The Economic Damage of COVID-19: A Preliminary Assessment

The Bureau of Economic Analysis today released its advance (first) estimate of GDP for the first quarter of 2020, which is now almost a month in the past. The year-over-year change in real GDP was 0.3 percent (a slight increase). The annualized decline in quarterly GDP was 4.8 percent, the worst since the 8.4 percent decline in the fourth quarter of 2008 (the year of the financial meltdown).

Here’s how the first quarter of 2020 looks in the context of post-World War II changes in GDP:

If, as I expect, the incipient COVID-19 recession of 2020 ends quickly (perhaps in the third or fourth quarter of the year), it will prove to be less damaging (economically) than previous post-war recessions. That won’t be of solace to those who have suffered through the disease, lost loved ones,  lost their jobs and businesses, and seen their investments decline in value.

But (economically) it is better than the alternative, which is something on the order of the Great Recession or Great Depression. The former spanned 3-1/2 years, from the time of its onset until real GDP finally rose above the pre-recession level. The latter spanned 1929-1936, was followed by a recession in 1937-1938, and didn’t end decisively until after World War II.