How big a hit will the U.S. economy take?: two scenarios

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one pastiche:

First, consider the relatively optimistic view: Covid-19 will have affects akin to what economists call a seasonal business cycle — which is to say, it will be over quickly and without much lasting damage.

…in this scenario there is also a rapid path back to recovery. At some point the terror of Covid-19 will lift, just as cases in many parts of China now seem to be declining. Once public health conditions improve, retail, entertainment and services can gear back up. Both production and purchasing power will bounce back, similar to how they normally do after the first-quarter doldrums.


But there is a much more worrying scenario. Rather than drawing an analogy with temporary seasonal cycles, an alternative model draws a parallel with cascading disruptions. Have you ever tried building a sand pile and noticed that, at some point, adding a few more handfuls of sand causes a kind of avalanche, leaving just an amorphous heap?

This less sanguine option might look like this: The Chinese economic slowdown leads to a permanent loss of momentum and a global recession. At the same time, with Lombardy closed down, the Italian government defaults, but the European Union is unable to resolve the matter (and the associated bank failures) in a timely and resolute manner. Governments vacillate between policies that make it easier for people to stay at home to limit the spread of the disease and policies designed to get them back in the workplace.

The U.S. would be caught up in the general loss of confidence, as well as the contagion from European banks. But that is only the beginning. As schools close to limit the spread of Covid-19, single parents would have to stay home, and the resulting production bottlenecks would plague the U.S. economy. Maybe New York City would have to cut back on the number of subway trains it runs, and much of the city’s economy would grind to a halt. Supply chain problems from China would persist, hitting everything from medicines to the ordinary goods found in a Walmart.

The problems of missing goods in the supply chain, workplace absenteeism, family health emergencies, and investor uncertainty would compound each other. Any individual act of spending or production, rather than jump-starting further economic activity, would run up against another bottleneck and fade to insignificance. The confidence boost would fail to materialize. Untangling this mess of problems is much harder than just getting people to go back out to dinner and the movies again, and could take years. Traditional demand-side stimulation from the Fed or from the fiscal side would not itself reverse the stagnation.



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