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Just how bad could the coronavirus crisis get?

Arthur Sullivan
April 3, 2020

The spread of the new coronavirus and COVID-19 has had a profound effect on the global economy in a staggeringly short space of time. The longer-term impact depends on how quickly the virus can be tackled.

A man wearing a face mask takes a selfie at the Charging Bull statue near the New Stock Exchange
Image: AFP/A. Weiss

It feels like only yesterday when economists, politicians, analysts and, ahem, business journalists were speaking of things like Brexit and the US-China trade conflict as potentially lethal daggers held at the throat of the world economy.

Such concerns seem almost quaint now.

When health authorities in Wuhan reported a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown cause on December 31 last year, it would have taken a supernatural degree of economic soothsaying to predict the carnage this "unknown cause" would have inflicted on the global economy by March 31, 2020 — the end of the first quarter of the financial year.

But things which would have been dismissed as impossible little more than a few weeks ago have become reality, all because of COVID-19.

Global stock markets have crashed by around 30% since the start of the year in most of the world's rich countries.

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits for the first time has doubled to just shy of 7 million, a record high for two weeks running.

Coronavirus | Liebe | Paar | China
Wuhan, the original epicenter of the outbreak, is showing signs of returning to normalityImage: Reuters/A. Song

China, which bore the brunt of shutdowns in the first quarter, presented staggeringly bad data for the month of February. Some projections suggest Chinese GDP for the first quarter will fall by 10%.

It's not just the world's industrial powers where the impact is starkest. Ireland, an open economy with a low manufacturing base, is especially vulnerable to global headwinds. At the start of January, it had an unemployment rate of 4.8%, its lowest in 13 years.

By the end of March, it is estimated that the figure has swelled to a previously unimaginable 17%, a result of all the workers laid off due to nonessential businesses, restaurants, pubs and a whole host of other enterprises shuttered.

Half the world's money

While the continuing shutdown and uncertainty could get much worse, has enough already happened to make this a global recession?

Without a doubt, although we will have to wait a little longer until official economic data for the first quarter and beyond confirms it. The question is if it will lead to a great depression and outstrip the financial crisis of 2009.

Not even real estate is safe from COVID-19

"If you look at the proportion of the global economy that is now affected by shutdowns, it is probably around 50% of global GDP and that doesn't actually include China because that is by and large out of the shutdowns now," Ben May, a global economist with Oxford Economics, told DW.

While he cautions that "it's more art than science" to come up with a figure of that kind, it does underline the scale of the problem the prolonged shutdowns present for the global economy.

A financial crisis may be averted

It doesn't take a genius to realize the economic impact that the shutdowns and various social distancing restrictions brought in by governments around the world will have in the short term. The data from China shows the world what its next tranche of economic data has in store.

The longer the shutdowns go on, the more damage is done. And no one knows exactly how long they will go on for. "Anyone who says they know how long the lockdowns are going to be clearly doesn't know," says May.

USA Coronavirus New York | Leere Stadt
Empty streets have become a common sight, from New York (pictured) to TehranImage: AFP/A. Weiss

One of the major risks of prolonged shutdowns is that the crisis develops into a financial crisis, where there is a major credit crunch, as there was in 2009.

May believes that is unlikely, partly due to the decisive and swift action governments and central banks around the world have taken by providing loan guarantees, extra liquidity, easier access to credit for companies as well as payouts and other measures to insulate businesses and individuals.

Banks, which bore the brunt of the blame for the financial crisis in 2009, are now ironically being seen as potential saviors in the current climate, with governments asking them to serve as a "transmission mechanism" to make sure money finds its way to businesses and consumers to keep them afloat until things get better.

Shutting down the shutdown

That brings us back to the question of shutdowns and how long they will last. May is reasonably optimistic that they will end sooner than many expect, again pointing to the example of China.

"The peak impacts of the lockdowns in China were enormous," he says. "But there is better news in that as those lockdowns have been ended or at least relaxed we have seen a convergence towards what could be deemed more normal levels of activity."

He believes a more realistic scenario than a lockdown period extending well into the summer is that as the outbreak gradually comes under control in various countries, restrictions will be lifted incrementally, giving things a chance to slowly return to normal.

Others have even more optimistic views.

"Our main scenario is that economic activity will begin to recover in the second half of 2020, and given the major fiscal and monetary policy stimulation currently ongoing, the global economy will have very favorable conditions for accelerating again once the virus outbreak dies down," said Danske Bank Chief Strategist Henrik Drusebjerg recently.

A smaller world?

That belief, that there will be a post-coronavirus boom, is shared by plenty. Although when, and at what cost, nobody can say, not even the world's leading virologists. At the time of writing, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world had topped 1 million.

Yet there is also another, slightly gloomier vision, of how the world's economic order may look once the crisis has passed, according to May.

Before the coronavirus swept the world, things such as the US-China trade war and a no-deal Brexit were seen as grave threats to the world economy. May says there is a chance that if the current crisis passes, policymakers may pivot away from such risky strategies.

However, he also sees the prospect of even more protectionist behavior, as a result of some of the issues thrown up by the pandemic.

"It may be a plausible strategy to say: We need to make sure we don't have these huge supply chains that stretch around the world, we need to make things at home, " he says. "And that's something which would pander to the Trump and Brexit narrative."