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
Insolvenzen in der Corona-Krise
in: IWH Policy Notes, No. 2, 2021
Die Insolvenzzahlen sind trotz Corona-Krise im Jahr 2020 stark gesunken. Diese paradoxe Situation kann in erster Linie durch staatliche Unterstützungsmaßnahmen und abwartendes Verhalten bei den Unternehmen erklärt werden. Die Krise traf die meisten Unternehmen am Ende einer langanhaltenden wirtschaftlichen Boomphase und somit haben viele Unternehmen umfangreiche Reserven aufgebaut, die sie in Erwartung eines Nach-Corona Booms aufbrauchen. Obwohl eine Insolvenzwelle ab Frühjahr nicht auszuschließen ist, ist sie doch eher unwahrscheinlich. Der Staat muss seine Kräfte bündeln um ein Wiederaufflammen der Pandemie nach dem Sommer 2021 zu verhindern und gleichzeitig die Stützungsmaßnahmen bereits im Jahr 2021 beenden, um eine „Zombifizierung“ der Wirtschaft zu unterbinden.
Why Are Households Saving so much During the Corona Recession?
in: IWH Policy Notes, No. 1, 2021
Savings rates among European households have reached record levels during the Corona recession. We investigate three possible explanations for the increase in household savings: precautionary motivations induced by increased economic uncertainty, reduced consumption opportunities due to lockdown measures, and Ricardian Equivalence, i.e. increases in the expected future tax-burden of households driven by increases in government debt. To test these explanations, we compile a monthly panel of euro area countries from January 2019 to August 2020. Our findings indicate that the chief driver of the increase in household savings is supply: As governments restrict households’ opportunities to spend, households spend less. We estimate that going from no lockdown measures to that of Italy’s in March, would have resulted in the growth of Germany’s deposit to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio being 0.6 percentage points higher each month. This would be equivalent to the volume of deposits increasing by roughly 14.3 billion euros or 348 euros per house monthly. Demand effects, driven by either fears of unemployment or fear of infection from COVID-19, appear to only have a weak impact on household savings, whereas changes in government debt are unrelated or even negatively related to savings rates. The analysis suggests that there is some pent-up demand for consumption that may unravel after lockdown measures are abolished and may result in a significant increase in consumption in the late spring/early summer 2021.
Konjunktur aktuell: Neue Pandemiewelle verzögert konjunkturelle Erholung in Deutschland
in: Konjunktur aktuell, No. 4, 2020
Während die Weltwirtschaft zweigeteilt ist – die Wirtschaft in Ostasien und in den großen Schwellenländern hat sich zügig erholt, für Nordamerika und Europa ist mit einem schwachen Winterhalbjahr zu rechnen –, lässt der Shutdown die Produktion in Deutschland zum Jahresende zurückgehen. Nach Lockerung der Infektionsschutzmaßnahmen, dank Impfkampagnen und milder Witterung dürfte die Erholung ab dem Frühjahr langsam wieder in Gang kommen. Im Jahr 2021 wird das BIP um 4,4% zunehmen, nach einem Rückgang um 5% im Jahr 2020. In Ostdeutschland fällt sowohl der Rückgang als auch der Wiederanstieg deutlich geringer aus.
High public deficit not only because of Corona - Medium-term options for action for the state
in: Konjunktur aktuell, No. 4, 2020
According to the IWH's medium-term projection, Germany's gross domestic product will grow by an average of ½% in price-adjusted terms in the years to 2025, which is 1 percentage point slower than in the period from 2013 to 2019. This is due not only to the sharp slump in 2020, but also to the fact that the labour force will decline noticeably. Government revenues will be expanding much more slowly than in previous years. Even after the pandemic crisis is overcome, the state budget is likely to have a structural deficit of about 2% relative to GDP if the legal framework remains unchanged, and the debt brake will continue to be violated. Consolidation measures to reduce this deficit ratio to ½ % would push production in Germany below the normal rate of capacity utilization. Simulations with the IWH fiscal policy model show that consolidation on the expenditure side would reduce production by less than consolidation on the revenue side. There is much to be said, also from a theoretical point of view, for not abolishing the debt brake, but for relaxing it to some extent.
The Viral Effects of Foreign Trade and Supply Networks in the Euro Area
in: IWH-CompNet Discussion Papers, No. 4, 2020
Containment measures of COVID-19 have generated a chain of supply and demand shocks around the globe with heterogeneous fallout across industries and countries. We quantify their transmission via foreign trade with a focus on the euro area where deep firms integration within regional supply chains and strong demand linkages act as a magnification mechanism. We estimate that spillover effects in the euro area from suppression measures in one of the five main euro area countries range between 15-28% the size of the original shock; negative foreign demand shocks depress euro area aggregate activity by about a fifth the size of the external shock and a fourth of the total effect is due to indirect propagation through euro area supply chain. Last, reopening to regional tourism softened the contraction of aggregate activity due to travel and tourism bans by about a third in the euro area. Our findings suggest that enhanced coordination of recovery plans would magnify their beneficial effects.