The economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak: what the experts are saying

While the coronavirus outbreak is first and foremost a public health emergency, the economic damage caused by the pandemic is also a huge concern. In recent weeks, think tanks and economists have been offering their thoughts on just how badly they believe the economy will be affected by Covid-19, and how long it might take to recover.

With each passing week it’s emerging that the economic impact of the coronavirus could be more severe than first thought. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that the shutdown of economic activity in the world’s major economies is likely to trigger a far more painful recession than the one following the financial crisis of 2008. The IMF now believes that the world is facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the UK, an equally gloomy prognosis has come from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the government’s fiscal watchdog. Its stark assessment of the possible economic impact of Covid-19 indicates that the UK economy could shrink by 35% and unemployment could rise to more than two million.

The regional picture

The economic impact of coronavirus is varying significantly across the country. Research by the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP) has revealed that the decline in economic output is estimated to reach almost 50% in parts of the Midlands and the North West in the second quarter of this year. In terms of decline in Gross Value Added (GVA), Pendle in the North West is estimated to be the hardest hit local authority in the UK, followed closely by South Derbyshire and Corby in the East Midlands.

In Scotland, since the coronavirus outbreak began, the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) has been publishing regular updates about how business is being affected.

The FAI’s most recent survey of Scottish businesses  finds that, while all sectors of the Scottish economy have been severely affected by the crisis in terms of staffing levels, the accommodation and food services sector (which includes hotels, bars and restaurants) has experienced the harshest impacts, with 77% of businesses reducing staff numbers. In addition, 85% of businesses expect growth in the Scottish economy to be weak or very weak over the next 12 months.

On a more positive note, the FAI survey found that more than 95% of businesses which are planning to use the UK government’s  Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme believe it will be ‘very effective/effective’ in supporting their survival during the pandemic.

Business and employment support

The Job Retention Scheme is one of a series of measures introduced by the UK government aiming to limit the impact of the coronavirus, and ensure much of the economy is able to recover when the health crisis is over. While these actions have been widely welcomed, there have been calls for the UK to learn from more innovative measures adopted by other governments.

A report by the Policy Exchange think tank has highlighted Denmark’s wage subsidy, which is differently calibrated to the Job Retention scheme in the UK. While the Danish government is covering 75% of the salaries of employees paid on a monthly basis who would otherwise have been fired, for hourly workers the government will cover 90% of their wages, up to £3,162 per month. The Policy Exchange report notes that this assumes that workers paid by the hour won’t have the savings and support networks that generally better off salaried workers are likely to have.

Household challenges

The bigger economic picture is bad enough. But the real pain of an economic recession will be felt much closer to home. For individual households, social distancing measures aiming to contain the spread of coronavirus are already having significant impacts on spending habits. Research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has highlighted how these changes may be affecting people on different incomes.

The IFS suggests that richer households will be more resilient to falls in income since a considerable proportion of their spending goes on things that are currently not possible, such as eating out and holidays. But because lower-income households spend a higher share of their income on necessities, such as rent and food, the IFS suggests that they will be less resilient to any fall in income.

Exiting lockdown

In recent days, governments in France and Germany have set out plans for easing their lockdown restrictions, while Austria and Italy have already allowed some shops to open.  But the UK government has extended its lockdown to the beginning of May, and has not announced a clear exit strategy.

The uncertainty surrounding the trajectory of the coronavirus makes it exceptionally difficult to see when things might return to normal. But some analysts are becoming concerned about the harm that a prolonged lockdown might do.  A discussion paper published at the beginning of April highlighted some of these dangers:

“A long lockdown will wipe out large swathes of the economy. There will be a negative impact both financially and mentally on too many people. Already the lockdown has seen a surge in domestic violence. How to end the lockdown is key to helping restart the economy.”

The authors of the paper have put forward a strategy for ending the lockdown, suggesting that a phased traffic light approach (red, amber, green) would give everyone a clear sense of direction and address the economic, social and quality of life challenges posed by the lockdown.

After the virus

There is no clear agreement among economists on how the economy might fare once the health emergency has passed. Some economists forecast a sharp recovery, others suggest it will take two or more quarters, while still others forecast an initial boost in activity followed by another dip when the effects of unemployment and corporate bankruptcies start to filter through.

But there is a growing sense that the pandemic will have a fundamental impact on the economic and financial order. And in the UK, Paul Johnson, director of the IFS,  has suggested there will be an economic reckoning:

 “We will need a complete reappraisal of economic policy once the current economic dislocation is behind us. Tough decisions will have to be made which are likely to involve tax rises and higher debt for some time to come. The only other alternative would be another period of austerity on the spending side. That looks unlikely.”


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Guest post: Economic effects of coronavirus lockdowns are staggering – but health recovery must be prioritised

By Pushan Dutt, INSEAD

In all my years as an economist, I have never seen a graph like the one below. It shows unemployment claims in the US – observe the spike for the week ending March 21. The global financial crisis, the dot-com crash, Black Monday, oil price shocks, 9/11, none of these historic shocks are even visible in the graph.

