The pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to society and the economy. What is the best way to stop the virus without permanently damaging the economy?
In a nutshell
In January 2020, the novel lung disease COVID-19 became an epidemic in China. Within the space of two months, the World Health Organization had declared it a pandemic, and the global economy was in its grip. As in many other countries, Germany’s public life and parts of its economy shut down for several weeks due to state-imposed contact restrictions. As the lockdown ended and the summer came, the spread of the virus appeared to have all but stopped. But in the fall the pandemic’s second wave inundated Germany; a third wave followed in spring 2021. Of all the areas of the economy affected by the virus, the service sector was hit hardest.
The longer the contact restrictions persisted, the greater their toll on society. In addition to massive government spending on short-time work and emergency aid to companies on the verge of bankruptcy, the restrictions limited participation in education, especially for disadvantaged children and young people, and have dampened the mood of a society cut off from social encounters, family celebrations and cultural life. Since vaccinations began in early 2021, there’s been some light at the end of the tunnel. Nevertheless, Germany will have to live with the virus for many months to come. That is why it needs a strategy that restores normal life and economic activity without letting infection numbers get out of hand. This will require an intelligent combination of vaccinations, testing, and individual responsibility.
Since the start of the pandemic, IWH economists have carefully studied its economic effects in the short and medium term. They have analysed the pandemic’s development, the measures introduced to slow viral transmission, and the consequences for the economy in Germany, Europe, and the world. Their reports appear in IWH’s quarterly economic forecasts, in the half-yearly joint economic forecasts set up together with the other German economic research institutes, and in the IWH Flash Indicator forecasting the upcoming quarter.
Recently, using a model that describes the relationship between economic mobility and infection rates, IWH researchers estimated that the relaxation of containment measures in March 2021 increased economic mobility in Germany by 10% and the number of infections and deaths by 25% each.
In General, IWH believes that the best economic policy is the successful containment of the pandemic. For instance, its researchers support the government taking on debt to finance state aid during the crisis. But they argue that money should be used to help areas of society and the economy that are actually hurting instead of using it to stimulate general consumption, as with the decision to lower sales tax last year.
Is a wave of bankruptcies imminent?
The bankruptcy rate is a good way to measure the economic impact of the corona crisis. A company’s involuntary exit from the market brings job losses and leaves supplier high and dry, which can induce chain reactions in other companies. A recent IWH Policy Note explains the significance of bankruptcies as an economic indicator and how to measure them with only a short time lag.
In May 2020, shortly after the first corona lockdown, the IWH’s bankruptcy research unit launched the IWH Bankruptcy Update, a well-regarded monthly source of pandemic-related economic information. Two months ahead of official government statistics, it provides and interprets data on bankruptcies in Germany. In the summer 2020, the IWH noted an increase in bankruptcies among large companies. Since then, bankruptcies have remained almost entirely below pre-crisis levels. IWH has not detected a looming wave of bankruptcies in the data, though the true number of insolvent companies may be concealed by state aid and the suspension of the obligation to declare bankruptcy.
Another Policy Note compared bankruptcies in 2020 with the long-term decline in insolvencies that began before the crisis. Based on the relationship of past bankruptcies to short-term economic developments, IWH researchers provided a prognosis of insolvencies in response to the corona shock. They then found that the actual number of bankruptcies was far lower – an indication of the effect of state aid and the suspension of the obligation to file for bankruptcy. The study also showed that most of the bankruptcies were concentrated in industries especially affected by the pandemic.
The crisis has jeopardised financial stability
Unlike the global financial crisis in 2008–2009, which originated in the financial sector and then spilled over into the rest of the economy, the corona crisis directly hits the real economy. Yet if many companies become insolvent due to the crisis, banks can be put at risk. In its June and July 2020 Policy Notes, the IWH pointed to this danger and projected its potential magnitude in various scenarios. It found that even if the economy recovers swiftly – an optimistic assumption – dozens of German banks could face insolvency as a result of loan defaults. Institutions that are particularly vulnerable are cooperative and savings banks that finance hard-hit sectors such as retail and hospitality. In some German regions, many banks were both undercapitalised and held credit portfolios full of borrowers greatly affected by the corona crisis.
When banks are in trouble, the supply of credit for companies starts to run dry, which can trigger a second-order recession. So far, generous government aid for companies has prevented massive credit defaults. But this has produced a growing number of zombie companies that have come to depend on money from the state. At some point, a wave of insolvencies will come. Germany’s banking supervision must work to strengthen the capital base of at-risk banks. Otherwise, the state will once again have to use taxpayers’ money to bail out banks without systematically restructuring their credit portfolios.
