The economic destruction wrought by the coronavirus has been swift, broad and deep, with manufacturing seizing up across the globe and consumers increasingly stuck at home in government-imposed isolation.
So how will the ongoing slump compare with previous downturns? Here’s a brief rundown of the events over the past century that triggered the most severe economic hardship.
World War I
The mobilization of European armies in 1914 brought the Belle Epoque to a brutal halt. Million-strong armies were locked in battle for years in a conflict that countries had originally expected to be short.
Economies were devoted to sustaining the fighting. Henry Ford had started the first assembly line to mass produce cars in 1913, and the method was replicated for output of munitions and trucks.
Russia was so drained that it fell prey to the Bolshevik revolution, while Germany’s economy was burdened by war reparations, helping to give rise to the Nazi party.
The 1929 stock market crash ushered in the longest and deepest worldwide slump of the 20th century. What started as an American crisis quickly morphed into a global one, exacerbated by weak banks, low farm prices and later by trade barriers. The slump dragged on throughout the 1930s because governments did too little too late.
By 1933, the U.S. unemployment rate was about 25%. It took Franklin D. Roosevelt’s massive New Deal cash injection, along with the war effort, to end the depression there.
World War II
The most destructive conflict in history had varying economic effects, depending on the country. The U.S. boomed and asserted itself as the preeminent world economy. The U.K. avoided invasion but was crippled by debt, while much of Europe and elsewhere lay in ruins. Germany was thoroughly devastated, and Japan too was shattered.
Economies had been wholly re-engineered for military means, with car production lines used to make tanks, for example. As soon as the conflict ended, that industrial effort ceased and concurrently, government spending suddenly contracted. It took decades of rebuilding and healing to shake off the social, political and economic legacy.
Between October 1973 and March 1974, oil prices in the U.S. quadrupled. That inflicted a heavy toll there on manufacturing, which had grown dependent on energy imports. Meanwhile companies were forced to increase wages to respond to the spiraling inflation that followed, just as growth slumped. The effect was known as “stagflation.”
Such effects were repeated unevenly across the globe. France and the U.K., for example, received uninterrupted crude supplies but faced challenges of their own. Britain was beset by multiple strikes during the period and eventually sought an international bailout.
The 2007-2009 downturn was triggered by the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble. Credit soon seized up, leading to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a financial crisis, and subsequently a sharp drop in global trade.
Severe recessions took hold in North and South America and Europe, and the ensuing repair work on much of the banking system is still arguably unfinished.
It’s too early to tell how deeply the current disease outbreak will scar the global economy. The European Commission has said the drop in activity could be comparable to 2009, while the U.K.’s second-quarter contraction may be the worst in almost a century. China may suffer its slowest growth since 1976, the year Mao Zedong died. Economists say the U.S. is entering a sharp recession, with some projecting gross domestic product is headed for its worst drop in quarterly records back to 1947. Japan’s government slashed its assessment of the economy, characterizing it as in a “severe situation” and “extremely depressed” by the virus outbreak.
“There is no doubt: this is a big, big hit,” David Chilosi, assistant professor of economic history at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, said by phone. “The question is whether it’s a temporary shock or will have longer term consequences.”
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