A 'B-shaped' recovery

Sep 29, 2020

Economists may have a plethora of letter-named predictions for the post-pandemic recovery, but Chartered Accountants are depending on a ‘B-shaped’ comeback. Dr Brian Keegan thinks we need to look to Brexit and the US general election for any real answers.

Professions are notorious for using jargon, and different professions have preferred styles for their jargon. Doctors tend to abbreviate the ailments they treat, like the “flu”. Accountants tend to prefer acronyms such as IAASA, IFRS and FRC. Economists, on the other hand, use labels, often with reference to the chief protagonist within the economic phenomenon, hence “Laffer curve”, “Keynesianism” and, even at a stretch, “Pope’s children”.

Creeping into the commentary at present is an alphabet soup of labels to describe the nature of the post-pandemic recovery. At the outset, we all hoped for a “V-shaped” recovery, denoting a rapid fall-off in activity matched by an equally rapid recovery. Then, more creative economic types, possibly channelling medical concerns over a second surge of the pandemic, started talking about a “W-shaped” recovery. This way, things will start to get better, lapse again and then recover more fully. The latest commentary talks about a “K-shaped” recovery, whereby some sectors of the economy will recover quite quickly, but others will continue to decline. 

However, judging from our most recent members survey, there is an expectation among Chartered Accountants of what could be termed a “B shaped” recovery, whereby over time most sectors will loop back to their level of activity post-pandemic. Almost all of our respondents thought that business activity would eventually get back to something resembling pre-COVID-19 days. The main area of disagreement was the amount of time this might take, with our members in the Republic of Ireland expecting a quicker recovery than our members in Northern Ireland. 

The expected difference in recovery time between the north and south of the island is borne out by the ultimate truth serum of economic status, which is the analysis of tax receipts published each month. Counting money will always give a more accurate picture than counting questionnaire responses. Not only that, because of the recurring nature of tax payments, it is possible to trace a coherent and reliable set of comparisons. Tax receipts in Ireland overall have remained remarkably stable, despite the impact of the pandemic. Yet, tax receipts in the UK are showing a serious decline year-on-year. 

One reason for the difference is down to timing. Ireland counts tax receipts from 1 January; the UK from 6 April by which time, of course, the pandemic was in full surge. However, the differing financial years do not fully explain the disparity. Consumption has fallen in both countries, as evidenced primarily by VAT receipts, but production, as evidenced by income tax and corporation tax receipts, has not shown the same decline in Ireland as in the UK.

Resilience in production over consumption could prove to be critical in the coming months since coronavirus is only the first international crisis of 2020. Despite the behaviour of the respective governments, we are all paying too little attention to the impact the end of the UK’s transition period with the EU in December will have on Irish business. There is also insufficient attention being paid to the economic policies of the two main contenders in the US presidential election, nor much being discussed on how the outcome of that election could shape US trade, international corporation tax policy and foreign direct investment because of the focus on the country’s civil discord.

The recovery prospects on the island of Ireland will indeed be B-shaped in 2021, but not because of the shape of the economic trajectory. Think instead about the impact of Brexit, and whether or not there is a Biden presidency. 

Dr Brian Keegan is Director of Advocacy & Voice at Chartered Accountants Ireland.