Europe scrambles for solutions to energy market disruption

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Energy prices are the hot topic at meetings of EU finance ministers today and tomorrow as they grapple with the threat to growth from rising inflation.

As our Europe Express newsletter details, the bloc is split between interventionists and free marketers who are at odds over how to tackle the price shock caused by the Ukraine crisis. (You can sign up for Europe Express here).

What is not contested, however, is the size of the task at hand. A new report today says the ending of energy imports from Russia could knock up to 3 per cent off Germany’s GDP and lead to “major economic slumps and upheaval” if supplies are not replaced.

Countries across Europe are scrambling to find alternative energy sources. Italy has announced plans for two new offshore regasification plants that would cut its dependence on gas piped from Russia and enable it to take more from other suppliers. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is considering lifting the ban on fracking, although as the FT Lex column points out, on a small crowded island, this is easier said than done.

The UK is also considering a 20-year extension of the Sizewell B nuclear power plant to 2055 as part of a new “energy supply strategy” to be published next week.

Manufacturers are feeling the heat as their energy costs soar. British Steel has lifted its prices by an estimated 25 per cent, its highest ever increase. The move by Britain’s second largest steelmaker will exacerbate pressure on construction companies and adds to costs of the HS2 high-speed railway line, the country’s largest infrastructure project.

For the UK’s gas and electricity networks, it’s a very different story. New analysis shows them to have higher profit margins than any other sector, fueling calls for intervention as bills soar for households as well as businesses. Analysis published on Friday shows those households face a £ 38bn hit to their budgets from an expected doubling in electricity and gas bills, piling pressure on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to impose a windfall tax on British energy producers.

The surge in oil prices is also causing investors to cut their exposure to oil-dependent industries such as airlines that have barely recovered from the blow of the pandemic.

“It is only a minor exaggeration to say that the 1973 oil shock created the modern global economy,” says the FT Editorial Board, which draws parallels with the current crisis.

Amid the gloom, columnist Rana Foroohar argues the crisis provides an opportunity for an EU-US “grand bargain” on energy security and climate change. A temporary increase in US production could help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, she says, while Europe could buy more US liquefied natural gas, which is poised for a jump in supply by 2024.

The west will undoubtedly feel significant pain in the short term from a new oil shock, the FT concludes, but in the longer term it will drive speedier adoption of renewables, or as German finance minister Christian Lindner dubs it, the “energy of freedom” .

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Need to know: the economy

It’s an important week for central banks. The US Federal Reserve has to juggle the effect of the Ukraine crisis with its first interest rate rise since 2018, likely to be announced on Wednesday. US government bond prices dropped today ahead of the Fed meeting, sending the yield (which moves inversely to prices) on the 10-year US Treasury note to its highest level since July 2019.

The Bank of England is also poised to raise rates on Thursday to their pre-Covid level as part of its fight against surging inflation, despite the weak outlook for growth.

Russia’s finance minister accused the west of trying to force an “artificial default”As Moscow prepares to make key interest payments on its foreign currency debt in rubles. Sanctions have frozen about $ 300bn of Russia’s $ 643bn in foreign currency reserves, limiting Moscow’s ability to support the ruble and raising the possibility of a first default since 1998.

Latest for the UK and Europe

What do antibacterial wipes, sports bras and meat-free sausages have in common? They’ve all been added to the virtual “basket” of 700 items used to calculate UK inflation. Departures from the annual shake-up include coal and the single donut.

Is the UK economy heading back to the 1970s? Some dismiss the comparison by pointing to today’s economic framework of weaker trade unions and an independent Bank of England with clear, legislated inflation targets. Karen Ward, a strategist at JPMorgan, is not so sure.

It’s a bewildering time for investors trying to decide where to put their money against a backdrop of inflation, war and volatile markets. Navigate your way through with our guide to UK Isas.

