The unfolding, global COVID-19 pandemic is a human crisis of historic scale and complexity. It is straining health care systems, government fiscal capacity, and the ability of many organizations to cope with the changes wrought by the virus and the response to it. The level of uncertainty for most leaders is unprecedented, and most of our frameworks for planning and problem solving are unable to manage the geographic variability, uncertainty, and the exponential change brought by the COVID-19 crisis.
In our work to confront this challenge with public and private sector clients worldwide, we have found that many leaders are asking the same set of questions: How should I forecast my revenues? How should I adjust my budget? When will this be over, and when will we return to “normal”?
These are good questions, but the reality is, we shouldn’t be asking them at this point. In the wake of so much uncertainty, we should instead focus on framing potential scenarios and use them to develop a robust plan of action.
Three months into the COVID-19 crisis, we are starting to see patterns in its impact on countries and cities, as well as in these areas’ responses. We see three distinct phases. First, there is the “Flatten” phase, in which countries or cities lock down to flatten the virus’s exponential growth curve. Second comes the “Fight” phase, during which a geography “Restarts” its economy while maintaining a low rate of infection, while still running the risk of having to implement further lockdowns. Finally, we are anticipating a “Future” phase, which begins only after a vaccine or highly effective treatment has been developed and deployed.
We have applied this framework on a localized and sector basis and have created different scenarios for each phase to account for the shifting dynamics and complex elements that are part of the COVID-19 landscape.
Three critical insights have emerged from our scenario work:
Part of the strategic challenge is that the effects of COVID-19 will vary significantly by geography and sector. Individual companies will see even greater variation amongst their outcomes during each of the Flatten, Fight, and Future phases. Such variation has been observed in every prior economic crisis, and the uncertainty and multi-phase nature of this crisis may lead to greater disparity than usual, creating even more winners and losers than is typical. Accordingly, we think it is imperative for business leaders to use scenarios with a range of outcomes to develop a plan for their companies to: a) Be ready to Restart; b) Win the Fight; and c) Win the Future. Particularly, we think that winning the Fight phase is crucial because it creates the opportunity to win the Future.
To help companies and societies respond to COVID-19, and recover from it, we offer an approach for framing and developing scenarios, and suggest what they can expect in trying to accomplish these goals.
We cannot predict the future. But we can seek to understand what the future might hold, and what that means for nations, industry sectors, and individual companies. We need scenarios to bound the uncertainty, to help us understand the underlying drivers of outcomes, and for some understanding of how we can shape those outcomes.
The data clearly suggests that very different COVID-19 trajectories have played out around the world. (See Exhibit 1.)
China, for example, imposed ferociously strict restrictions, essentially locking down the entire Hubei province. Rather than aim for flattening, the Chinese government attempted to crush the virus. And, after two and a half months, the data emerging from China suggests that it has largely succeeded. The lockdowns in China happened quickly outside of Hubei. President Xi Jinping announced a national emergency after the fifth-reported case beyond the province. After two to three weeks of zero local transmissions, restrictions have been reduced, and even Hubei has started to reopen.
Many other countries, including Italy and the US, imposed lockdowns more slowly and less restrictively. In these places, cases escalated rapidly, exceeding those in Hubei. They are only now beginning to level out. Both the overall caseload and burden on hospital systems remain high.
We believe it is possible to generalize and draw conclusions from these outcomes. While each nation is on its own journey—with differences based on the wide range of geographic, demographic, societal, political, and economic factors that result in variation—the basic shape of the journey is the same everywhere. (See Exhibit 2.)
Three distinct phases emerge:
How do we simultaneously fight for public, economic, and social health in a pandemic that is only partly under control?
The three phases are broadly descriptive and are not meant to describe the specifics of any one country or region. They instead provide a framework for scenario planning and analysis for businesses and society at large. To answer the big question, we need to consider several interconnected elements in each phase:
We must develop and evaluate scenarios across these elements for each of the three phases, recognizing that dynamics and outcomes will differ by phase. Exhibit 3 illustrates our belief that each potential scenario will be characterized by five outcome measures:
The economic impact of the crisis is severe. Public estimates peg the depth of macroeconomic impact of the Flatten phase at a second-quarter US GDP decline of 10% to 15%, trending down with each passing day. Employment levels have been hit worse. Approximately 22 million jobless claims were filed in the US within a four-week period between March and April—an unprecedented event. The St. Louis Federal Reserve estimates that 47 million jobs are at risk. We have seen similar economic effects in China and Europe during the Flatten phase, albeit with less impact on employment due to region-specific labor market structures.
Because macroeconomic data is lagging, and because it is exceptionally hard to model macroeconomic outcomes due to the uncharted territory of this crisis and the resulting policy response, we have constructed our US scenarios based on microeconomic data and outcomes. We see a 15% to 30% loss of economic activity on an instantaneous basis (that is, during each week of lockdown). We constructed loss scenarios in the US ranging from 15% to 20%, 20% to 25%, and 25% to 30%. These outcomes will vary significantly both by geography and sector and should be customized based on context.
