FindingJun 15, 2020

The COVID Crisis and Productivity Growth

Filippo di Mauro, Chad Syverson
Effective public policy could mitigate COVID's negative impact on productivity, while also encouraging growth.
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Productivity's Components: An Example (2008-2016)

The world entered into the COVID crisis in the midst of an unexplained 15-year-long productivity growth slowdown, and the current decline of the world economy raises critical questions about the further trajectory of productivity growth. The authors consider the channels through which the crisis might shift the growth rates of productivity and output, whether up or down.

The authors note that measured productivity is likely to fall in the short run as workers are kept on companies’ payrolls while output declines. However, their concern is a more complete measure of productivity, or one that goes beyond traditional inputs like capital and labor to include any residual growth in output (what economists call total factor productivity, or TFP). Broadly summarized here, the authors describe three components of economy-wide TFP and possible impacts of the pandemic: 

  1. Within-firm productivity growth. Firms build trust among customers and knowledge capital among employees, and both are in danger as the pandemic persists and customer needs go unmet or employees are lost. In addition, higher taxes and/or inflation in the future, as well as trade restrictions, could hamper a company’s recovery.
  2. Between-firm reallocation (e.g., unproductive firms close and labor and capital shifts to other firms). Small firms are likely to suffer most going forward and are more likely to close permanently. If these smaller firms are more innovative on average, economy-wide productivity growth could slow. Other firms, often larger, will exist primarily through government programs, some of which would otherwise have closed. These “zombie” firms might prevent other, more productive, firms from entering the market.
  3. Productivity generation created by the pure shifts of activities across sectors. Some sectors, like hotel and travel, may experience persistent drops in activity, while others, like healthcare and IT, may grow over time. The resultant reallocation of resources will have consequences for aggregate productivity, to the extent these sectors differ in productivity and expected productivity growth, and these differences will also occur across countries. 

The authors acknowledge that long-term and, possibly, irreversible economic damage may occur from the COVID pandemic, and they urge policymakers to look beyond policies that protect existing businesses, and to enact policies that encourage productivity growth. Globalization, labor mobility, and small firms may all still fall victim to the crisis if the world does not succeed in reopening borders, refraining from trade and currency wars, and focusing on policies to boost productivity. On the upside, the broad adoption of new technologies – such as IT skills during the epidemic – and strong reallocation pressures may provide an independent boost on productivity as we come out of the crisis.