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Dec. 23, 2020, 8:17 a.m. EST

The usual glib answers won’t do as COVID-19 casts a long shadow on the economy

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Stephen S. Roach

NEW HAVEN, Conn. ( Project Syndicate )—The outlook for economic and financial markets hinges on the interplay between two cycles—the COVID-19 cycle and the business cycle. Notwithstanding the true miracles of modern science that we are now witnessing, the post-pandemic economy is in need of more than just a vaccine.

Extraordinary damage was done by last spring’s lockdown. Now, a second and more horrific wave of the coronavirus is at hand—not dissimilar to the course of the 1918-20 influenza outbreak.

In the United States, the adverse economic repercussions are evident in mounting jobless claims in early December and a sharp decline in retail sales in November. With partial lockdowns now in place in about  three-quarters of U.S. states , a decline in economic activity in early 2021 seems likely.

The history of the U.S. business cycle warned us of the possibility of a  double dip . Eight of the last 11 recessions featured just such a pattern. Yet financial markets /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA -0.56% /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX +0.08% /zigman2/quotes/210599024/realtime GDOW +0.12% still made a big bet on a V-shaped recovery. Investors were lulled into a false sense of complacency by reading too much into the dead-count bounce of a  33% annualized surge  in real gross domestic product in the third quarter, as initial lockdowns were lifted.

More from Stephen S. Roach: The stock market is ignoring the risk of double dip in the economy

But reopening after a sudden stop hardly qualifies as a self-sustaining economic recovery. It is more like a fatigued swimmer gasping for air after a deep dive.

The source of the coming economic relapse hardly comes as a surprise. It is the echo effect of the first wave of COVID-19. Despite extraordinary breakthroughs in vaccines, therapeutics, and treatment protocols, the  second wave  is far worse than the first in terms of infection, hospitalization, and deaths. While the new restrictions on economic activity are not as tight as those last April, they are already having an adverse impact on aggregate economic activity.

The double dip of early 2021 will be a painful reminder of the lingering vulnerability of the U.S. business cycle in the aftermath of a major recessionary shock.

The longer-term consequences of the COVID-19 cycle are likely to be more severe. While mass vaccination points to an end to the pandemic itself (one hopes by late 2021), it does not provide immunity against lasting economic damage. 

Recent research  on the impact of 19 major pandemics dating back to the 14th century—each with death counts in excess of 100,000—highlights the long shadow of the economic carnage. Real rates of return on “safe” European assets—a measure of the interplay between aggregate supply and demand—were found to be depressed for several decades following these earlier horrific outbreaks.

The long shadow of the COVID-19 cycle looms as well. Lost in the celebration of an imminent V-shaped economic recovery have been many hints of lasting damage. In the U.S.,  employment  is still 9.8 million jobs below its pre-pandemic peak, and  consumer expenditures on services —restrained by persistent and understandable fears of face-to-face interaction—have recouped only 66% of the plunge that occurred during the March-April lockdown.

Moreover, a second wave of partial lockdowns will only reinforce dislocations that are now painfully evident in most major cities, including excess office and public-transit capacity, along with the devastation of hospitality, entertainment, and retail businesses. The permanent destruction to aggregate supply and demand, in conjunction with fundamental shifts in behavioral norms, aligns the long-shadow contour of the COVID-19 cycle with comparable patterns in the aftermath of earlier major pandemics.

The interplay between the short-term dynamics of the business cycle and the longer-term pattern of the COVID-19 cycle bears critically on the current policy debate. Yet hope is widespread that this time is different—that creative new policy strategies can offer new solutions to old economic problems.

That is certainly true of so-called Modern Monetary Theory, which supposedly gives fiscal authorities open-ended license to binge on debt. But MMT is  neither modern nor a theory . What is new is something far more basic: the supposed death of inflation. As long as inflation remains subdued, goes the argument, then both monetary and fiscal authorities can ignore the risks of higher borrowing costs and work in tandem in providing relief for a pandemic-stricken real economy.

But nothing in economics is forever—not even the death of inflation. Here is where it gets especially tricky.

U.S. inflation is hardly immune to further  dollar depreciation /zigman2/quotes/210673925/realtime XX:BUXX +0.08% , which seems increasingly likely, given a sharp deterioration in the U.S. current-account deficit, the strengthening of the euro /zigman2/quotes/210561242/realtime/sampled EURUSD -0.0876% , and the weak-dollar bias of a Federal Reserve that remains wedded to zero-interest rates. 

Also read: Fed will keep buying bonds until there is ‘substantial progress’ in inflation, labor market goals

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