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
Firm Productivity Report
in: CompNet - The Competitive Research Network, 2020
As we enter a second phase of the COVID-pandemic, in which we attempt to reopen economies and foster growth, investigating the efficiency and productivity of firms becomes essential if we wish to design the appropriate policies. The 2020 Flagship Firm Productivity report provides a comprehensive account of how productivity is changing –and what is driving those changes –in Europe, drawing from granular firm-level information.Although it was written before the crisis erupted, this report can therefore offer critical insights to current policymaking andprovides grounds for future research.
Economy in Shock — Financial Policy is Holding Up
in: Wirtschaftsdienst, 2020
According to the leading German economic research institutes, the German economy is experiencing a drastic slump as a result of the corona pandemic. In order to slow down the wave of infection, the state has severely restricted economic activity in Germany. As a result, GDP is expected to shrink by 4.2% this year. The recession is leaving clear traces on the labour market and the national budget. At its peak, the unemployment rate will soar to 5.9% and the number of short-time workers to 2.4 million. This year, the fiscal policy stabilisation measures will lead to a record deficit in the general government budget of 159 billion euro. After the shutdown, the economy will gradually recover. Accordingly, the increase in GDP next year will be strong at 5.8%. This forecast is associated with considerable downside risks, e.g. because the pandemic can be slowed faster or because the recovery of economic activity will be less successful than expected or there may be a new wave of infection.
Integrated Assessment of Epidemic and Economic Dynamics
in: IWH Discussion Papers, No. 4, 2020
In this paper, a simple integrated model for the joint assessment of epidemic and economic dynamics is developed. The model can be used to discuss mitigation policies like shutdown and testing. Since epidemics cause output losses due to a reduced labor force, temporarily reducing economic activity in order to prevent future losses can be welfare enhancing. Mitigation policies help to keep the number of people requiring intensive medical care below the capacity of the health system. The optimal policy is a mixture of temporary partial shutdown and intensive testing and isolation of infectious persons for an extended period of time.
Wirtschaft unter Schock – Finanzpolitik hält dagegen: Gemeinschaftsdiagnose Frühjahr 2020
in: Dienstleistungsauftrag des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie, No. 1, 2020
Die Konjunktur in Deutschland bricht als Folge der Corona-Pandemie drastisch ein. Um die Infektionswelle abzubremsen, hat der Staat die wirtschaftliche Aktivität in Deutschland stark eingeschränkt. Deshalb dürfte das Bruttoinlandsprodukt in diesem Jahr um 4,2% schrumpfen. Die Rezession hinterlässt deutliche Spuren auf dem Arbeitsmarkt und im Staatshaushalt. In der Spitze wird die Arbeitslosenquote auf 5,9% und die Zahl der Kurzarbeiter auf 2,4 Millionen hochschnellen. Die finanzpolitischen Stabilisierungsmaßnahmen führen in diesem Jahr zu einem Rekord defizit im gesamtstaatlichen Haushalt von 159 Mrd. Euro. Nach dem Shutdown wird sich die Konjunktur schrittweise erholen. Entsprechend fällt der Anstieg des Bruttoinlandsprodukts im kommenden Jahr mit 5,8% kräftig aus. Mit dieser Prognose sind erhebliche Abwärtsrisiken verbunden, etwa, weil sich die Pandemie deutlich langsamer abschwächen lässt, oder weil das Wiederhochfahren der wirtschaftlichen Aktivität schlechter gelingt als angenommen bzw. eine erneute Ansteckungswelle auslöst.
Konjunktur aktuell: Wirtschaft im Bann der Corona-Epidemie
in: Konjunktur aktuell, No. 1, 2020
Seit Ende Januar 2020 steht die Weltwirtschaft unter dem Eindruck der Corona-Epidemie. Nach ihrem Ausbruch in China sind dort im ersten Quartal Produktion und Nachfrage eingebrochen. Mit dem deutlichen Rückgang der Neuerkrankungen kommt das Wirtschaftsleben in China gegenwärtig nach und nach wieder in Gang. Zugleich steigt aber andernorts die Zahl der Krankheitsfälle, und für viele fortgeschrittene Volkswirtschaften ist mit ähnlichen wirtschaftlichen Folgen wie in China zu rechnen. Die vorliegende Prognose unterstellt, dass sich die Ausbreitung der Epidemie insgesamt wie in China eindämmen lässt. Unter dieser Annahme dürfte die Weltkonjunktur im ersten Halbjahr 2020 sehr schwach bleiben, sich aber ab dem Sommer langsam erholen.