Forget about the second wave of the virus, get ready for a recessionary tsunami

Originally published at the Hill Times.

In the midst of multi-phase re-opening plans, Covid-19 cases are back on the rise around the world. This has caused talks of a second round of lockdowns to circulate before this first round of unlocking. This is music to the ears of struggling business owners. Yet we shouldn’t expect a government-orchestrated economic plan to be harmonious. The new normal for businesses will still mean a cacophony of higher input prices and disrupted distribution networks. 

Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s fiscal snapshot delivered Wednesday predicts a very sharp recovery in GDP, with a gentle tapering of unemployment. This is a bad prognosis. With or without a second round of lockdowns, the economy will fall sharply ill again. Simply put, the global economy of the past few months has produced less stuff to use in trade, production, and manufacturing. What makes it worse is that these disruptions have happened at the arbitrary whim of bureaucrats. Even if demand returns to pre-Covid levels tomorrow, businesses may not be able to support their existing workforces or capital structure. 

The invisible hand of supply and demand will soon be greeting the market not with a socially distant salute; but rather with an invasive groping of revenue streams and supply chains. Investors and business owners must prepare for the worst. Expect more layoffs, store closures, and bankruptcies, as entrepreneurs unmask what the new normal will look like.

Politicians themselves will never admit to these problems. Many will tout that their decision-making has been prudent and shrewd, as they’ve been seeking expert advice. Officials tell us to expect the economy to bounce right back, even though these advisors are not economists themselves. Whether the recovery will look like a “V” or “U”, we should seriously question the alphabet soup of optimism that we’re being told to swallow. 

Foremost: politicians have no objective measure for determining what is and isn’t essential. The global supply and distribution system is, quite literally, unimaginably complex. The metaphor of a supply “chain” is misleading, as it implies a clear beginning and end. Since what may be a consumption good for one person may be a capital good for another, it’s more accurate to talk about an economic crochet—an intricate interweaving of supply threads and demand threads, coming together in an ever growing pattern of commerce. Plucking away at random threads may seem harmless at first, but it fundamentally alters the structural integrity of the whole economy. 

The impacts are already being felt. Scholars estimate an increase of over 253,000 cases of infant mortality this year due to the global lockdowns (compare that number to 550,000, the worldwide death total of Covid-19). 

Between overloaded mental crisis hotlines, deferred cancer testing and treatment, an increase in domestic abuse, disruptions in supplying pharmaceuticals, and a global food supply crisis that the UN’s World Food Programme says could lead to 270 million people being “acutely food insecure”, it will be years until the full effects of these lockdowns will be reckoned with. 

Governments around the world have been almost uniform in their response: hand out money to seemingly anyone who asks for it. Where did all this money come from, in a time when many are working and earning less? The central banks. Yet printing money to prop up financial assets devalues the currency overall. Ultimately, all of us will be forced to pay higher prices for everyday goods and services. 

Although this pandemic is novel, the laws of economics remain unchanged. Prices are determined by supply and demand, and enterprising individuals will find a solution to anything profitable. Understanding these principles will be the key to a healthy prognosis for recovery. The only complication to worry about is more meddling by politicians, which has a simple cure: civic vigilance.