How Covid-19 is impacting the flow of people, information, goods, and money

An interesting thing occurred starting on May 8th on Google Trends: US search interest in the term “reopening” (which has spiked rapidly since early April) finally exceeded the interest level of the term “covid-19” (which has been steadily falling over that same time). “Reopening” would go onto outpace “covid-19” throughout the rest of May, one of the many signs pointing to the shift in national attention. The US is going from asking “what is Covid-19?” to asking “what happens after Covid-19?.

It’s been just over 2 months since the Covid-19 pandemic made landfall in the US in early March and altered every aspect of daily life. From personal to professional, from municipal to national, Covid-19 has disrupted something at the very core of our economy, our communities, our very society: flow.

Circular Flow

My good friend Dr. Hsiao-Wuen Hon is a brilliant researcher who explained to me that in economics, there is a concept called circular flow used to model how goods and services move between different agents (or decision makers) in a closed system. For example, circular flow can model how the ownership of products moves between sellers and buyers in a commerce market, or model income moving between households, business, and governments in an economy.

Example circular flow of income in an economy

The key to circular flow is the movement itself. Without movement, the agents can’t interact with one another. Without flow, the system or economy stagnates and breaks down. And that’s exactly what Covid-19 is doing to our communities, our economy, and our society. It’s disrupting flow.

Dr. Hon then observed that like all complex systems, the US economy also depends on movement or flow to function, specifically the circular flow of four large categories: people, goods, information, and money. Almost all business activity can be grouped into one of these four categories:

  • Flow of people: travel, airlines, hotels, tourism, concerts, events, live shows, gyms, salons, amusement parks, etc.
  • Flow of information: calls, text, communication, news, media, entertainment, documents, data, etc.
  • Flow of goods: shopping, apparel, retail, electronics, manufacturing, groceries, food, farming, etc.
  • Flow of money: lending, trading, wires, investments, stocks, bonds, and payments, etc.

Our economy fundamentally needs movement and flow to function. Unfortunately so does the Covid-19 virus. Whether it’s shelter in place or social distancing or work from home, the goal is one and the same: disrupt the circular flow of Covid-19. But that also has the unintended consequence of disrupting the circular flow of people, goods, information, and money that fuels all business sectors and industries.

To limit the spread of Covid-19, we are slowing movement across our entire economy on an unprecedented scale. So what happens when sheltering restrictions begin to lift, when the US starts reopening, when we try to restore circular flow?

Restoring the flow of people

“Until you have a vaccine, you’re going to have this reluctance for people to return to what we all called normal behavior and normal spending habits”

James Knightley, ING

The change in the circular flow of people has been the most obvious: hundreds of million of Americans effectively stopped moving as shelter in place laws swept across the country over the past two months. The impact was immediately felt by the many economies that are built off the flow of people: US restaurant spend is down 45%, hotel occupancy is down 58%, air travel is down 95%, and overall travel spend is down a staggering 99% YoY.

Early indications are that the circular flow of people will remain restricted even as shelter in place restrictions are lifted. In a recent survey, 39% of Americans said they would be unwilling to fly anytime in the next 6 months even after the government declares it is safe to do so. To understand how steep of a drop in business that represents, consider that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, air travel had a peak reduction of 31%. So 6 months into the Covid-19 recovery, the US airline industry will still have less travel interest than at the worst point of the 9/11 aftermath.

PREDICTION: Just like the current slow flow of people, the recovery too is slow moving and may require a Covid-19 vaccine widely available before it is restored. Even then, the flow will look far different. For example, business travel is unlikely to ever return to its former levels as remote work becomes widespread. Concerts, live shows, and events will also likely be forever changed due to new occupancy rules. The flow of people (and the businesses that flow impacts) has a long and difficult road ahead.

Restoring the flow of information

“We are witnessing what will surely be remembered as a historic deployment of remote work and digital access to services across every domain”

McKinsey report

Covid-19 restrictions have only accelerated the flow of information, particularly digital information. The best example of this is the meteoric rise of Zoom video conference, which I wrote about previously. Driven by the need to share information during the pandemic, Zoom spent a record 68 consecutive days as the #1 mobile app on the App Store charts. Other communication services are also seeing wild growth: Microsoft Teams users have increased 135% since March, Google Meet usage is up 30x since the beginning of the year, and social chat app Houseparty’s recent spike in usage has been 70x over normal.

