The coronavirus was the turning point. Schools and universities are being closed. Public activities are being canceled. Air travel and supply chains are being disrupted. Companies are telling employees to stay put. The virus constitutes a force majeure event.
Even before the U.S. ban on travel from Europe, Air Carriers were reacting by trimming capacity, reducing both domestic and international flights. Southwest Airlines Gary Kelly has said, “The velocity and the severity of the decline is breathtaking, there is no question this is a severe recession for our industry and for us, it’s a financial crisis” (Southwest had previously said reduced bookings could result in as much as $300 million in lost revenue in March alone).
China, in an attempt to contain the outbreak from spreading imposed travel restrictions. Many Chinese factories halted production in February. Worldwide, these shutdowns will impact industries from auto parts to pharmaceuticals.
A key trade flow indicator economists examine is the volume of the Trans-Pacific trade. This trade lane accounts for 40% of the world’s gross domestic product. Despite the recent Phase-One trade deal, the volume of U.S. products moving to China remains depressed. As the virus spreads, political leaders throughout the world are imposing broad travel restrictions. The result is less passenger and freight traffic to move.
Trading relations often come with unseen risks. China’s entry into global markets resulted in a global over-dependence on low-cost Chinese production. The virus has exposed this weakness, and its effects are rippling through the interconnected world economy. “This coronavirus is a wake-up call. We are much more vulnerable than we thought.” Business leaders are scrambling for solutions as they face supply chain disruptions and current market uncertainties. Finding alternative suppliers isn’t easy. Future patterns of trade among nations will change in order to create more supply chain redundancy.
Economic contractions are not a ‘bug’ of free-market systems, but rather a feature. Short term incentives act to create unsustainable swings in everything from product designs to supplier and labor relations. Competition over the delivery of fuel-efficient planes drove the Airbus 320neo and Boeing’s 737MAX (over the past 10 years Boeing and Airbus orders totaled more than 20,000 jetliners). Then, air carriers were more concerned about the cost of jet fuel, their single highest expense after labor.
Surprisingly, when Russia refused last week to join OPEC in its call for crude oil production cuts, the Saudi response was to make the biggest price cut to their crude in more than 30 years Lower oil will help the U.S. consumer, hurt U.S. shale producers, but have little impact on current Air Carrier operations.
The impact of the virus on travel is so large it has resulted in the International Air Transport Association increasing the potential demand shock to the global airline industry upward from its February estimate of $29 billion to a loss of $113 billion in revenues in 2020.
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