To date, the economic damage wrought by the pandemic has been mostly hidden by massive government subsidy. That’s about to change. And so the next few months will reveal the underlying economic impact of COVID-19 across the globe more clearly. My bet: As governments withdraw fiscal support, the economic picture is going to look worse than commonly appreciated.
Getting a sense of what’s about to happen requires that we first be clear about how and why the pandemic has affected the economy: Is it because governments have required people to stay home, or is it because of the virus itself? New research shows that economic losses have come mainly from fear, not government mandate. So eliminating the mandates without ending the fear does very little.
One analysis, by Austan Goolsbee and Chad Syverson of the University of Chicago, is based on cell phone records of customer visits to more than 2 million businesses. The researchers dug into the details to assess how lockdown rules affected activity — for example, by looking across counties in a single commuting area with varying rules. They found that consumer traffic declined by 60 percentage points from the beginning of March to mid-April, and that government lockdown mandates caused only about 7 percentage points of that drop. The key driver, they conclude, was fear. One factor consistent with this hypothesis is that the decline in the number of customer visits is highly correlated with the number of COVID-19 deaths in the local area.