Install growth of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, and Houseparty

There’s a similar trend beyond communication services. Netflix doubled their projected new paid subscribers in Q1, Twitch saw its total live hours grow 100% YoY in April, a 100% increase YoY, and Teladoc had a similar 92% YoY growth in its number of patient health visits. What’s the common fuel behind all of these fast growing services? The flow of digital information. Communication is information, but at its core media and entertainment is also information, as is health consultation.

PREDICTION: Any service that at its core can be recast or recompiled as digital information flowing from one agent to another will thrive in Covid-19. And the number of services this includes — whether it’s a Peloton instructor leading a virtual workout, or an Outschool teacher instructing a video class — will only continue to grow.

Restoring the flow of goods

“It takes 2,500 components to make a car, but just one component to not make a car”

Madhur Jha, Standard Chartered

The flow of goods was put to the test by massive consumer purchasing changes as people suddenly spent all their time at home. The US subsequently had shortages of hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, facemasks, toilet paper, spiral ham, baking flour, hair dye, and jigsaw puzzles. While our supply chains bent mightily, they did not break. People could still bake artisan bread in their kitchens and enjoy two-ply in their bathrooms afterwards. And now grocery shelves are full, online inventory is in stock, and delivery times are reliable again, as if everything is entirely back to normal. As if Covid-19 didn’t change the flow of goods. But something did change.

For decades now, the flow of goods has grown more distributed with offshore supply chains, contract manufacturing, and zero inventory / just-in-time production, all in the pursuit of greater efficiency. But the downside to this extreme level of specialization is the dependencies it creates and how vulnerable that dependency makes the entire flow of goods. China accounts for 35% of global manufacturing so their initial Covid-19 shutdown immediately created production shortfalls in entire sectors like consumer electronics, precision instruments, and even personal protective equipment.

But it’s not just globalization that’s at risk. Even domestic goods have been painfully disrupted, like the vast US food waste that Covid-19 has caused. Meat processing plant closures have led to millions of livestock being euthanized as farms have no way to process their own meat. Restaurant closures have led to millions of gallons of milk being thrown away as distributors can’t reroute the product to consumers instead. When no one manages all parts of the supply chain, a disruption at any point, domestic or international, can derail the entire flow of goods.

PREDICTION: Covid-19 is showing us the limits to distributing and globalizing manufacturing and supply chains. The relentless pursuit of greater efficiency and lower cost in the flow of goods can create vulnerabilities that make goods ultimately less efficient and more expensive. In response, businesses and governments alike will have to take back more control of their flow of goods and choose to manufacture locally or in house and hold greater inventory stores even if it means higher costs.

Restoring the flow of money

“How do we pay for it? We print the damn money.”

Paul McCulley, Pimco

In the US, the current Covid-19 crisis often gets compared to the 2008 financial crisis, given both calamities resulted in huge drops in the stock market, spikes in unemployment, and uncertainty about how the economy would recover. But that’s where the similarities end. During the 2008 financial crisis, the flow of people, information, and goods were unaffected. The impact was entirely to the flow of money, which the 2008 financial crisis ground to a halt.

To help visualize what the 2008 financial crisis did to the flow of money, the US Department of Treasury mapped how lending standards changed from 2006 to 2011 for various types of loans (commercial lending, mortgages, and credit cards). At the end of 2008 as the financial crisis was in high gear, nearly 80% of banks made loans harder to get and choked the flow of money.

Conversely for Covid-19, the flow of money has been accelerated. Driven by an unprecedented $2 trillion dollar stimulus package from the US government, all major forms of lending volume are up since the Covid-19 crisis began, with commercial lending increasing the most at over 20% from March to April.

PREDICTION: There’s a second $3 trillion dollar stimulus proposal in the works now. Deploying these funds isn’t a simple matter and has required the IRS to start updating their technology and partner with fintech pioneers like PayPal and Square. Consumer desire for contactless payments is also accelerating the adoption of digital wallets. So while people may not be able to move in Covid-19 times, the flow of money will driven both by huge government stimulus as well as new technology solutions.

One more flow

Also on May 8th, when “reopening” first surpassed “covid-19” on Google Trends, another US search term inflected: “covid donate”. As the US began to think about reopening the country, people also began searching more for ways to support Covid-19 relief efforts.

Even Covid-19 can’t stop generosity from flowing.

Leading Commerce Incubations at $FB. Was co-founder at Packagd (acq.), GP at Kleiner Perkins, and writing messy code at Hulu, Flipboard, Erly (acq.), and $MSFT.