The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has severely disrupted economic activity through various supply and demand channels. The pandemic can also have pervasive economic impact by raising uncertainty. In the past, sudden and outsized spikes in uncertainty have led to large and protracted increases in unemployment and declines in inflation. These effects are similar to those resulting from declines in aggregate demand. Monetary policy accommodation, such as interest rate cuts, can help cushion the economy from such uncertainty shocks.
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How do major pandemics affect economic activity in the medium to longer term? Is it consistent with what economic theory prescribes? Since these are rare events, historical evidence over many centuries is required. We study rates of return on assets using a dataset stretching back to the 14th century, focusing on 12 major pandemics where more than 100,000 people died. In addition, we include major armed conflicts resulting in a similarly large death toll. Significant macroeconomic after-effects of the pandemics persist for about 40 years, with real rates of return substantially depressed. In contrast, we find that wars have no such effect, indeed the opposite. This is consistent with the destruction of capital that happens in wars, but not in pandemics. Using more sparse data, we find real wages somewhat elevated following pandemics. The findings are consistent with pandemics inducing labor scarcity and/or a shift to greater precautionary savings.