An economic depression requires a 10% (or more) decline in real GDP or a prolonged recession that lasts two or more years.
The current contraction, sparked by the global coronavirus outbreak, is likely to be severe but its magnitude and duration are still uncertain. After an initial spike in cases, with devastating consequences in many countries — both in terms of the number of deaths and the massive economic impact — the rate of contagion is expected to drop significantly. But we could witness further flare-ups, as with SARS.
Development of a vaccine is the only viable long-term defense against the coronavirus but health experts warn that this is at least 12 to 18 months away — still extremely fast when compared to normal vaccine development programs.
The economic impact may soften after the initial shutdown but some industries such as travel, airlines, hotels, cruise lines, shopping malls, and cinemas are likely to experience lasting changes in consumer behavior. The direct consequences will be with us for some time. So will the indirect consequences: small business and corporate failures, widespread unemployment, collapsing real estate prices, and solvency issues within the financial system. The Fed is going to be busy putting out fires. While it can fix liquidity issues with its printing press, it can’t fix solvency issues.
There are three key factors that are likely to determine whether countries end up with a depression or a recession:
1. Leadership during the crisis
Many countries were caught by surprise and the rapid spread of the virus from its source in Wuhan, China. South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan were best prepared, after dealing with the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. Extensive testing, tracing and an effective quarantine program helped South Korea to bring the spread under control, after initially being one of the worst-hit.
South Korea: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)
The World Health Organization (WHO) did little to help, delaying declaration of a pandemic to appease the CCP. Economic and political self-interest has been the root cause of many failures along the way, including China’s failure to alert global authorities of the outbreak (they had already shut down Wuhan Naval College on January 1st). But this was aided by failure of many leaders to heed warnings from infectious disease experts in late January/early February. When they finally did wake up to the threat, many were totally unprepared, resulting in a massive spike in cases across Europe and North America.
Testing is a major bottleneck, with the FDA fast-tracking approval of new tests, but production volumes are still limited. Abbott recently obtained FDA approval for a new 5-minute test kit that can be used in temporary screening locations, outside of a hospital, but production is currently limited to 50,000 per day. A drop in the ocean. It would take 6 months to produce 9 million kits for New York alone.
USA: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)
UK: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)
Germany: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)
Italy: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)
Widespread testing and tracing, social-distancing, and effective quarantine methods have enabled some countries to flatten the curve. Australia may be succeeding in reducing the number of new cases but inadequate testing and tracing could lead to further flare-ups. One of the biggest dangers is asymptomatic carriers who can infect others. Flattening the curve is the first step, but keeping it flat is essential, and requires widespread testing and tracing.
Australia: Initial Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 (JHU)
The curves for North America and Europe remain exponential. They may even spike a lot higher if hospital facilities are overrun. Success in flattening the curve is critical, not just in minimizing the number of deaths but in containing the economic impact.
2. Economic rescue measures during the crisis
Rescue measures amounting to roughly 10% of annual GDP have been introduced in several countries, including the US and Australia, to soften the economic impact of the shutdown. More Keynesian stimulus may be needed if the coronavirus curve is not flattened. Layoffs have spiked and many small businesses will be unable to recover without substantial support.
3. Economic stimulus after the crisis
This is not a time for half-measures and the $2 trillion infrastructure program proposed in the US is also appropriate in the circumstances. Australia is likely to need a similar program (10% of GDP) but it is essential that the money be spent on productive infrastructure assets. Productive assets must generate a market-related return on investment ….or generate an equivalent increase in government tax revenue but this is much more difficult to measure. Investment in unproductive assets would leave the country with a sizable debt and no ready means of repaying it (much like Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts).
Social-distancing and effective quarantine measures are necessary to flatten the curve but widespread testing and tracing is essential to prevent further flare-ups. Development of a vaccine could take two years or more. Until then there is likely to be an on-going economic impact, long after the initial shock. This is likely to be compounded by a solvency crisis in small and large businesses, threatening the stability of the financial system. The best we can hope for, in the circumstances, is to escape with a recession — less than 10% contraction in GDP and less than two year duration — but this will require strong leadership, public cooperation and skillful prioritization of resources.
“We are all Keynesians now.” ~ Richard Nixon (after 1971 collapse of the gold standard)