Monday , September 28 2020

Yes, it’s a depression now

We have been too gentle with reality. It must be clear to almost everyone by now that the sudden and sharp economic downturn that began in late March is something more than a severe recession. That label was, perhaps, justifiable for the 2007-2009 Great Recession, when unemployment reached a peak of 10%. It isn’t now.
“This situation is so dire that it deserves to be called a ‘depression’ — a pandemic depression,” write economists Carmen Reinhart and Vincent Reinhart in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. “The memory of the Great Depression has prevented economists and others from using that word.”
It’s understandable. People don’t want to be accused of alarmism and making a bad situation worse. But this reticence is self-defeating and anti-historic. It minimises the gravity of the crisis and ignores comparisons with the 1930s and the 19th century. That matters. If the hordes of party-goers had understood the pandemic’s true dangers, perhaps they would have been more responsible in practicing social distancing.
Even after the July jobs report, when the unemployment rate fell from June’s 11.1% to 10.2%, the labour market remains dismal. Here are comparisons with February, the last month before the pandemic was fully reflected in job statistics: The number of employed fell by 15.2 million; the unemployed rose by 10.6 million; and those not in the labour force increased by 5.5 million.
“The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were filled with depressions,” write the husband-and-wife Reinharts. Among economists, they are heavy hitters. She is a Harvard professor, on leave and serving as the chief economist of the World Bank; he was a top official at the Federal Reserve and is now chief economist at BNY Mellon.
What’s clear is that the Pandemic Depression resembles the Great Depression of the 1930s more than it does the typical post-World War II recession. To simplify slightly: The typical postwar slump occurred when the Fed raised interest rates to reduce consumer price inflation. They lowered rates to stimulate growth.
By contrast, both the Great Recession and the Pandemic Depression had other causes. The Great Recession reflected runaway real estate and financial speculation and their adverse effects on the banking system. The Pandemic
Depression occurred when infection fears and government mandates led to layoffs and an implosion of consumer spending.
The collateral damage has been huge. Small businesses accounted for 47% of private-sector jobs in 2016, estimates the Small Business Administration. Many have or will fail because they lacked the cash to survive a lengthy shut down. In a new study, economist Robert Fairlie of the University of California, Santa Cruz reports an 8% drop in small businesses from February to June. Among African Americans, the decline was 19%; among Hispanics, 10%.
In one respect, the Reinharts have underestimated the parallels between today’s depression and its 1930s’ predecessor. What was unnerving about the Great Depression is that its causes were not understood at the time. People feared what they could not explain. The consensus belief was that business downturns were self-correcting. Surplus inventories would be sold; inefficient firms would fail; wages would drop. The survivors of this brutal process would then be in a position to expand.
This view rationalised patience and passivity. Just wait; things will get better. When they didn’t, anxiety and discontent mounted. There was an intellectual void. Modern scholarship has filled the void. If — at the time — government had been more aggressive, preventing bank failures and embracing larger budget deficits to stimulate spending, the economy wouldn’t have collapsed. The Great Depression wouldn’t have been so great.
Something similar is occurring today. The interaction between medicine and economics often baffles. Is this a healthcare crisis or an economic crisis? Before the New Deal in the 1930s, national leaders followed the conventional wisdom of the day — doing little. Similarly, leaders now are following today’s conventional wisdom, which is to spend lavishly. Will this work or will the explosion of government debt ultimately create a new sort of crisis?
The language of the past increasingly fits the conditions of the present. The many busts of the 19th century have long been referred to as “depressions” — for example, in the late 1830s, the 1870s and the 1890s. The accepted reality at the time was that mere mortals had little control over economic events. We thought we had moved on, but maybe we haven’t.
The implications for the economic outlook are daunting. In their essay,
the Reinharts distinguish between an economic “rebound” and an economic “recovery.” A rebound implies positive economic growth, which they consider likely, but not enough to achieve full recovery. This would equal or surpass the economy’s performance before the pandemic. How long would that take? Five years is the Reinharts best guess — and maybe more.

—The Washington Post

Robert J Samuelson is a journalist for The Washington Post, where he has written about business and economic issues since 1977. He was a columnist for Newsweek magazine from 1984 to 2011

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