Figures: US Department of Labor

 

The spike in unemployment claims is the proverbial canary in the goldmine. We should expect a swathe of bad economic numbers coming down the pipeline. The head of the St. Louis Fed expects a 30% unemployment rate and a 50% drop in US GDP by summer. More importantly, as the health crisis rises and crests at different times in different parts of the world, the horrifying numbers on GDP growth, unemployment, business closures are not likely to let up in the near term. Multiple countries are in a recession, and eventually, the whole world will fall into a deep recession.

The plunge from prosperity to peril will be as swift as the switch to lockdown protocols in most countries. We cannot even rely on the data we have to reveal the speed and depth of the crisis since this is collected and updated with lags. For instance, the US monthly jobs report for March collects data in the second week of March, failing to capture the massive spike in unemployment claims that appears after March 12.

In the meantime, sources such as restaurant booking website OpenTable can offer some insights into the magnitude of things. The figures below show the recent plummet in diners eating at restaurants in four countries. Observe a sudden stop in the entire restaurant industry by the third week of March.


Annual % change in restaurant diners from end of February to end of March.

Data: OpenTable

 

Combine a black swan event with missing data, and it is not surprising that markets are swinging violently.

Deep freeze

The question is not one of whether we are in a recession – we are. The more pertinent questions are: how long it will last? How deep it will be? Who will be impacted the most? And how swift will the recovery be?

These questions are complicated and even top economists must admit a lack of confidence in their answers. We are not experiencing a standard downturn. Nor is it simply a financial crisis, a currency crisis, a debt crisis, a balance of payment crisis or a supply shock.

We have not seen anything like this since the flu pandemic of 1918. Even there, identifying the effects of the flu is confounded by the first world war that took place at the same time. What we have here is something different. At its heart, we are experiencing a healthcare crisis with various parts of the world succumbing in a staggered fashion.

To slow down this global health crisis (the “flatten the curve” mantra), we have chosen to put the economy into deep freeze temporarily. Production, spending, and incomes will inevitably decline. Decisions to reduce the severity of the epidemic exacerbate the size of the contraction. While the initial decision to reduce labour supply and consumption are voluntary, this will likely be followed by involuntary reductions in both, as businesses are forced to lay off workers or go bankrupt.

Of course, government policies will attempt to mitigate these effects. Some are using traditional monetary and fiscal policies (cutting interest rates, quantitative easing, increasing unemployment insurance, bailouts). Others are trying out non-traditional methods (direct cash transfers, loans to businesses conditional on maintaining unemployment, wage subsidies).

Public health priority

How long the economic impact lasts depends entirely on how long the pandemic lasts. This, in turn, depends on epidemiological variables and health policy choices. But even when the pandemic ends, the resumption of normalcy is likely to be gradual. Countries will persist with a strict containment regime like in China today, and continue to impose travel restrictions to various parts of the world where the disease continues to spread.

The many factors at play in this complex, interlinked crisis that affects both people’s health and the global economy introduces massive uncertainty into anyone hazarding the pace, the depth and the length of the impact. As a result, we should treat any precise estimates (such as “GDP will decline by X%” or “markets have reached their bottom”) with scepticism.

Especially frustrating is the idea that there is a conflict between academic disease modellers and hard-edged economists saying that steps to slow the spread of coronavirus has trade offs. This could not be further from the truth. Among economists there is near unanimity that countries should focus on the healthcare crisis and that tolerating a sharp slowdown in economic activity to arrest the spread of infections is the preferred policy path. In a recent survey carried out by the University of Chicago, respondents universally agreed that you cannot have a healthy economy without healthy people.

The health crisis has naturally created a crisis of confidence. This, in turn, can have damaging long-term effects with continuing uncertainty leading firms and households to postpone investment, production and spending. Restoring confidence requires a singular focus on containing and reversing the spread of COVID-19.

Slowing the rate that people fall ill with COVID-19 is not the end in itself. It is a means to temporarily reduce the pressure on hospitals and give time to identify treatments and a vaccine. In the interim, we must build testing capacity, perform contact tracing, setup the infrastructure for extended quarantines, rapidly expand the production of masks, ventilators and other protection equipment, build and repurpose facilities into hospitals, add intensive care capacity and train, recall and redeploy medical personnel.

All of this is also the way to restore the economy’s health and economic policy must complement it. In the short run, economic policies should mitigate the impact of lockdowns and ensure that the current crisis does not trigger financial, debt or currency crises. It should focus on flattening the recession curve, ensure that the temporary shutdown has only transient effects, and facilitate a quick recovery once the economy is taken out of the deep freeze.

In the meantime, it’s important to also recognise that this is an unprecedented crisis. Everybody has their role to play, but nobody is infallible and uncertainty is inevitable.

Pushan Dutt, Professor of Economics, INSEAD

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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