Uncertainty reigns

Apr 01, 2020
Economic forecasting can be a difficult business, especially when you consider the ‘unknown uncertainties’ the world is currently facing, writes Annette Hughes. 

Businesses do not like uncertainty but, at present, that is the prevailing economic theme. An uncertain political situation, ongoing Brexit negotiations and the recent coronavirus outbreak remind us how vulnerable the economy can be to external shocks.
Those in the business of economic forecasting understand this vulnerability very well. The purpose of an economic forecast is to measure the impact of ‘known uncertainties’ on future economic performance, but the future is unpredictable and this is further complicated by the ‘unknown uncertainties’ we now face. 

Economists, in making their projections for economic growth in 2020, would not have been aware of the coronavirus outbreak until the first reports of a cluster of cases were identified on 31 December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The rapid and continuing escalation of COVID-19 has led economists to revise their economic forecasts downwards, as the initial output contractions in China begin to be felt around the world. It remains unclear what the full effects will be on the movement of people and goods, and economic activity, while the response of policymakers is evolving on a daily basis.

Global economy

In early March, the OECD reported on the considerable human suffering and major economic disruption that had resulted from COVID-19. OECD global growth in 2020 was revised downwards, by around 0.5 percentage points to 2.4%, from an already weak forecast of 2.9%. The adverse impacts on confidence, financial markets, the travel sector and disruptions to supply chains were all factors contributing to the downward revision. However, without knowledge of the full impact of the virus, the OECD acknowledged that, should the outbreak be more intense and last longer than predicted, global growth could drop to 1.5%.

Economists at Oxford Economics believe that the virus will result in Q1 2020 being the first global contraction since Q1 2009, with overall growth of 2% for the year, the slowest pace in the last decade.

Irish economy

The OECD forecast for economic growth in the euro area was revised downwards by 0.3 percentage points to 0.8% in 2020, although, given that the spread to Europe did not materialise until February, this forecast is likely to be subject to further downside risks. 
Ireland has an open economy reliant on international trade and global markets to support economic growth. Ireland and its economy accounts for just 0.4% of global GDP and 0.06% of the world’s population. However, it still remains vulnerable to the impact of the COVID-19 virus. 

Economic growth in Ireland will definitely be weaker than projected should the virus spread for an extended period. The main impacts are likely to be felt through supply chain disruptions, travel and tourism restrictions, and reduced mobility (affecting consumer spending and workers staying at home). There have already been reports of delays in the delivery of imported products in the construction sector, according to the Ulster Bank Construction Confidence Index. It has been acknowledged that Ireland will likely follow a pattern seen in other European countries and the Taoiseach’s measures to minimise the spread of COVID-19 could be significant, but much less than the economic and social consequences of acting too late.

The flexibility that Irish businesses have demonstrated in dealing with evolving economic, political and social trends are acknowledged in EY’s February 2020 Economic Eye. EY Chief Economist, Neil Gibson, correctly pointed to the coronavirus outbreak as likely to damage global growth in 2020, but as a rapidly evolving situation, it is difficult to predict the full economic impact on the island of Ireland. The closure of many public institutions and private businesses in the Republic of Ireland will no doubt further slow growth across the island, but the sectoral and regional impact will vary greatly. It important to remember, however, that this is first and foremost a human crisis, and we must think about people first. Moving away from GDP numbers, we must look at what business, governments and individuals can do together to help get us get through this incredibly difficult period. 

Clearly, these are unprecedented times and taking such developments into account makes economic forecasting a difficult business.
Annette Hughes is a Director at EY-DKM Economic Advisory.