The Recent State of the Global Economy: A Month of Shocks
The ICTC Economics Team Comments on the Impact of COVID-19 on Previous Forecasts
UPDATE: Underscoring the fast-moving nature of this crisis and the policy response, in the 48 hours since this post was published lawmakers in the US and Canada have proposed fiscal stimulus plans to the tune of 3% of GDP. The proposed plans include direct fiscal transfers to households, mortgage payment holidays, temporary tax deferrals, and credit extension to businesses. This was complemented, on the monetary side, by the Fed announcing emergency liquidity support to the markets for commercial paper and money market funds, and the ECB announcing a further expansion of its asset repurchase program. The US and Canada have also mutually agreed on a temporary shutdown of their border to non-essential traffic.
To find out more about these policy developments, the COVID-19 crisis, and its impact on the digital economy join us for a virtual panel discussion on Thursday, March 26, 2020–2:00–3:00 PM EST.
The last several weeks have ushered a range of headline-grabbing developments across Canada and the globe. COVID-19 was recently declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) and with this announcement, it will inevitably continue to threaten supply chains worldwide. In the backdrop of COVID-19, other recent events like Brexit, blockades, the recent election in Canada and upcoming elections abroad have and will also continue to play significant roles in reshaping our economy in the near term.
Considering the collective impact that these developments have on the digital economy, ICTC’s Research and Policy team will release an update to its recent Outlook 2023 report, which forecasted employment in the Canadian digital economy through 2023. This revised trend report, incorporating the effects of recent and upcoming global events like COVID-19, Brexit, US elections and other influential factors will be released in the spring of 2020. Setting the stage for this report, the following presents an overview of the impact that COVID-19 and its associated global actions and directives is causing and has caused for the economy as a whole and the technology industry.
COVID-19: What is it and how is it evolving?
The outbreak of a Coronavirus (officially named COVID-19) is currently a significant concern for the global economy, owing to its threat to human life and its potential to severely disrupt the supply chains and capital flows on which many industries depend. While not as deadly as SARS or MERS, the prognosis of the outbreak has evolved rapidly in just the last month. Around the end of January, a couple hundred cases had occurred in China and there was a sense of optimism that a worldwide pandemic could be avoided. However, as of March 16, over 168,000 cases have been identified across 148 countries. Countries as far away as Australia, South Africa, Italy, Iran, and South Korea have experienced fast growth in the number of infections and our neighbor and strongest trading partner, the United States, reports more than 3,400 cases and almost 70 deaths across the country.
With the virus first erupting in China, the Chinese government has enacted a range of emergency measures which depend largely on the nature of Chinese state and are not necessarily replicable in countries like Canada or the US. For example, in the middle of February, nearly half of the country’s population were living under travel restrictions. These measures, while effective at somewhat controlling the spread of the virus, have also drastically reduced the production of the Chinese economy-only two months after the virus broke out, China’s predicted economic growth was reduced by a full percentage point. Business travel and production of tech goods have fallen, particularly in and around Hubei Province.  The virus has contributed to a widespread sense of economic uncertainty, particularly visible in financial markets.
Global economic and financial impact
The COVID-19 outbreak represents, at the outset, a supply-side shock to the global economy through an abrupt drop in industrial production and the subsequent disruption to global supply chains as inventories are depleted. China’s sweeping quarantine measures in February seem to have helped contain the spread of the disease within the country to a large extent, with the number of new reported cases in the country now declining steadily. However, with its manufacturing sector essentially shut down for over a month, as evidenced from the drop in its Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index from 50 to 35.7 for February, and from satellite data showing significantly lower emissions, the Chinese economy is poised to see a rare contraction for Q1 2020. Nevertheless, most signs point to this drop being temporary as the economy prepares to return to normal in light of improving health data. Barring any large outbreak recurring in China there is an expectation for the economy to recover later this year.
The sharp drop in Chinese production also sent commodity prices tumbling, especially for commodities sensitive to Chinese demand such as oil, natural gas, copper, and zinc. The drop in oil demand from the industrial, transportation and aviation sectors globally has been coupled with a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia pushing prices to record lows, sending energy stocks plummeting. With the number of reported cases of COVID-19 rapidly rising in countries outside of China such as Iran, Italy and the US, the last two weeks have seen a mass sell-off in equity markets and a major repricing of risk. As of March 12, the S&P 500 and TSX have lost 27% and 30% from their respective record-high closing values on Feb 20.
Such rapid erosion of confidence and the fear of its negative effects on aggregate demand have forced an urgent response from policy makers. G7 finance ministers and central bankers released a joint communique stating their readiness to act in the face of the outbreak, the Fed pushed through a 50 basis point rate cut in an unscheduled meeting on March 3, and the Bank of Canada followed suit with a 50 basis point cut of its own on March 4. Following record one-day drops to stock markets in the US and Canada in the last week, both central banks have made further promises of significant injections of liquidity to financial markets to quell investor fears and prop up business and consumer confidence in the face of recent uncertainty. 
