Vaccines do not alter long-term economic effects of pandemic

By Patrik Schowitz for South China Morning Post

Buoyant stock markets are ignoring near-term warning signals on the pandemic resurgence and instead focusing on upbeat Covid-19 vaccine expectations. While financial markets’ resilience has been remarkable in the short run, what about the long-run, real-world economic legacy of the pandemic?

Most important, perhaps, is how much the pandemic has carved into long-term economic growth. The main worry concerns so-called economic scarring or constraining future growth potential.

For instance, this could mean households and firms emerging from the pandemic are more cautious in their spending and consumption behaviour as well as possibly loaded down with debt. As a result, they will be prone to saving more and investing less. Further, some sectors of the economy hit hard by the pandemic may never fully recover with, for example, a good chunk of business travel likely forever replaced by video meetings.

Workers who lost their jobs in those hard-hit areas may take a long time to find new careers, and their livelihoods might be permanently damaged. Even workers in other economic areas might become less employable over time if they remain unemployed for too long.

Set against these negatives, there is the potentially positive impact of more rapid adoption of technological advances. The same video-calling technology hurting the travel business is making many peoples’ working lives more efficient, allowing them to collaborate remotely and do more work in a given day.

Further, a huge amount of stimulus was thrown at economies by central banks through rate cuts and asset purchases as well as by governments through monetary support to affected businesses and workers.

Together, these are speeding up economic recoveries compared to past recessions. This should help keep scarring to a minimum, although it’s too early to tell what the net impact of these factors will be.

Another area of concern is inflation. In the near to medium term, the risk of higher inflation seems contained. The many factors that have pushed inflation down during the last few decades will still be in play in the next three to five years.

These include rapidly advancing technology adoption in e-commerce and working from home pushing down prices, the retirement of ageing populations weighing on consumer demand and a large amount of spare economic capacity around the globe pushing down on wages.

However, look slightly further out and the balance of risks could shift. Rapid technological progress might be here to stay, but globalisation – another factor pushing down on prices – could well have peaked already.

The worst of the demographic trends will at some point be behind us, and economic slack might increasingly disappear in the face of continued economic stimulus to keep economies going in the post-pandemic world. This continued stimulus carries at least the risk of a rise in inflation if governments and central banks increasingly act in a coordinated fashion to try and deal with an elevated debt load.

There is another lasting legacy of Covid-19: a drastically increased debt load across both public and private sectors around the world. As a result of governments’ spending to support their economies, net government debt is set to rise to nearly 100 per cent of GDP in 2021 for the Group of 20 economies, from less than 80 per cent before the pandemic.

Similarly, private companies, which had already been running up debt loads during the last cycle, in many cases have had to take on more debt to survive.

The good news is that this has so far not led to further problems in funding markets, once central banks brought the initial panic during February and March under control. Still, the new high-debt reality will increase economies’ sensitivity to rising interest rates going forward, which is exactly why policymakers will be reluctant to let them rise too quickly or too soon.

Until fairly recently, economic orthodoxy held that high debt levels in and of themselves were a serious headwind for economic growth, related to the scarring argument above. This view is increasingly being challenged by economists, but it is hard not to be apprehensive about the impact on growth and inflation from here.

Even as the near-term path out of the Covid-19 crisis is materialising with the arrival of vaccines, the jury is still out on the longer-term consequences of the pandemic.

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