By Shang-Jin Wei
NEW YORK ( Project Syndicate) — The panic generated by the new coronavirus, 2019-nCov, which originated in Wuhan, one of China’s largest cities and a major domestic transport hub, reminds many of the fear and uncertainty at the peak of the 2003 SARS crisis.
China’s stock market /zigman2/quotes/210598030/delayed HK:HSI +0.54% /zigman2/quotes/210598127/delayed CN:SHCOMP -1.04% , after rising for months, has reversed itself in recent days, and global markets have followed suit, /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA -0.10% /zigman2/quotes/210599024/realtime GDOW +0.81% apparently reflecting concerns about the epidemic’s impact on the Chinese economy and global growth. Are these worries justified?
My baseline projection is that the coronavirus outbreak will get worse before it gets better, with infections and deaths possibly peaking in the second or third week of February. But I expect that both the Chinese authorities and the World Health Organization will declare the epidemic to be under control by early April.
Under this baseline scenario, my best estimate is that the virus will have only a limited negative economic impact. Its effect on the Chinese growth rate in 2020 is likely to be small, perhaps a decline on the order of 0.1 percentage point of gross domestic product.
The effect in the first quarter of 2020 will be big, perhaps lowering growth by one percentage point on an annualized basis, but this will be substantially offset by above-trend growth during the rest of the year. The impact on world GDP growth will be even smaller.
Such a prediction recalls the experience of the 2003 SARS crisis: a big decline in China’s GDP growth in the second quarter of that year was then largely offset by higher growth in the subsequent two quarters. While the full-year growth rate in 2003 was about 10%, many investment banks’ economists over-predicted the epidemic’s negative impact on growth.
Looking at annual real GDP growth rates from 2000 to 2006, it is very hard to see a SARS effect in the data.
Some fear that the epidemic’s timing — at the start of the week-long Chinese New Year celebration, and in the middle of traditional school-break travels — will exacerbate the economic fallout by keeping many people away from shops, restaurants, and travel hubs.
But three important factors may limit the virus’s impact.
First, in contrast to the SARS outbreak, China is now in the internet commerce age, with consumers increasingly doing their shopping online. Much of the reduction in offline sales owing to the virus will likely be offset by an increase in online purchases.
And most of the vacations canceled today will probably be replaced by future trips, because better-off households have already set aside a holiday travel budget.
Many factories have scheduled production stoppages during the Chinese New Year holidays anyway, so the timing of the epidemic may minimize the need for further shutdowns. Similarly, many government offices and schools had planned holiday closures independently of the virus outbreak.