The IMF has reduced its expectations for global growth this year to less than 2.9%, down from its previous forecast of 3.3% and has made emergency funds to the tune of $50 billion available to help countries deal with the outbreak. Since the epicenter of the outbreak has moved to Europe, the economic outlook is likely to sour further, aggregate demand takes a big hit and financial markets remain volatile. That said, shocks related to COVID-19 are seen as temporary and there are expectations of recovery later in the year, carrying into 2021. Prior to the COVID-19 shock there was relative optimism amongst households and businesses with strong consumer demand, low unemployment, and signs of genuine progress in the US-China trade war. While this black-swan shock has rattled financial markets and soured the overall economic outlook, there are positive signs to be taken from the trend of outbreak stabilization in China, and more recently in South Korea. As the spread of the disease ramps up in Europe and North America, those countries’ health systems would do well to observe best practices from China. In Canada, the health system can also draw from its experience of the SARS outbreak of 2003. Additionally, with a higher proportion of service sector jobs that can be done remotely, there is also the potential to enforce self-quarantine arrangements with a relatively lower loss of productivity. That being said, there are still significant downside risks as can be seen from developments in Iran, southern Europe, and the US and any complacency or reduction in vigilance could prove severe.
While it is still unclear what the ultimate impact of the virus will be, where the global economy ends up will depend, in large part, on the policy response of major economies to this exogenous shock.
Canadian policy response: Rate cuts, COVID-19 Response Fund and More
A coordinated policy response to COVID-19 should cover three main fronts: public health, monetary easing, and targeted fiscal stimulus.
Public health policy
On March 11, just hours before WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the Prime Minister announced the creation of a COVID-19 Response Fund of over $1 billion. The fund includes investments to the tune of $50 million for communication and public education, $500 million to support critical health systems in the provinces and territories, $50 million for the purchase of personal protective equipment, $275 million for research in vaccinations and antivirals, and $100 million for increased federal public health measures including funding for Indigenous Services Canada.
There has since also been a widespread effort across the country to flatten the epidemic curve with calls for social distancing and self-quarantining. Several employers, especially in the services sector, are promoting remote working arrangements. Libraries, gyms, and other public places that facilitate congregation are voluntarily shutting doors for a few weeks following public health directives. There is a travel advisory in effect to avoid all non-essential travel outside of Canada, and conferences, concerts, and large sporting events have been suspended for the next few weeks. On March 13, Parliament was suspended until April 20, and no firm date has been announced for the tabling of the federal budget. In an address to the nation on March 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced new temporary restrictions on air travel into Canada including barring entry to foreign nationals (apart from US citizens), redirecting international flights to one of four airports, and strengthening screening measures at airports.
As the testing efforts intensify, The Public Health Agency of Canada is also looking to hire a reserve of on-call inventory nurses and quarantine officers to in case health centers require additional staff to support efforts to respond to COVID-19.
The Bank of Canada earlier this month joined the Fed, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and other Asian central banks by cutting its benchmark interest rate by 50 basis points to 1.25%. The accompanying statement focused on COVID-19 related risks, noted that the Bank expects Canada’s growth for Q1 to be below expectations owing also in part to temporary disruptions like the rail blockade and teachers’ strikes. The bank reiterated its readiness to cut rates further if needed. Bond markets have already priced in expectations of further rate cuts by the Fed and the Bank of Canada in March and April, respectively. While there are valid concerns about Canada’s household debt burden levels, the commodity price outlook, and other financial stability risks driven by the housing market, this current monetary easing is focused on the more immediate threats to consumer and business confidence.
Following the record drops in stock market indices on Thursday, March 12, the Bank announced plans for a $7 billion liquidity injection to the Canadian banking system, and an expansion of its bond buyback program, reiterating its commitment to support the healthy functioning of the Canadian financial system in times of stress. The Bank has since also dropped interest rates by another 50 basis points in an unscheduled announcement as a “proactive measure taken in light of the negative shocks to Canada’s economy arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent sharp drop in oil prices”. This announcement came on the tail of plans to launch a Bankers’ Acceptance Purchase Facility, further providing short-term credit assistance, especially to small and medium business which typically tend to use these funding instruments. This has been supplemented by OSFI reducing its Domestic Stability Buffer requirement for domestic systematically important banks from 2.25% to 1% of risk weighted assets. This loosening should free up about $300 billion in lending capacity at these banks which the regulator expects will be used to help businesses and households mitigate the disruption caused by COVID-19 as well as the recent oil price collapse, and to prevent a large spike in insolvencies.