Global latest

The Russian invasion of Ukraine will have an “enormous” impact on global food supplies through higher prices and disrupted supply chains. Both countries are leading suppliers of grain and sunflower oil, markets which were already badly affected by drought and high demand as countries emerged from the pandemic. And although the US is the world’s second biggest wheat exporter after Russia, it will be unable to fill the gap. Germany’s Bayer threatened to suspend crop supply sales to Russia next year unless the country stops its attacks on Ukraine.

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FT deputy editor Patrick Jenkins uses the example of the fall of Lehman Brothers to show the unpredictable impact of sanctions. “Be under no illusion: Russians will not be the only ones to suffer. . . The world should remember Lehman and brace for a global financial and economic shock, ”he argues.

Need to know: business

The closure of Apple supplier Foxconn‘s plants in Shenzhen is a stark reminder that Covid is not done yet. Many other factories in the tech and manufacturing hub that borders Hong Kong have also been ordered to close as the territory fights the deadliest stage of the pandemic so far. Chinese stocks fell as investors feared widespread lockdowns could be back.

Line chart of Hang Seng China Enterprises index showing Investors dump China stocks as Omicron tests "zero Covid"

Western aircraft leasing companies face a hit to the value of their planes used by Russian airlines after regulators in Bermuda, where most of Russia’s foreign-owned commercial jets are registered, said they would revoke their registrations. Western sanctions ban the leasing of aircraft to Russia and existing contracts must be terminated by the end of March.

Accountancy correspondent Michael O’Dwyer looks at the practical problems facing the Big Four firms as they take their leave of Russia. Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC, which employ about 15,000 people in the country, are deeply enmeshed in Russia’s economy and count large state-owned entities as clients. Management editor Andrew Hill looks at the challenges for company boards discussing exits.

The EU is considering targeting Roman Abramovich in its latest round of sanctions against Russian business people. UK regulators have demanded more information from banks on how oligarchs are shifting their money around the world.

The latest sign of consolidation in the “flexible office”Sector came today with a £ 1.5bn merger deal between UK-based landlords The Office Group and Fora, following a deal between Workspace and McKay Securities earlier this month. Investors are betting that offices with good amenities and flexible leasing terms will become more attractive, even if hybrid working patterns mean lower occupancy rates than before the pandemic.

Brazil’s large population of 214mn and the pandemic-driven surge in ecommerce offer huge opportunities for tech companies to tap consumer markets. Food delivery company iFood has doubled orders from pre-crisis levels to more than 60mn a month and extended into groceries, logistics and the credit market. The wider region drew in record amounts of venture capital last year.

The World of Work

The new “asynchronized workforce”- with some or all staff working remotely – poses a new challenge for managers who need to maintain their organization’s culture, help their employees achieve work-life balance, and recreate the serendipitous exchange of ideas that happens in physical settings. Arvind Malhotra, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina, offers some tips.

Free food and massages are one thing but managers often overlook a key question in the minds of office workers pondering a return to the office, writes Tim Harford: would I feel like I was the boss of my own desk? An experiment by psychologists found that when workers were empowered to shape their own space, they did more and better work and felt far more content. When workers were deliberately disempowered, their work suffered.

After 18 months of Zoom informality, men are now having to deal with a problem women have had for decades, writes columnist Pilita Clark: what to wear to work. One interviewee welcomed the shift towards more casual wear: “It’s so much more focused on bringing your brain. People no longer find a suit a free pass to competence. ”

The “Great Resignation” is leading many to contemplate new careers via an online MBA. But how do you choose your ideal course – and get a place? Read our new guide to the top institutions and how online courses are reshaping business education.

Are you in charge of learning in your organization? Tell us your views on the most important topics, the best providers and most useful platforms for learning: answer our survey at by March 25. Last year’s results are here: what skills employers want.

Covid cases and vaccinations

Total global cases: 452.1mn

Total doses given: 10.9bn

Get the latest worldwide picture with our vaccine tracker

And finally.

From tips on preventing hair loss to the “Mozart of watchmaking” and some rather, erm, interesting, developments on the catwalk: the How to Spend It men’s style issue has you covered.

© Kuba Ryniewicz

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