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.

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All experts, press releases, publications and events on the Corona crisis

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


Disentangling Covid-19, Economic Mobility, and Containment Policy Shocks

Annika Camehl Malte Rieth

in: IWH Discussion Papers, No. 2, 2021


We study the dynamic impact of Covid-19, economic mobility, and containment policy shocks. We use Bayesian panel structural vector autoregressions with daily data for 44 countries, identified through sign and zero restrictions. Incidence and mobility shocks raise cases and deaths significantly for two months. Restrictive policy shocks lower mobility immediately, cases after one week, and deaths after three weeks. Non-pharmaceutical interventions explain half of the variation in mobility, cases, and deaths worldwide. These flattened the pandemic curve, while deepening the global mobility recession. The policy tradeoff is 1 p.p. less mobility per day for 9% fewer deaths after two months.

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Kommentar: Wir brauchen eine neue Corona-Strategie

Reint E. Gropp

in: Wirtschaft im Wandel, No. 1, 2021


Die gegenwärtige Corona-Strategie der Bundes­regierung, wenn man sie denn so nennen kann, konzentriert sich darauf, besonders gefährdete Personen durch Impfung zu schützen und die Ansteckung aller anderen durch den Lockdown zu vermeiden. Sie ignoriert, dass Menschen im täglichen Leben immer Risiken eingehen und dabei auch Risiken berücksichtigen, die durch das Verhalten anderer entstehen. Sie entscheiden selbst, wie stark sie sich gefährden, je nach ihrer persönlichen gesundheitlichen Situation und Risikoaffinität. Die Möglichkeit, Risiken einzugehen, ist ein inhärenter Teil einer freiheitlichen Gesellschaft: Die Gesellschaft vertraut prinzipiell dem Einzelnen, einigermaßen vernünftige Entscheidungen zu treffen – und die Konsequenzen zu tragen, wenn die Dinge schiefgehen. Der Staat setzt dabei die Rahmenbedingungen, aber niemals mit dem Ziel, das Risiko für den Einzelnen auf null zu drücken. 

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Aktuelle Trends: Trendmäßiger Anstieg der Sterbefälle in Deutschland – Altersstruktur bei der Interpretation der Sterblichkeit berücksichtigen

Birgit Schultz

in: Wirtschaft im Wandel, No. 1, 2021


In Deutschland steigt aufgrund der Altersstruktur die Anzahl der jährlichen Sterbefälle. Ein einfacher Vergleich der aktuellen Sterbefälle mit dem Durchschnitt der Vorjahre ist daher nicht geeignet, um die Übersterblichkeit während der Pandemie zu beurteilen.

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Unternehmensinsolvenzen in Deutschland im Zuge der Corona-Krise

Oliver Holtemöller

in: Wirtschaft im Wandel, No. 1, 2021


Die Corona-Pandemie hat die deutsche Wirtschaft in eine tiefe Rezession getrieben. In diesem Beitrag wird analysiert, wie sich die Rezession in den Unternehmensinsolvenzen niederschlägt. Prognosen auf Basis des üblichen Zusammenhangs zwischen Bruttowertschöpfung und Unternehmensinsolvenzen nach Wirtschaftsbereichen deuten auf eine kräftige Zunahme der Unternehmensinsolvenzen im zweiten Halbjahr 2020 hin. Für Unternehmensinsolvenzen gelten allerdings seit März 2020 Ausnahmeregelungen, die das Ziel haben, allein durch die Corona-Krise bedingte Unternehmensinsolvenzen zu vermeiden. Ferner erhalten die Unternehmen finanzielle Unterstützung im Rahmen der Corona-Hilfspakete. Mit zunehmender Dauer der wirtschaftlichen Beeinträchtigungen nimmt die Wahrscheinlichkeit von Unternehmensinsolvenzen gleichwohl zu, sodass nach Aufhebung der Ausnahmeregelungen Insolvenzen nachgeholt werden dürften und das übliche konjunkturelle Muster wieder greift.

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IWH-Flash-Indikator I. Quartal und II. Quartal 2021

Katja Heinisch Oliver Holtemöller Axel Lindner Birgit Schultz

in: IWH Flash Indicator, No. 1, 2021


Seit November 2020 befindet sich Deutschland im Lockdown. Dadurch konnte sich der Erholungskurs der deutschen Wirtschaft im vierten Quartal nicht weiter fortsetzen, und das Bruttoinlandsprodukt (BIP) stagnierte mit 0,1% nahezu. Durch die Mitte Dezember weiter verschärften Eindämmungsmaßnahmen wird die wirtschaftliche Aktivität in vielen Branchen im laufenden Quartal erschwert oder gänzlich verhindert. Auch ein weiteres Sinken der Anzahl der Covid-19-Infizierten dürfte daran so schnell nichts ändern, da die Furcht vor hochinfektiösen Corona-Mutationen groß ist. Ebenfalls versprechen die mittlerweile zugelassenen Impfstoffe gegen Covid-19-Erkrankungen keine kurzfristige Verbesserung der Situation, da sie wohl frühestens in einigen Monaten für die breite Masse der Bevölkerung verfügbar sein werden. Aufgrund der robusten Nachfrage aus dem Ausland dürfte die Wirtschaftsleistung laut IWH-Flash-Indikator jedoch im ersten Quartal 2021 nur um 0,7% zurückgehen und im zweiten Quartal, wenn die Corona-Eindämmungsmaßnahmen langsam zurückgeführt werden sollten, um 1,5% steigen. (vgl. Abbildung 1).

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