Although the monetary easing can reduce debt servicing costs of companies and SMEs facing a cash crunch in the face of a shock to demand and disruptions to their supply chains, it will not provide targeted relief to the sectors most hit by these shocks. Ideally, and especially if things get worse, sectors like tourism, airlines, transportation, and manufacturing, will receive some relief through targeted fiscal policy. Temporary measures such as adjustments to capital expenditure write-offs, increases in sick leave benefits and child care allowances, could help offset some of the costs that lost productivity and output will bring, while also being reversible and so relatively easier to justify from the point of view of the government’s already wide budget deficit. Such fiscal policy moves would also give the Bank of Canada more leeway for monetary stimulus in case the outbreak further increases the risk of a wider recession.
This prong of the policy response has been the least incisive thus far, but it is also the one that benefits the most from up to date information to best target policies to the most affected sectors. While the Prime Minister’s COVID-19 Response Fund did outline some laudable provisions-waiving the mandatory one-week waiting period for sickness benefits claims made by quarantined workers, and enhancing the Work-Sharing program by doubling the eligibility period from 38 to 76 weeks-there is a need for much more substantial intervention. On March 13, the Department of Finance announced the establishment of the Business Credit Availability Program (BCAP) to provide an additional $10 billion of credit and insurance support to Canadian businesses, especially small and medium enterprises, through the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and Export Development Canada (EDC). In his speech, the Finance Minister also suggested that the CRA might consider extending the tax deadline past April 30, and that a “significant fiscal package” will be announced this coming week. A large number of Canadian households and businesses eagerly await the details.
Policy response from USA and the EU: Canada’s two largest trading partners
On March 11 the White House announced a 30-day suspension for all travel from Europe to the US, and a $8.3 billion funding bill to help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ramp up testing, containment, and research into vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. On March 13, the President declared a state of national emergency freeing up an additional $50 billion of federal funds to help combat the spread of the disease.
The Federal Reserve was the first G7 central bank to provide monetary stimulus in the face of COVID related shocks, dropping its target interest rate range by 50 basis points in an emergency meeting on March 3. This was supplemented by large injections of liquidity in treasury markets, and plans for regulatory relief to help financial institutions extend credit responsibly to customers affected by COVID related stresses. In a second emergency meeting on March 15, the Fed slashed interest rates down to zero and announced a ramping up of its asset repurchase program. It also announced a substantial increase in the lines of credit available to lending institutions and is coordinating plentiful and cheap access to liquidity in the US dollar swap market with other large central banks, to ensure there are sufficient US dollar reserves on hand. These policy tools, aimed at minimizing strains on credit lines to households and businesses, were last employed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
On the fiscal policy side, a first major sweeping relief package was passed by the House of Representatives on March 14 and is scheduled for discussion in the Senate this week. The aid bill allocates funds for an increase in unemployment benefits, free COVID tests, and food assistance.  It includes provisions for two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of family and medical leave for those affected by COVID-19, as well as tax credits to help small and medium enterprises to finance these benefits.  As this aid bill is being deliberated in the Senate, the onus is now on the Treasury department to negotiate a fiscal relief plan with Congress to help workers and businesses in the sectors most acutely affected by supply chain disruptions and the imminent slowdown in domestic demand as consumers set about on a period of self-isolation and social distancing to help mitigate the spread of the epidemic.
Having witnessed how ineffective the slow ratcheting up of public health measures was in containing the spread of the coronavirus in Italy, authorities in countries all over Europe enacted sweeping shutdown measures this past weekend. Spain joined Italy in declaring a national emergency and imposing broad restrictions on public life-effectively calling a ban on people leaving their home for nonessential purposes. Schools, cafes, bars, restaurant and nonessential stores have been shuttered for the next two weeks, and long-distance trains and busses are set to run at lower frequencies. France also ordered the shutting down of its cafes, bars, and nonessential businesses-including grocery stores, gas stations, and bank branches-for a two week period. Several other European countries, including Denmark, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Lithuania have announced travel restrictions denying entry to nonessential visitors for the next 30 days.
With short-term interest rates already negative there were fewer levers for the European Central Bank to pull in its policy meeting on March 12. It ended up leaving interest rates unchanged and instead announced plans to conduct longer term refinancing operations at rates more favourable than those previously announced in September 2019.  The rationale was to facilitate liquidity provision to struggling households and businesses without penalizing savers any further-depositors currently already earn negative interest. The ECB also announced a ramping up asset repurchases-quantitative easing of the kind employed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis-and a temporary easing of capital requirements for banks, freeing up additional lending capacity to support distressed businesses and households that will be cash strapped but remain fundamentally sound.
