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Exploring the Global Economic Recovery from COVID-19

June 15, 2021

Brooke Tenison is an International Economist in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Trade Policy and Analysis; and Susan Xu is an International Economist in the Office of Trade and Economic Policy

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A heatmap of global GDP growth rates for 2021. Relatively few countries are projected to continue to suffer negative growth rates over the next year. Many countries, especially across Africa and the Middle East, are predicted to see modest growth up to 3 percent. Advanced economies are projected to see mainly between 3 and 5 percent, while a very select few, including China, are projected to show more than 8% growth.
Data Source: IMF World Economic Outlook

Since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, the world economy has weathered stop-go rhythms with shutdowns and reopenings, and markets of all shapes and sizes incurring tremendous losses. However, with the arrival of multiple effective vaccines, the world is looking toward recovery, both from an economic and public health perspective.

According to the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook released in April 2021, the global economy is projected to recover in 2021 and 2022 with anticipated GDP growth of 6% and 4.4% respectively. This growth, however, is not projected to be shared equally across countries or industries.

As trade economists, we’d like to offer perspectives about how the economic recovery is progressing.

Economic recovery so far is based on three main factors:

  • First and foremost is uneven access to vaccines—each economy’s growth hinges on vaccine availability and efficacy.
  • Second, domestic policies, which vary across countries, significantly impact the pace of economic recovery.
  • Third, the pace of recovery will also depend on country-specific structural factors, particularly reliance on high-contact sectors, such as tourism.

Furthermore, advanced economies and developing countries vary in their capacities to execute short- and long-term recovery strategies. This has a direct impact on their abilities to recover:

  • Advanced economies are projected to recover faster than emerging market and developing economies. Advanced economies had the fiscal space at the beginning of the crisis to implement effective stimulus measures, and many now can quickly roll out vaccines. This bloc tends to have larger work-from-home flexibility in conducting business as they generally have higher technology intensity in the production process and digital infrastructure.
  • Conversely, developing countries historically do not have as much room in their budgets to stimulate their economies, and have not been able to vaccinate their populations as quickly as advanced economies. Lacking access to vaccines effectively places a ceiling on growth, and some estimates project that developing economies will not have widespread access to vaccines for several years. Businesses in developing economies tend to depend more on face-to-face interactions and have fewer work-from-home jobs. In the meantime, developing economies will likely suffer from economic scarring, or long-term effects.

 Recoveries also vary largely by country according to the data in May. In particular:

  • The United States is projected to surpass pre-COVID levels of GDP in 2021 thanks to a rapid vaccine rollout and three rounds of stimulus checks that have kept American consumers spending through the pandemic.
  • The European Union (EU) is expected to recover to pre-COVID GDP levels a bit later, in mid-2022, due to a slow vaccine rollout and dependency on sectors that rely on human contact and interaction, such as tourism, cultural and creative industries. The EU has struggled with a third wave of COVID-19 infections and new lockdowns.
  • In contrast, the United Kingdom (UK) is expected to recover faster than the rest of Europe despite having longer lockdowns than many European countries, one of the deadliest outbreaks in 2020, and complications from Brexit. Its early procurement of vaccines and rapid vaccination drive to deliver the first shot to as many people as possible are key to a quicker recovery. Also important is the UK’s quick fiscal policy response; it was the first major economy to set plans to repair the damage to public finances caused by the pandemic.
  • China has surprised many with the speed of its recovery. The world’s second-largest economy grew 2.3% in 2020—the only major economy to avoid a contraction last year. This growth has continued in 2021 as a rebound in foreign demand has encouraged higher export growth. Partially hit by global chip shortages and international logistics jams, the economy’s strong pandemic bounce-back presents a two-speed track, with strong industrial output and export demand but lagging consumer spending.

Focus on Trade:

As of spring 2021, overall global trade volumes have numerically returned to pre-pandemic levels, but their composition looks different. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), global trade began recovering in the third quarter of 2020 and continued through the end of the year. Goods trade led the charge, recovering far more quickly than services. Goods like home office and communications equipment performed remarkably well compared to last year. Services trade, suffering from pandemic-related restrictions as well as consumer hesitation to travel, bottomed out in the second quarter of 2020 and is recovering sluggishly. Travel and tourism is understandably the most impacted services sector (check out NTTO’s dashboard for how this is progressing in the U.S.).

For a U.S. perspective on the recovery in trade, check out ITA’s monthly analysis of U.S. exports, imports, and other vital trade data.

From a global perspective, this crisis will continue to have echo-effects long after the virus is contained. With each passing day we have some more insight into how the virus has affected the global economy. While it is too early to understand the full picture, for now we can see simply that growth has a double ceiling: virus containment and vaccine access. Until the virus is controlled, we will continue on a bumpy, uneven road to recovery.