By Peter Andrews
Time to buckle up: economists believe the looming Covid-19 crash will throw millions out of work and bankrupt thousands of businesses across the globe in a downturn that might even surpass the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Economics is the study of choices, and never more so than now. It’s now clear that, with the coronavirus pandemic causing widespread chaos that economists believe will cause a prolonged economic depression, the choices that each person makes have the power to affect their country’s and the world’s economy over the coming weeks and months. With the caveat that much depends on those individual choices and the actions of governments, here is our current assessment of which places are likely to be worst-hit economically, as well as a few that might come out rosier than most.
THE GOOD (ISH)
Singapore might be the perfect recipe for coronavirus containment. A rich city-state with a world class universal healthcare system, a pandemic response plan in place ever since they were badly hit by the SARS virus in 2003, and healthy lashings of state-enforced social control mean they quickly knew exactly how and where 100 of their first 112 confirmed cases became infected. Astonishingly, their non-oil exports grew in February, owing mostly to an increase in shipments of pharmaceuticals and various manufactured goods to America, Japan and the EU. Their regional trade with China and the rest of Southeast Asia will suffer, though, and their economy is a trade-based one. Therefore, they are likely to enter a recession this year, along with the rest of the world. But the early signs suggest they may be better off than a lot of places, though.
Sometimes, it pays to be a totalitarian state. And to go first. China’s stifling of the contagion that started the trail of devastation has been miraculous, albeit achieved through the sort of state enforcement other countries would find difficult to enact. For the most populous country on Earth to go into a state of universal lockdown, with meetings or gatherings of any kind forbidden and essentially no individual movement outside of one’s own home permitted, requires a strong level of police enforcement, and the end of all but the most rudimentary personal freedoms. But it sure is working. China has been seeing the number of new cases decline, with none being home-grown — all their new infections — it reported 39 today — are from people returning home from abroad.
In the early days of the pandemic, economists were predicting a sharp decline in China’s economy followed by a sharp bounce back, a so-called V-shaped curve. But as the crisis has worsened experts are now forecasting a longer, deeper downturn, one that will take longer to escape from. But, having been the first to suffer, they will be the first to emerge from it. After the Communist Party has held the entire population of the country in its grip for the duration of this lockdown, without any major public unrest, they will come out the other side poorer, but arguably with even more political control than before. Which Beijing will use to help make a swift economic recovery, using its technological and manufacturing muscle.
Donald Trump has spent much of his presidency tweeting and boasting about how strong the US economy has been… and he’s been right. The economy has been steadily growing ever since the last global crisis in 2009, and in 2019 the period became the longest global expansion on record. But that expansion will become yet another victim of coronavirus before the summer is out. And there appears not to really be a reference for how bad things could get. Bill Ackman, the CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management, has begged President Trump on CNBC to beg to shut down the American economy for 30 days and put the country in a nationwide lockdown. “America will end as we know it unless we take this option”, he said. When hedge fund managers are praying for the economy to be SHUT DOWN in order to protect it, you know things are bad.
Comparisons to the Great Depression of the 1930s are common, with the majority consensus leaning towards the Covid-19 Depression of the 2020s being worse. JP Morgan is predicting a 14% slash in the US economy this quarter (alongside an eye-watering 22% in the Eurozone) while another forecast yesterday warned US unemployment could rise to 30% and overall GDP could decline by a staggering 50% in the second quarter. Depending on how quickly the Federal Reserve can pump money out to businesses at the same time as stemming the contagion as much as they can, then this could be anything between a gigantic global recession for at least six months, to the worst economic crisis in history, with depths as yet unplumbed. America, as the centre of the Western world’s economy, is going to feel the pain most.
No prizes for predicting that Italy will have suffered more than most when the dust settles on this crisis. A middle-sized country with a small economy, they find themselves overtaking patient zero China in numbers of active cases and dead. Italy has everything working against it. An elderly population more susceptible to the disease. An economy heavily reliant on tourism which will be decimated. And huge debts.
They were already a heavily indebted country that had suffered possibly more than any other European country through their membership of the Eurozone. And they were hardly a united cohesive society either, with the poorer south harboring ancient resentments against the richer north, which has experienced the centre of the outbreak. Footage of Italians singing from their balconies has been inspiring, and perhaps this crisis will bring them closer together as a country, as only tragedy can. But any other silver linings are hard to see for The Boot of Europe.
The Korean Republic is exerting a similarly strong defensive action to Singapore against the virus. They also have huge Big Data capabilities for mass testing and contact tracing, utilising citizens’ mobile phone and credit card data to decide who to test in the first place. They are no strangers to outbreaks either, as the 2015 MERS outbreak taught them lessons about how to minimize the impact on the health services. As for their economy, though, it was not in great shape leading up to this, and the damage to trade links within Asia will hurt them badly. The epicenter of their coronavirus outbreak is in the manufacturing region, and a Hyundai factory has already closed its doors there. But if it spreads to Seoul they will be in even bigger trouble, as that could shut down the business and finance sectors.
Australia is another country highly dependent on trade with China, and is predicted to be the hardest hit economy in the world outside of China itself and Hong Kong. China is also Australia’s biggest source of tourism revenue, and that twin-pronged attack on their economy is sure to do major lasting damage. This could not have come at a worse time for them either, straight off the back of a summer of rampant bushfires that did huge economic and reputational damage. Already, the Australian dollar is trading at very low values. Worrying times for Aussie people and politicians alike.
OK, Africa is obviously not a country, but there’s no point in trying to predict which of the already-fragile economies in that vast and troubled continent will be worst affected by coronavirus, when it does spread widely there. Africa has more than enough problems without yet another killer virus, but it has been largely ignored in discussions about global impacts of Covid-19 thus far. Frighteningly, most African countries are acutely vulnerable: many have fewer than 10 hospital beds per 10,000 people; they have many crowded, impoverished townships where there’s a lack of water to wash hands and little space to self-isolate; and few have any contingency plans or resources to cope with such an outbreak. According to NKC African Economics, Angola, Gabon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tunisia, Zambia and Kenya are the African countries most at risk of debt distress in the likely event of a global recession. Slowdowns in the rest of the world pose a grave threat to African countries’ already precarious trade links to Europe and Asia.
Damage to a country’s economy is a direct product of steps taken to hinder the spread of the virus itself. If absolutely no measures were taken by a country, and companies remained open and everything was business as usual, their economy would be unaffected. With the exception, that is, of the untenable pressure that would soon be brought on the health services in that scenario. With a high peak in Covid-19 cases, the health services would quickly be overwhelmed, and people would start dying on the streets or at home without the slightest hope of even the most basic medical intervention. Clearly, this is not an acceptable state of affairs, which is why such drastic, possibly recession-triggering measures are being taken, all in an effort to save as many lives as possible.
Governments are doing what they can, which is essentially throwing huge, unprecedented sums of money to try to avert a prolonged crash and to keep their economies running. Most commentators cite wartime measures as the only comparable action. And the world is at war, against an enemy that, if left to run amok, will cripple the economy, ruin livelihoods and perhaps kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. How well we combat it will determine all of our futures.