The US is currently deep within the “Flatten” phase. The good news, at least for the moment, is that stay-at-home orders and other forms of strict physical distancing are beginning to flatten the curve, with new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths showing signs of leveling off in hot spots such as New York.
The projected duration of the Flatten phase in the US is still quite uncertain, both because forecasting disease progression is difficult, and because we expect the Restart timing to vary significantly by regions within the country. For geographies that have already exited (such as Austria, Denmark, and China) or announced an exit from the Flatten phase (such as Germany), the timing appears to be correlated with a significant reduction in new cases. The observed results of exits range from three to eight weeks from the disease’s peak, and are correlated with the peak’s height and area-specific conditions.
Ultimately, the duration of the Flatten phase is a policy decision made by government and public-health officials who are primarily assessing their local epidemic status, health care system capacity, and virus-monitoring system efficacy. They will also weigh the economic ability and political will to sustain a lockdown, as well as the policy measures needed to ameliorate its impacts. Our current best-case analysis for the US suggests seven weeks of widespread lockdown, with some of the earliest lockdowns and least-affected areas starting to emerge in the second week of May.
But far worse is possible. Our current worst-case scenario involves a 13-week lockdown across many highly populated areas ending in the last week of June. This range corresponds to the observed range in the geographies that have moved from Flatten to Fight, though we expect a good deal of variation by geography. (See Exhibit 4.)
We estimate that some parts of the US might experience a full-year impact of 2% to 3% (compared to a pre-crisis baseline) for 2020. Less-fortunate areas might see as much as a 6% to 8% drop if they were severely impacted and were under lockdown for 13 weeks. Our base case is based on a 3% to 5% full-year impact resulting from the Flatten phase.
Like the Flatten phase, the Fight phase presents a range of possible scenarios on duration, depending on the pace of potential vaccine and therapeutic developments. Global research teams from the US, Europe, and China are working around the clock on vaccines and therapies. While borders are closing in response to the COVID-19 threat, the level of global scientific collaboration – also in response to the threat – has never been greater. While approximately 200 vaccine and therapeutic candidates are in the works, we believe that it will take 24 months to develop and deploy a working one (despite the proliferation, vaccines typically take five or more years to reach this stage).
Most optimistically, the greatly accelerated process of vaccine development could be completed within 12 to 18 months. We could therefore see a best-case scenario involving a 12-month exit from the Fight phase, but this is more likely to be due to a highly effective antiviral treatment that dramatically expands the capacity of health care systems to cope with COVID-19, or a similar breakthrough in the “4T Virus-Monitoring System” (testing, tracing, tracking, and technology). The least-optimistic case suggests that it will be 36 months until a vaccine can turn the tide, which would still be close to setting a world record for a vaccine at this scale.
We have seen several published scenarios that project a shorter timeline to an end of the crisis, but we remain skeptical of these models. Perhaps the most important difference is that we expect a deep and lasting economic impact for the duration of the phase, not just during the ramp-up period immediately following the Restart.
We expect a deep Fight phase because of the chance that, in some geographies, loosening of restrictions will result in new episodes of exponential growth, leading to the reinstitution of lockdowns. Some geographies could revert to the Flatten phase and once again suffer from a deep hit on economic activity. This means that the worst-case Fight phase for a given geography at any given time is similar to that of the Flatten phase, with a 15% to 30% negative impact on economic activity relative to pre-COVID-19 levels.
We do not see any scenario where economic activity returns to pre-COVID levels during the Fight phase because of its continued restrictions on physical distancing, gathering size, and travel. Moreover, following the Flatten phase, there will be a long period of time before public confidence in gatherings, workplaces, retail locations, travel, and even the safety of public spaces is restored. This lack of confidence will act as an additional drag on the economy. In our view, the range of ongoing impact is likely 5% to 10% in the best case, if the virus is fully under control, and 15% to 30% in the worst case. Most geographies will fall somewhere in between, hopefully trending toward the best case, but again, we expect substantial variation.
Since China has already entered the Fight phase, we can consider how the economic effects may play out elsewhere. (See Exhibit 5.)
The news from China outside of Hubei suggests that the Fight phase will at best entail a partial Restart of economic activity with big differences across sectors. While 98% of major industrial and agricultural operations were up and running again around four weeks after lockdown, there are other areas of the economy that have been affected differently and indicate drag: 30% reduction in property transactions, 25% of SMEs not yet operating, and 10% declines in coal consumption and traffic congestion, with the coal consumption declines appearing sustained. Unsurprisingly, some sectors have been hit very hard, with 40% declines in metro passengers, 50% drops in department store sales, and 60% to 65% declines in tourist attraction visits and restaurant and hotel sales.
We believe that many of the declines in these sectors reflect their vulnerability to physical-distancing requirements and restrictions on gathering, as well as an erosion of consumer confidence. BCG’s consumer sentiment work in China suggests a meaningful decline in confidence in public spaces, retail locations, and essentially anywhere there could be crowds. While public policies to prevent the spread of the virus remain in place, there will be a significant drag on the overall economy. Nevertheless, conditions are improving, and we need to closely monitor how China and other countries that are early in the Fight phase fare economically over time, especially if they are able to avoid renewed lockdowns.
