A global crisis and stimulus of historic proportions: Elliot Clarke

Staff reporterMarch 29, 20200 min read


This week, historic negative economic outcomes were seen in both Europe and the US. Financial markets instead focused on the wave of stimulus announced, particularly in the US.

Of the data released, the first focus for markets was the Markit PMI’s for key developed nations. Whereas the shock ex-China to date has been concentrated in manufacturing, services were hit hard in the March preliminary reading. In Japan, the service PMI fell from 46.8 in February to 32.7 in March; in the US, a similar decline was seen from 49.4 to 39.1; while in Europe, the loss was a staggering 24pts from 52.6 to 28.4 – a very unfavorable comparison to the GFC low of 39.2 in 2009. 

While severe, these shocks pale in contrast to the deterioration seen this week in US initial jobless claims. As we flagged last week, the first few weeks of the US contagion have seen a never-before-seen increase in US unemployment. Following the 71k increase in the last report to 282k claimants, in this update a further 3 million new claimants were reported, taking initial claims to 3.28 million. Prior to this outcome, the historic peak was 695k back in 1982.

Note that while the 2020 initial outcome is almost five times the scale of the 1982 peak, the labour force has only grown 50% since. Moreover, this week’s outcome will not be a one off. It is still early days in this crisis; job losses have been staggered; and there have been numerous reports of claim backlogs to be assessed. Clearly the US is facing into an immense shock. 

It is not surprising then that the US Congress has responded with a stimulus package also of historic proportions ($2 trillion). This will include support to all low and middle-income households in the form of cash handouts; extended unemployment benefits; loans to small business which can be forgiven in time if the funds are used for certain purposes such as keeping on staff; as well as loans to support large business cash flow.

These are significant measures, but are unlikely to materially reduce the shock coming to their economy. This is in part because the stimulus will only partly offset the loss of income from job loss and as confidence’s decline will hit discretionary spending hard. But primarily it is because the US COVID-19 case count continues to rise rapidly, meaning the country is nowhere near a point of stabilisation which it can begin to recover from. Highlighting this, the New York Times today reported that the US now has more confirmed cases than China experienced. Moreover, the global state of affairs also remains dire, with severe cases continuing to increase rapidly across Europe.

The shock to growth coming from abroad is also having a clear impact on Australia and New Zealand. But more pressing is the domestic spread of COVID-19. The current situation for our two nations has been summarised this week by Westpac Group Chief Economist Bill Evans and New Zealand Chief Economist Dominick Stephens. For Australia, further detail on the expected depth of the deterioration in our labour market and economy was also released by Westpac Economics, as was our forecast of the implications for the Federal Government’s fiscal position and government debt.

For our labour market, given the implementation of stricter restrictions on our economy, we now anticipate a rise in the unemployment rate to a peak of 11% by mid-2020, to be sustained through the September quarter. This will come as a result of the loss of over 800k jobs and as the economy contracts by 4.0% over the year to September 2020.  As the economy is restored to a more normal footing in the September and December quarters, activity will bounce and the unemployment rate fall – we believe to 8.8% end-2020 and 8.0% end-2021.

Still, that is a much weaker end point than anticipated prior to COVID-19. Hence, not only will the recession of 2020 hit the Government’s fiscal position, but there will also be a lasting impact. On top of this shock to activity and Government revenue is the cost of stimulus, to steady the economy amid immense uncertainty.

In summary, we anticipate a deterioration in the Federal budget from balance in 2018/19 to a 4.5% of GDP deficit ($90bn) in 2019/20 and a deficit of 8% of GDP ($160bn) come 2020/21. In 2019/20, 2ppts ($40bn) comes as a result of policy stimulus while 2.5ppts ($50bn) is due to the apparent cyclical deterioration. The 2020/21 deficit of 8% of GDP meanwhile includes 3ppts ($60bn) from policy stimulus and 5ppts ($100bn) is due to cyclical deterioration. As a result, the supply of government securities on issue will rise by $250bn to $820bn (40% of GDP) by June 2021.

ELLIOT CLARKE is a senior economist at Westpac 

Staff reporter

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