We need a new corona strategy
After the first wave of the virus in the spring 2020, IWH President Reint Gropp called for comprehensive testing for the working-age population and protective isolation for risk groups to give people some normalcy again. At that time, a vaccine was not yet in sight. Now, the vaccination campaign is underway, and, together with rapid tests, constitutes a pillar of the pandemic response. State control must eventually give way again to individual responsibility. The lockdown is a blunt instrument and it no longer reflects the needs of the moment. When extended indefinitely, it damages the economy, undermines educational opportunities, increases social inequality, endangers mental health, and erodes trust in democracy.
Publications on the Corona crisis
The Macroeconomics of Epidemics
in: Review of Financial Studies, forthcoming
We extend the canonical epidemiology model to study the interaction between economic decisions and epidemics. Our model implies that people cut back on consumption and work to reduce the chances of being infected. These decisions reduce the severity of the epidemic but exacerbate the size of the associated recession. The competitive equilibrium is not socially optimal because infected people do not fully internalize the effect of their economic decisions on the spread of the virus. In our benchmark model, the best simple containment policy increases the severity of the recession but saves roughly half a million lives in the United States.
Unternehmensinsolvenzen seit Ausbruch der Pandemie
in: Wirtschaft im Wandel, No. 2, 2021
Die Insolvenzzahlen sind trotz Corona-Krise stark gesunken. Aufgrund zahlreicher Großinsolvenzen wie etwa von Esprit, Hallhuber oder Wirecard war das Jahr 2020 bezogen auf die Zahl der betroffenen Beschäftigten trotzdem ein schwieriges Jahr. Eine Insolvenzwelle mit vielen gefährdeten Jobs ab Sommer 2021 ist aufgrund staatlicher Unterstützungsmaßnahmen und abwartendem Verhalten der Unternehmen eher unwahrscheinlich. Soweit es die Pandemielage zulässt, sollten Stützungsmaßnahmen bereits im Jahr 2021 auf den Prüfstand, um eine „Zombifizierung“ der Wirtschaft zu verhindern.
Alone at Home: The Impact of Social Distancing on Norm-consistent Behavior
in: IWH Discussion Papers, No. 8, 2021
Around the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned daily live upside down since social distancing is probably the most effective means of containing the virus until herd immunity is reached. Social norms have been shown to be an important determinant of social distancing behaviors. By conducting two experiments and using the priming method to manipulate social isolation recollections, we study whether social distancing has in turn affected norms of prosociality and norm compliance. The normative expectations of what behaviors others would approve or disapprove in our experimental setting did not change. Looking at actual behavior, however, we find that persistent social distancing indeed caused a decline in prosociality – even after the relaxation of social distancing rules and in times of optimism. At the same time, our results contain some good news since subjects seem still to care for norms and become more prosocial once again after we draw their attention to the empirical norm of how others have previously behaved in a similar situation.
Konjunktur aktuell: Zurück ins Leben – Zunahme persönlicher Kontakte beflügelt wirtschaftliche Aktivität
in: Konjunktur aktuell, No. 2, 2021
Im Sommer 2021 expandiert die weltwirtschaftliche Produktion kräftig, hauptsächlich dank rasch voranschreitender Impfkampagnen in den fortgeschrittenen Volkswirtschaften des Westens. Geld- und Finanzpolitik bleiben dort expansiv, und die konjunkturelle Dynamik wird auch in den kommenden Quartalen hoch sein. In vielen Schwellen- und Entwicklungsländern wird die Pandemie hingegen das ganze Jahr 2021 über noch auf der Wirtschaft lasten. In Deutschland sind die konjunkturellen Aussichten günstig, weil die Corona-Restriktionen nach und nach aufgehoben werden. Das BIP wird 2021 um 3,9% und 2022 um 4,0% zunehmen. Die Produktion in Ostdeutschland dürfte in beiden Jahren um jeweils 3% zulegen.
Gemeinschaftsdiagnose: Pandemic Delays Upswing — Demography Slows Growth
in: Wirtschaftsdienst, May 2021
In Germany, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic was characterised by extreme fluctuations in economic activity and a massively paralysed domestic economy. In their spring report, the leading economic research institutes assume that the current shutdown will continue and gradually be lifted from mid-May until the end of the third quarter. In the wake of the easing, private consumption in particular will recover strongly. Overall, GDP is expected to grow by 3.7 % this year and 3.9 % next year.