All eyes, however, are on fiscal authorities. On March 13, the EU commission tabled a relief package including proposals to redirect €37 billion to sectors in need, to allow member states the flexibility to run bigger budget deficits and take on more public debt, and to guarantee up to €8 billion in subsidized loans to small businesses. In their Eurogroup meeting on March 16, EU finance ministers approved this relief package aimed at healthcare systems, SMEs, and labour markets, and committed to taking further coordinated fiscal action as needed to support national efforts to boost output and stave off unemployment as the European economy recovers once the virus recedes. Notably, the finance ministers did not explicitly invoke the European Stability Mechanism-a €400 billion emergency fund-as some had expected in the face of growing fear of an EU-wide recession.
National governments in the EU have also pledged various fiscal policy measures to support their domestic economies. Germany has promised half a trillion euros in guarantees for German businesses via the state bank KfV and is also looking to expand programs that cover lost benefits for furloughed employees. Italy has planned a stimulus package worth €25 billion. France has pledged support for small and medium-size businesses disrupted by the epidemic via deferred tax payments, rebates and emergency cash lines, waiver of penalties on public contracts, and paid job furloughs to prevent layoffs.
Impact on the digital economy
The impact of the virus on the global tech industry has already been substantial. In the US, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon have asked Seattle-based staff to work from home. In Canada, ecommerce leader Shopify recently followed suit with a similar announcement. Q1 of 2020 global production of tech goods is predicted to decrease by 4 to 15% year over year depending on sector. Sectors that have intricate or complex supply chains, particularly in China, are set to be the most affected. As of January 2020, imports from China represents just under 7% of Canada’s total imports, meaning that the impacts of stalled supply chains in China may impact the Canadian digital economy less severely than it would the US or the EU whose total imports from China totaled 17% and 19%..
The growth and stability of Canada’s digital economy is not threatened only by interruptions to the supply chain. A generalized global state of economic downturn could arise in which the normal connection-making and deal-striking are interrupted. The recent and sharp decline in business trips and conferences worldwide is an indicator of this threat; as of March 3, it is estimated that around $500 million USD has already been lost in tech conference cancellations. A monumental development for Canada specifically, the 2020 Collision conference-hosted in Toronto-was also canceled, along with Canadian Blockchain Week and many other pivotal tech events bringing global tech leaders and innovators to Canada. The International Air Transport Association has forecasted that COVID-19 could cost the passenger air industry up to $113 billion. Naturally, all of these elements impact the state of the digital economy in Canada and worldwide; they play a considerable role in steering economic prospects and shaping labour demand and growth opportunities. ICTC will continue to monitor these events going forward to provide the most up to date and accurate assessments for the Canadian digital economy.
Our plan for the coming weeks to conduct a scenario analysis for the Canadian digital economy in light of these macro-shocks, and to revise our Outlook 2023 forecasts with a baseline case and expansionary and contractionary scenarios. In the meanwhile, we would advise that everyone keep calm, remain vigilant, and follow public health guidelines for COVID-19. Take care and stay healthy!
About the Authors
Junior Research Analyst
One of ICTC’s most recent hires, Chris enjoys writing reports and tackling both quantitative and qualitative research problems. He looks forward to putting his skills toward strengthening Canada’s digital advantage in more projects and has contributed to ICTC in areas as diverse as the economic impact of Smart Cities, 5G, AI, and trade in digital services. Chris obtained his Bachelors of Economics from the University of British Columbia in 2019. At UBC he was a Dean’s List student and participated in the co-op program, through which he had the opportunity to work for Global Affairs Canada and Environment Canada.
Senior Research Analyst
Maryna has spent several years working as a researcher and enjoys approaching complex research challenges through both a qualitative and quantitative lens. She is committed to using her research to help strengthen Canada’s digital advantage in a global inclusive economy. Maryna was involved in researching and writing a number of reports for ICTC, covering topics like the impact of emerging technologies on the labour market, digital economy trends and many others. Motivated by the potential benefits technology can offer to society, and concerns of fairness, accountability and inclusivity, she seeks to continue to contribute to critical conversations surrounding the development of Canada’s growing digital economy. Maryna holds a Masters of Economics degree from the University of New Brunswick, graduated near the top of her class and was hired as a lecturer in multiple economics classes.
Economist & Research Analyst
Akshay is a macroeconomist whose research interests include financial stability, economic policy, and the economic and social impacts of disruptive technology. His current work at ICTC includes projects on blockchain, additive manufacturing, and the digital economy in Canada. He has previously worked at Schlumberger, the International Monetary Fund, and was co-founder and chief economist at a fintech startup in India. He holds a DPhil in Financial Economics from the University of Oxford and was a research associate at the Systemic Risk Centre at the London School of Economics.
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 “With E3 and SXSW canceled, the direct losses from major tech events soars beyond $1 billion.” Vox. March 12, 2020. https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/3/3/21162802/tech-conferences-cancellation-coronavirus.
 International Air Transport Association, March 5, 2020. https://www.iata.org/en/pressroom/pr/2020-03-05-01/.
Originally published at https://www.ictc-ctic.ca on March 17, 2020.