Three times a week an update on new Covid-19 cases is published by the economics consultancy Pantheon. Vaccination rates are monitored by the Swiss bank UBS. The scientists advising the government are in regular contact with the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee – the body that sets interest rates.
Richard Nixon may or may not have said “we are all Keynesians now” after the US broke its link with gold in 1971 but one thing is for sure: all economists are epidemiologists now. And there’s a downside and an upside to that.
The downside is that economic forecasting is even more of a mug’s game than usual because even the real (as opposed to the amateur) epidemiologists don’t really know what is going to happen next. Are there going to be new mutations of the virus? Assuming there are, will they be less susceptible to vaccines? Will Covid-19 go away in the summer only to return again as the days get shorter, as happened last year? Nobody really knows the answers to those questions.
The upside is that the pandemic has forced economists to look beyond their mechanical models and embrace thinking from other disciplines, of which epidemiology is just one.
For a start, it is hard to estimate how people are going to react to the easing of lockdown restrictions without some help from psychologists. It is possible that there will be an explosion of spending as consumers, in the words of Andrew Bailey, “go for it”, but it is also possible that the second wave of infection will make them a lot more cautious than they were last summer, when there was still hope that Covid-19 was a fleeting phenomenon.
An individual’s behaviour is also not entirely driven by their own economic circumstances. It can be strongly affected by what others are doing. If your peer group decides after having the vaccine that it is safe to go to the pub, that will probably affect your decision about whether to join your mates for a drink, even if you are slightly nervous. Sociology has a part to play in economic forecasting.
As does history, if only to a limited extent, because there are not a lot of comparable episodes to draw upon. A century has passed since the last truly global pandemic and there is only so much that can be learned from the outbreak of Spanish flu after the first world war. But when Andy Haldane, the chief economist of the Bank of England, says the economy is like a coiled spring waiting to be unleashed, that’s because he thinks there are lessons to be learned from the rapid recovery seen last summer. Back then, the economy followed a near-19% collapse in the second quarter of 2020 with a 16% jump in the third quarter.
Naturally, economics has a part to play in judging what happens next. Millions of people (mostly the better off) have remained in work on full pay for the past year but have struggled to find anything to spend their money on. Millions of others – those furloughed on 80% of their normal wages or self-employed…
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