Some thoughts of the economic crisis we’re currently going through, the likely ways out, and the shape of the economy and society in the aftermath.
It’s a relatively safe prediction that the economy after COVID-19 will end up more consolidated and the balance will shift from SMEs to corporations. As a result of the shutdown lots of small firms and their supply networks will be wiped out, while large global brands expand in their space. That will raise inequality within economies, and between economies. For example middle-income countries with lots of SMEs will lose domestic firms and substitute imports from the same multinationals.
In part that may explain stock prices, where tech stocks are having a V-shaped recovery out of touch with the real economy. Amazon is now above its pre-crisis valuation. Inevitably, these firms will see a few bad quarters because the wider public, if not the middle class, will have less money to spend. But they’ll spend it online or on gadgets instead of at the pub. Global firms will be better placed than small firms or other investments, and as such they may see flat profits but higher Price/Earnings ratio.
What’s less clear is whether the economy will recover to its pre-crisis state. Of course in the long run it will. But some sectors, notably oil and aviation, are seeing a sudden glut of resources where the operators have to pay to store their oil or maintain their grounded aircraft. With a slow recovery, and climate change round the corner, we may never see the current stock of aircraft, oil infrastructure, hotels, or cruise ships fully back in use. Companies like Airbus or BP will likely survive, but the more traditional products in their portfolio may be retired in favour of new technologies or greener offerings.
In theory, this is a perfect time to invest in green energy, as well as rethink the platform economy. The first phase of AirBnB or Deliveroo has been an inequality machine. But with lots of people out of work, less international travel, and probably less frivolous spending after the crisis, maybe the platform economy can find itself a democratizing role. Providing services to each other at a local level is not inherently exploitative. Perhaps as we look for a more local and more resilient way of life, both green investment and informal services could see an upsurge. Whether they will is another matter.
The crisis response to COVID-19 has been strikingly local, at the level of European countries, US states, or Chinese provinces. Roughly speaking people organized at the 10M to 100M population scale. Perhaps this tells us something about the natural scale of economic recovery also. After the crisis we may see less global trade but more domestic consumption and domestic tourism. Firms will obviously take advantage of national incentives. How nation-states pay for those incentives will be revealing.
People seem to have learnt a little, perhaps the minimum, from the Global Financial Crisis. This time round the stimulus was quick to come and relatively free of moral lecturing. It’s hard to blame a small business for failing when the government ordered it to close. But attitudes to dealing with the spike in public debt have not changed. The US and Japan are likely to load it on the central bank and deal with it painlessly. Europe is hampered by the Euro and likely headed for another round of austerity. The end result of austerity is the stronger financial capital buying up distressed assets of the periphery.
Much is said about whether, once we’re free to go anywhere and sit down in coffee shops, people will revert to their old consumer lifestyles or, thanks to this forced lesson in stoicism, our preferences and consumption patterns will change. It may not be philosophy that drives the change, but certain things that were politely obscured are now laid bare. As economist Marianna Mazzucatto points out, if the “essential” workers keep us alive, how did the “non essential” ones manage to extract so much value, and is that going to change?
The most benign way to deal with the obvious collective redundancy of the middle class is to consider more flexible work-life options, a different balance of formal employment and community work, or a four day week. Europe may deal with lean times this way. In more sink-or-swim economies like the US we may see a wave of forced entrepreneurship, where people are let go from companies and, if they’re above becoming Uber drivers, they start their own micro-brands offering who knows what products and services.
So on one hand consolidation of capital into fewer, bigger corporations that absorb the markets of smaller firms. On the other, depreciation of legacy sectors and investment in green technology likely sooner than iit would otherwise happen. Widely varying debt politics, and different ways to absorb the semi- and unemployed, either through collectivist work sharing or by somewhat desperate and improvised self employment.