Wine, Covid-19, and the Zero-Sum Dilemma

Last week’s Wine Economist column presented a “Guide for the Overwhelmed” that analyzed the current crisis in terms of its perfect storm of component parts. This week begins a short series of articles that try to put the pieces back together in order to better see the outlines of the future of global wine in the post-Covid era.

Zero Sum Economics

MIT economist Lester Thurow’s 1980 book on The Zero-Sum Society argued that America and the world had reached a turning point. An era of growth, where an expanding social and economic pie made it possible for many to gain without corresponding losses for others, was coming to an end, Thurow argued. This change in the economic environment would have broad and lasting consequences.

Example? Under the right circumstances (which can be tricky), open trade is a recipe for positive-sum growth while protectionist trade wars are zero-sum at best and negative-sum at worst. The 1980s proved to be a fertile decade for trade barriers, competitive currency devaluations, and other protectionist policies.

What caused the sudden shift from positive-sum growth with rising overall living standards to zero-sum stagnation? It was complicated, of course. But the 1980 answer in a single word was oil or rather the oil crises of the 1970s and the higher costs and restricted supplies that resulted.

The world, it seems, had organized itself around the assumption of cheap, plentiful petroleum. Scarcity and higher costs shocked the system in ways that few even imagined and helped set the stage for a generation of stalled living standards and frustrated expectations.

The focus of the zero-sum society, Thurow argued, would shift from equity and growth to distribution and conflict. Everyone would struggle for an increased share of the stagnant or shrinking pie and some would succeed better than others, increasing inequality. I recall that Thurow grew up in Montana and he must have imagined his Big Sky world of open opportunity closing down around him.

Covid Crisis / Oil Crisis

It is easy to see in retrospect that the 21st century B.C. (Before Covid) world was organized around the assumption that people could safely gather together and cheaply move about. Spending on travel and tourism, for example, increased dramatically as a proportion of total expenditure in the past two decades. Wine tourism and cellar door sales were important sources of growth in our industry. The post-Covid world will be different indeed, although just how different and for how long remains to be determined.

Is it reasonable to compare the Covid-19’s world economic shock with the oil crisis of the 1970s and its aftermath? Everyone knows the oil crisis was a game changer. The Covid crisis is different in many ways, so it is not a simple apples-to-apples comparison. From a macroeconomic standpoint, the oil shock was a supply-side event that produced stagflation. The Covid shock is more of a demand side disruption that risks a deflationary cycle. It is obviously too soon to know what the final picture will look like, but I would argue that Covid could prove in the end to be the bigger crisis in the long term.

The New Zero-Sum

Even if you accept that the Covid crisis shock is as serious now as the oil crisis shock was in its today, you might still disagree with the idea that the new world that it is creating will be more zero-sum than in the past, with a greater focus on how the pie is divided than in its growth. Why is the future likely to be a zero-sum environment?

One argument is that many parts of the economy are already zero-sum and that Covid simply magnifies and accelerates existing trends.  The recovery from the initial Covid recession in the U.S., for example, wasn’t the V-shape that many hoped for but more of a K-shape. Some parts of the economy (especially the financial sector) recovered very quickly. Other sectors continue to struggle, a situation made worse by the lack sustained economic stimulus. The rising tide did not lift all boats and the financial pages are full of multi-billion dollar M&A deals as businesses bulk up to grab market share.

If you saw the strong Q3 U.S. GDP figures that were released last week, you might think that the economy has rebounded and will resume previous growth quickly. But those numbers are the result of literally trillions of dollars of stimulus (and debt), which are unlikely to be sustained. And they don’t take into account the Covid second wave tsunami, which seems to be sweeping across the globe.

The second argument for stagnant economic growth can be found in the financial news, where the yield curve hugs the zero axis for at least a five year time-frame and monetary policymakers have pledged their support for the foreseeable future even if fiscal actors hesitate to renew stimulus measures. The overall economy is on life support and monetary authorities who lack the power to shock it back into life are determined to at least prevent flat-lining.

The likely result, according to the most recent Q4 2020 global forecast by the Economic Intelligence Unit, is the “zombification” of the global economy characterized by slow growth, low inflation, and high levels of debt. Does this sound like a zero-sum environment?

Wine and the Zero-Sum Economy

It goes without saying that the economic environment I’ve just described is not favorable to the growth of the global wine industry. This is especially true because of the importance of on-premise wine sales, which are most directly affected by the Covid pandemic.

Is the global wine market now zero-sum? And what are the implications if it is? Come back next week for thoughts and speculations.

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