able to advance proposals of interest to Members. But it could certainly be a group focused on gathering greater information relevant to supplies and demand as well as restrictions and liberalizations.

Finally, DDG Wolff in looking at planning for the future advances the idea of creating a WTO Committee for Policy Planning. “It is necessary to assure that there is dedicated policy planning capacity within the WTO Secretariat and networked with Members, including experts in capitals who would be able to participate remotely.” Such a Committee could hopefully, inter alia, help WTO Members come up with policies and rules that would better prepare the world for any future pandemics. While much of what is required to minimize the effects of future pandemics is not within the WTO’s jurisdiction, there are certainly areas that are. Many of those include the items DDG Wolff has included in his suggested agenda for the WTO in response to COVID-19. Hopefully, if not doable during the pandemic, such agenda items will be addressed aggressively after the pandemic, perhaps through a Committee for Policy Planning.

Conclusion

The current health pandemic is continuing at a high level but with growing infections starting to shift geographical areas of interest. As developing countries and least developed countries become areas of increased cases, the challenges of ensuring adequate medical supplies to those in need will become greater and be complicated by health infrastructure in many countries, financial resources, and continued supply/demand imbalances. The best hope for positive outcomes is greater coordination of activity and expanded financial resources available to those in need. The seemingly largest gap in coordinated activity is in the area of current supply abilities, growth in capacity and shifting demand needs. Hopefully international organizations like the WTO can help fill the gap.

Oil and gas sector suffers declining demand, collapsing prices, expanded state involvement — skewed economic results damage much of the global economy

The United States and many other countries view the World Trade Organization as the forum for global trade rules that support market economies. One of the challenges for the WTO going forward is what to do with the important Members whose economic systems are not anchored in market economic principles. While China is the most frequently mentioned WTO Member whose economic system is causing massive disruptions for market economies, there are other countries with important sectors that are state-owned, controlled and directed. The United States, European Union and Japan have been working on proposals for modifications of WTO rules to address distortions flowing from massive industrial subsidies and state controlled sectors that do not operate on market principles.

While WTO reform is not likely to see serious engagement by WTO Members before the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control, the sharp contraction of economic activity in many countries is highlighting the importance for WTO Members actually addressing the role of the state in industry and rule changes needed to avoid the massive distortions that state involvement too often created.

Oil and Gas as an Example

Few industrial sectors have as much state ownership and control as the oil and gas sector. While there are countries with privately owned producers, much of the world operates with producers that are state owned or state controlled. Since the 1960s, a number of countries have engaged in cartel-like activity to collectively address production levels to achieve desired price levels. While many of these countries are part of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (“OPEC”), OPEC meets with other countries as well in an effort to achieve production and pricing levels. Current OPEC members include Algeria, Angola, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela.

The activity has resulted in artificial pricing levels in export markets as compared to prices in home markets of OPEC members and periodic price shocks based on collective action. Large price increases in the 1970s led to high levels of inflation and rapid changes to manufacturing operations in some countries.

  1. Economic contraction as countries struggle to limit spread of the coronavirus

There has been a sharp contraction in demand for petroleum products in 2020 as countries have shut down movement of people in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19. Air travel has been decimated in many parts of the world and there are significant reductions in automobile travel. Manufacturing has also seen significant reductions. The contractions have resulted not only in national reductions in use of petroleum products but also international reductions both directly (reduced air traffic and ship traffic) and because of disruptions to supply chains which have reduced downstream production.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released a staff research report on April 21, 2020 entitled “Cascading Economic Impacts of the COVID-19 Outbreak in China” which reviews information on the wide range of economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic as felt in the U.S. https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-04/Cascading_Economic_Impacts_of_the_Novel_Coronavirus_April_21_2020.pdf. The report includes a section entitled “Turmoil in Energy Markets” which states,

“The standstill in Chinese production and halt in flows of goods and people has drastically depressed Chinese demand for energy products such as crude oil and liquified natural gas (LNG), adding pressure to an oil supply glut that had materialized at the end of 2019.99 In December of 2019, Institute of International Finance economist Garbis Iradian had forecasted a supply glut, pointing to high output from Brazil, Canada, and the United States.100 The COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated this challenging outlook. As the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reported in April 2020: ‘The largest ever monthly decline in petroleum demand in China occurred in February 2020.’101 Chinese oil demand ‘shrank by a massive 3.2 million barrels per day’ over the prior year.102 Research by OPEC forecasted China’s 2020 demand for oil will decrease by 0.83 million barrels per day over 2019.103 As the largest oil importer,104 Chinese oil consumption has a significant impact on global demand. In 2019, China accounted for 14 percent of global oil demand and more than 80 percent of growth in oil demand.105 Following the outbreak in China, the OPEC Joint Technical Committee held a meeting on February 8 to recommend new and continued oil production adjustments in light of “the negative impact on oil demand” due to depressed economic activity, “particularly in the transportation, tourism, and industry sectors, particularly in China.”106 In LNG markets, on February 10, Caixin reported Chinese state-owned oil giant China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) requested a reduction of an unknown quantity in LNG shipments, invoking a “force majeure” clause due to COVID-19.107 S&P Global Platts, an energy and commodities analysis group, stated China’s LNG imports in January and February fell more than 6 percent over the same period in 2019.108

Prices have also dropped in this period. OPEC’s reference price index fell from $66.48 per barrel in December 2019 to $55.49 per barrel in February 2020, a drop of 19.8 percent.109 These price cuts are causing financially strapped* U.S. energy producers to cut back investment in oil and gas projects as profits erode. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that the current drop in oil prices will lead to lower U.S. crude oil production beginning in the third quarter of 2020.110″

The complete report is embedded below (footnotes 99-110 can be found on page 22 of the report).