Fully recovering economic activity will be an uphill battle for the US and Europe, much as it has been for China. The impact on individual geographies and sectors will vary, but our base case would again suggest a 5% to 20% economic impact during the Fight phase before accounting for the impact of policy actions that could be much more effective in this phase than in Flatten. We see particular risk for metropolitan geographies to re-enter the Flatten phase at different times during the Fight phase because they are unable to control local outbreaks.
While these figures may seem pessimistic, we think the risk of returning to the Flatten phase is material for some geographies. An examination of the US economy by sector helps categorize the vulnerabilities by dimension. (See Exhibit 6.)
In terms of employment, non-food retail, bars, restaurants, and travel and tourism make up 18% of the US economy—all sectors that involve high levels of interpersonal contact, and ones that will suffer the most from restrictive physical distancing. There’s a slightly less drastic hit to revenue, as these businesses constitute 11% of the nation’s business total. Even in the base case, a sizable portion of the economy will be restricted for much of the Fight phase. Of course, these sectors are not the only ones that will bear the brunt of economic turmoil. Consumer durables, construction, manufacturing, and other related industries will suffer these, and additional second-order effects, as employment continues to drop. Consumer confidence is down across the board, and high unemployment and restricted business activity may result in a sharp contraction of spending. Policy levers will be the best bet to avoid outcomes at the lower end of the projected range.
Now for some partially good news. We expect a full recovery.
But even a full recovery is unlikely to look like the pre-COVID economy. We expect dramatic changes in domains, ranging from trading to supply chains, and from business operations to consumer habits and preferences.
Already, people and organizations alike are adopting new behaviors. There has been a massive shift to remote work—and to a new kind of work-life balance as work and family mix. Businesses are investing to make remote work more efficient and sustainable. Consumers across demographics are purchasing dramatically more goods online, and companies have built delivery services to meet the demand. Students facing school and university shutdowns have shifted to e-learning, supported by governments providing tablets and videoconferencing systems to make it more accessible.
It’s entirely likely that some of those shifts in behavior will be permanent, leading to larger-scale transformations. We can anticipate, for example, that the widespread adoption of virtual work will change the face of commercial travel, with impact on flying and lodging. At-home consumption of goods and services will lead to structural changes in e-commerce, grocery shopping, and entertainment. And virtual access to critical services will create new ways of delivering health care and education.
Looking beyond these changes to second-order effects, we see substantial uncertainty. How will consumer preferences and consumption habits change further? What will trade, travel, and capital flow look like? How will the roles of governments and corporations be reshaped? New levels of scenario planning will be necessary to address these far-reaching questions.
When scenario planning, it is necessary to understand which parameters have the most potential to shift results and what game-changers could lead to different outcomes. Given the timing, we think that the most meaningful potential shifts would take place during the Fight phase. We are monitoring three potential game-changing innovations:
The post-COVID world will not look like the one we’ve left behind. It will come with its own unique set of obstacles and opportunities.
The road ahead will be challenging, but we know that companies can gain the greatest advantage and market share during adversity. To get ahead, leaders need to be clear-eyed about their organization’s situation, and act accordingly. By accepting and preparing for this reality, business leaders can stay on top of the unpredictable situation and lay the groundwork for survival and eventual success in the Future phase. Business leaders should do scenario planning for their sectors, geographies, and organizations:
We've studied what the best of the global S&P Global 1200 companies did to come out of the Great Recession (2007 to 2009) and found that five factors that stood out, and that we think are relevant today:
While we believe there is substantial time until the final phase arrives, it is not too early to begin thinking about potential sources of advantage we can build during the Fight that will help us in the Future. Consider your company’s position. Is it stressed, impacted, or among the lucky few that have been accelerated? Are there assets to buy, contracts to execute, or supplies to secure that are priced attractively now and can render advantage later? What are the product and service innovations that you can pursue and perfect? Ensure that what you are doing today will bring about the end of the crisis tomorrow. How must you transform your business to win the Fight—and win the Future?
ABOUT BOSTON CONSULTING GROUP
Boston Consulting Group partners with leaders in business and society to tackle their most important challenges and capture their greatest opportunities. BCG was the pioneer in business strategy when it was founded in 1963. Today, we work closely with clients to embrace a transformational approach aimed at benefiting all stakeholders—empowering organizations to grow, build sustainable competitive advantage, and drive positive societal impact.
Our diverse, global teams bring deep industry and functional expertise and a range of perspectives that question the status quo and spark change. BCG delivers solutions through leading-edge management consulting, technology and design, and corporate and digital ventures. We work in a uniquely collaborative model across the firm and throughout all levels of the client organization, fueled by the goal of helping our clients thrive and enabling them to make the world a better place.
© Boston Consulting Group 2023. All rights reserved.
For information or permission to reprint, please contact BCG at email@example.com. To find the latest BCG content and register to receive e-alerts on this topic or others, please visit bcg.com. Follow Boston Consulting Group on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter).