The Economic Consequences of the Virus: Views of Top Macroeconomists

  • Several macroeconomists—using evidence from previous pandemics or calculations based on economic models—have provided estimates of the likely impact of the coronavirus on the economy. They agree that the economic policies announced by governments, plus the containment and lockdowns, are a small price to pay to limit the deaths from COVID-19.
  •  In recent articles, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Barro and the IMF all stress the importance of extending unemployment insurance benefits, maintaining the connections between companies and workers, providing cash to those with low incomes—which is broadly the focus of policies announced by governments.
  • These views by mainstream macroeconomists stand in stark contrast to the views of people such as Richard Epstein at the Hoover Institute so argued on March 30 that “the only solution that has a prayer of working [in the United States] is to ease restrictions as quickly as possible in those areas where the risks are lower” and that a “fortress America approach … may turn out to be more deadly than the coronavirus itself.”

Views on economic policies:

Joseph StiglitzThe U.S. $2 trillion stimulus package is “remarkably good” and has several provisions that “are really important to ordinary Americans.” These include: (i) strengthening the unemployment insurance system; (ii) encouraging firms not to simply lay off or to get rid of their workers, leaving them without health insurance, but keeping the connection between the workers and the workplace alive by providing money to corporations to pay for the furloughed workers so they’re not left on their own; (iii) providing cash for those with very limited income that are not in one of the other two previous programs; (iv) providing loans to small businesses provided that they maintain their employment levels.

Robert Barro writes that policies should “prevent individuals who lose jobs from having little income to use for basic purchases [by] strengthening the existing social safety net” by increasing “accessibility and benefit levels for programs such as unemployment insurance, food stamps, and Medicaid. These program expansions, some of which are in the massive relief package that just passed Congress, are much more targeted to the needy than the policy of passing out $1,200 checks to everyone.” He continues that “it also makes sense that the recent package includes various policies aimed at limiting the permanent disappearance of businesses that would be productive absent the ongoing crisis. And it’s critical for the Federal Reserve to prevent major disruptions of financial markets, which it is already aggressively attempting to do.” If mortality from the current virus turns out to be similar to that of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1920, there could be 150 million deaths across the world: saving lives even at the expense of cutting world GDP by 20 percent through containment measures and lockdowns “is more than worth the cost.”

The IMF: “Households who lose their income directly or indirectly because of containment measures will need government support. Support should help people stay at home while keeping their jobs. Unemployment benefits should be expanded and extended. Cash transfers are needed to reach the self-employed and those without jobs. … Policies need to safeguard the web of relations among workers and employers, producers and consumers, lenders and borrowers, so that business can resume in earnest when the medical emergency abates. Company closures would cause loss of organizational know-how and termination of productive long-term projects. Disruptions in the financial sector would also amplify economic distress. Governments need to provide exceptional support to private firms, including wage subsidies, with appropriate conditions.”

Estimates of economic impacts of COVID-19:

Robert Barro and co-authors: “The implications of our findings from the Great Influenza Epidemic [of 1918-20] for the ongoing coronavirus epidemic are unsettling. … The flu death rate of 2.0 percent translates into 150 million deaths worldwide when applied to the world’s population of around 7.5 billion in 2020. Further, this death rate corresponds … to declines in the typical country by 6 percent for GDP and 8 percent for consumption. These economic declines are comparable to those last seen during the global Great Recession of 2008-2009 … Although these outcomes for the coronavirus are only possibilities, corresponding to plausible worst-case scenarios, the large potential losses in lives and economic activity justify substantial outlays to attempt to limit the damage.”

Martin Eichenbaum, Sergio Rebelo, and Mathias Trabandt write that “decisions to cut back on consumption and work reduce the severity of the epidemic as measured by total deaths. These same decisions exacerbate the size of the recession caused by the epidemic. An epidemic has both aggregate demand and aggregate supply effects. The supply effect arises because the epidemic exposes people who are working to the virus. People react to that risk by reducing their labor supply. The demand effect arises because the epidemic exposes people who are purchasing consumption goods to the virus. People react to that risk by reducing their consumption. The supply and demand effects work together to generate a large, persistent recession.


What policies should the government pursue? The authors write that “containment policies that reduce consumption and hours worked … exacerbate the recession but raise welfare by reducing the death toll caused by the epidemic. We find that it is optimal to introduce large-scale containment measures that result in a sharp, sustained drop in aggregate output. This optimal containment policy saves roughly half a million lives in the United States.”


John Rogers and co-authors find that in previous pandemics and epidemics in the 21st

Century real GDP was about 2½ % lower on average across 210 countries in the year the outbreak is officially declared and remained almost 3% below pre-shock level five years later. Fiscal policy responds aggressively to disease outbreaks, with initial year declines of 2% of GDP in the primary surplus on average. Countries that respond more aggressively through higher government expenditures suffer smaller declines in output growth compared to countries with less of a fiscal expenditures response.


They state that “it is difficult to translate these estimated historical effects to forecast the economic and financial effects of COVID-19. Although there are many parallels between these 21st century disease episodes and COVID-19, there is a lot to suggest that this pandemic will have a much larger toll on human lives. The unprecedented scale of lock downs in several countries will hamper economic activity even for countries that have lower caseloads and deaths and/or who thwart the virus more quickly … Thus, we consider our estimates to be a lower bound for the case of COVID-19.”

Posted by at 5:53 PM

Labels: Inclusive Growth


Subscribe to: Posts