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How to Avoid a W-Shaped Recession

As policymakers plan their COVID-19 responses, policymakers should remember a simple rule of thumb: let “W” stand for premature "withdrawal" of public-health or economic-stimulus measures. As previous crises have shown, such proposals should be avoided like the plague.

CAMBRIDGE – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana famously quipped in 1905. It is a phrase that has been repeated for over a century, but rarely heeded. As COVID-19 decimates the global economy, our understanding of history could be the difference between a V- or U-shaped recession and a W-shaped one, in which incipient recovery is followed by successive relapses.

As recently as March, V-shaped recoveries in individual economies seemed plausible. Once infections and deaths had peaked and begun to decline, the logic went, people would eagerly return to work. Economic activity might even get an extra boost, as consumers released pent-up demand.

This is in line with the pattern of recovery from natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, as well as the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003. Though output in China – the outbreak’s epicenter – did suffer as a result of SARS, it recovered so fast that annual GDP was hardly affected.