We are now in the midst of a record-breaking period for the global economy – but for all the wrong reasons. With data now available for April – the first full month lockdown restrictions were in force in most major western nations – most indicators make for depressing reading.
To take just a handful of examples, car sales in Britain were down 97% compared with last year, with the lowest number of new registrations since 1946. Heathrow saw the same percentage drop in passenger numbers, processing in one month (206,000) what it would normally deal with each day. In the US, the unemployment rate has hit nearly 15%, a post-war high. Meanwhile, in the UK, almost 11 million workers are currently being supported by the chancellor’s Job Retention and Self-Employed Income Support Schemes.
The government’s COVID-19 policies to date have committed an additional £118bn of public spending for the current financial year alone – or £324m per day. While fiscal policy is all the rage now, central banks the world over are throwing the kitchen sink at the problem. In the space of nine weeks, the Federal Reserve’s interventions have seen it expand its balance sheet by $2.6trn. For a period that involved printing dollars at the rate of $1m per second!
Similarly, the Bank of England is unleashing a lot of financial firepower too, for what it expects to be the worst downturn since 1706.
The only way is up?
The good news is that we are very possibly at the moment of maximum negativity right now: the UK government and devolved administrations in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh are starting to map out how their economies will emerge from lockdown and return to a semblance of normal economic activity. As restrictions are eased, businesses and their employees in many sectors will soon be starting to get back to work.
There has been a lot of discussion over what the COVID-19 recovery will look like, a V-shaped bounce, with the steep initial fall in GDP being followed by a swift return to normality, appearing to be overly optimistic at present.
A W-shaped recession, with another dip to come in the months ahead, is possible, as is a U-shaped downturn, with a period of stagnation before any growth. But another idea gaining traction lately is that of a recovery shaped like the Nike ‘Swoosh’ logo: a sharp decline followed by a more gradual return to pre-crisis conditions.
Winners and losers
Whatever the overall recovery looks like, the experience of businesses across the economy is likely to differ considerably from sector to sector. Some industries – such as aviation, travel and hospitality – have already experienced large-scale disruption, and given the social distancing requirements that are likely to remain in force for the foreseeable future, it is difficult to see these sectors being able to get back to business as usual any time soon. Indeed, Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways owner IAG, has said it is unlikely the airline industry will return to normal before 2024.
The implications for large-scale public events, such as professional sports, are huge: we have seen the resumption of football matches in Germany’s Bundesliga behind closed doors, while the English Premier League is also in talks to start playing, also without spectators. The viability of organisations in all parts of the economy that are dependent on social gatherings will depend on their ability to adapt their business models to these new conditions.
In terms of the opportunities being created for businesses, COVID-19 has accelerated a number of trends. Most notably, the sudden increase in working from home looks like it is here to stay, with major technology firms such as Google and Twitter already deciding to offer remote working to all staff for the rest of 2020 at least. Facebook is set to localise employees pay based on their working from home location. If you don’t live in the expensive San Francisco Bay Area you will no longer get San Fran Bay Pay.
Companies that supply streaming services – from films to fitness classes and cyber-security software, for example – are already benefiting from the lockdown.
There may also be the chance for domestic businesses to become suppliers to larger organisations, as corporations take steps to increase their resilience and so reduce their vulnerability to the kind of international supply chain disruption that has marked this initial stage of the pandemic.
Emerging from the crisis
Recovery is not going to be an overnight process, but one factor that is likely to play a particularly important role in getting the economy and society back to normal is innovation – not just in terms of the medical advances needed to develop COVID-19 treatments and/or a vaccine, but also in relation to flexibility and resilience. Businesses and individuals will need to show these attributes in order to thrive in the new environment and hopefully soon to be post-COVID world.
Fortunately, the human species has an excellent track record when it comes to solving the most important problems it faces, and adapting to changes in its environment. Ultimately, innovation should develop a vaccine for the virus. Thereafter, innovators and entrepreneurs will create and shape a new economy as they always have done.