USCC-staff-research-Cascading_Economic_Impacts_of_the_Novel_Coronavirus_April_21_2020

2. State-owned or controlled oil companies create further crisis

With a sharp contraction in oil demand, one would expect falling oil prices and reductions in global production over time. OPEC efforts to achieve reductions in production amongst themselves and Russia didn’t work out with Russia walking out of talks to reduce production to prevent further price declines. Russia and Saudi Arabia then engaged in a price war which resulted in further sharp price reductions in March and early April, large surpluses of oil in the market, with dwindling storage capacity for surplus production. See, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Russia%E2%80%93Saudi_Arabia_oil_price_war (and sources cited therein). Below is a graph of crude oil prices from 2015 through April 2020.

3. April Agreement to Reduce Production Beginning in May and June 2020

The United States, concerned with the collapse of oil prices and the effects on U.S. producers and oil/gas field companies, engaged in outreach to both Saudi Arabia and Russia to seek a solution. OPEC members, Russia and many others (including the United States) agreed to global production reductions of close to 10 million barrels/day beginning in May and carrying through June, with smaller reductions for later periods, in an effort to bring about balance between supply and demand. See, e.g., April 12, 2020, AP article, “OPEC, oil nations agree to nearly 10M barrel cut amid virus,” https://apnews.com/e9b73ec833e9a5ad304a69e3b9b86914. The U.S. Department of Energy has a webpage that reviews statements by members of Congress and others on the OPEC+ deal.

Because the agreement kicks in at the beginning of May, the continued production and reductions in available storage for oil resulted in further declines in oil prices, with prices on April 20 going negative for the first time in history. Prices have recovered somewhat in the last several days. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/24/oil-prices-could-remain-under-pressure-according-to-satellite-imagery-analysis.html; https://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/OPECs-No3-Already-Started-Cutting-Oil-Supply.html.

WTO Challenges

Joint action during the global COVID-19 pandemic may be understandable and in keeping with the resort to extraordinary measures by governments during the crisis to preserve health and economies. Nonetheless, the extraordinary distortions that flow to global commerce from joint government activity limiting production of oil and gas products or establishing minimum prices for export have been ignored within the GATT and now the WTO for decades. This is unfortunate as the distortions affect both competing producers of the products in question in other countries and also downstream users and consumers more broadly. The overall distortions over time are certainly in the trillions of dollars.

GATT Art. XX(g) permits governments to enforce measures “relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources if such measures are made effective in conjunction with restrictions on domestic production or consumption.” While there have been some cases where Art. XX(g) has been examined, actions by OPEC or OPEC+ countries to limit production (and hence exports) have never been challenged.

While there are national antitrust laws in many countries, such laws (such as those in the United States) don’t make government interference in the economy or government restrictions on export actionable despite the harm to consumers and to downstream manufacturers.

In a consensus based system like the WTO, the likelihood of obtaining improved rules on state-owned or state-invested companies or to restrict governments’ ability to unilaterally or jointly restrict production and exports seems implausible. This is especially true on oil and gas with Saudi Arabia and Russia as WTO Members. The US-EU-Japan initiative hasn’t yet fleshed out possible rule changes for state entities, so one may see some efforts in the coming years that could be useful if accepted by the full membership. But if there is to be meaningful WTO reform, agreeing on rules for the actions of governments that affect production and trade in goods and services is clearly of great importance. Without such rules, the WTO will not actually support market economies in critical ways.

Modifying antitrust laws is the other option, but one which legislators have been unwilling to address over the last fifty years. It is not clear that there are current champions of such modifications in the United States or in other major countries.

Conclusion

There are many sectors of economies that are being seriously adversely affected by efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. Governments are taking extraordinary actions to try to prevent their economies from collapsing under the strains of social distancing.

The oil and gas sector is one where there has been significant negative volume and price effects. Unfortunately the extent of the negative volume and price effects is driven in large part by the actions of governments who are preventing the global market for these products from functioning correctly, just as government actions have interfered in the functioning of these markets for the last fifty-sixty years.

The recent agreement to slash global production by nearly 10 million barrels per day was needed in light of the extensive government interference that has characterized the market and the actions by Russia and Saudi Arabia in March and early April.

More importantly, the long-term government involvement and interference with the functioning of the sector should cause trade negotiators and legislators to be looking at how to reform the WTO and/or modify national laws to prevent government ownership, control or cartel-like actions from distorting trade flows and economies. The need is pressing, but don’t hold your breath for action in the coming years.