2021 Wine Scenarios: Good, Bad, or Ugly?

What will the wine world look like a year from now?  Will our assessment of 2021 be good, bad, or ugly? Last week’s Wine Economist column briefly explored a “Roaring Twenties” scenario that is making the rounds both for wine and for the economy generally.

The Roaring Twenties theory holds that the pandemic has created pent-up demand for all the things that we’ve had to sacrifice in the last year but that will soon become available again. Parties and celebrations. Gatherings in bars and restaurants. Travel and tourism. They won’t all necessarily come roaring back at once, but the rebound will be substantial and be fueled by a corresponding rebound in economic activity.

The Roaring Twenties scenario is what I call a “ceteris paribus” (holding all else constant) theory. That is, it assumes that pretty much everything remains the same except that the covid vaccine lets people come out and play. With interest rates pegged near zero, fiscal stimulus doubling-down, and financial markets soaring, the good times will surely roll, or at least that’s what some hope and others firmly believe.

The Wheel’s Still in Spin

But it is important to keep in mind that a lot of positive events have to line up all at once for this to happen. I was reminded of this by the cover of The Economist newspaper’s The World in 2021 issue, which features a casino slot machine device (and not a crystal ball) as its symbol. The future isn’t written and waiting to be perceived is the message here. There is a lot of risk and uncertainty ahead.

The future, whatever it turns out to be, won’t be just one thing. It will be the combination of what happens on the politics wheel, the economics wheel, the public health wheel, the environment wheel, and so on. Our experience in 2020 shows that these wheels can sometimes align in terrible ways — think pandemic, recession, wildfires, and social and political unrest. There is even the chance of problems in one area cascading through the system in a vicious cycle.

We might feel we deserve the happy flip-side of things in 2021, but the odds of a golden Goldilocks outcome are longer than we’d like. We should  anticipate problems as well as potential good times. Not trying to be unnecessarily gloomy — just realistic.

To simplify, let’s imagine that 2021 depends on four variables or spinning wheels: public health, economy, politics, and the possibility of “black swan” wild card events Clearly there are many different possibilities for public health.  The hope for very fast roll out of vaccines is no longer realistic, although there is a sense that officials are learning quickly about troublesome bottlenecks. Fingers crossed …

Attention is focused on vaccines, but the virus surge continues in many regions with record case counts and deaths. It isn’t clear how quickly vaccination can overcome community spread and whether this third infection round is the last or will be followed by more surges or echoes of this one into the future.

Spinning the Economic Wheel

Clearly a lot is riding on where the public health wheel settles, especially for the travel and hospitality sectors, which are economically important both in general and for the wine industry. Then there is the economy wheel. to consider.

The relatively strong economic recovery in the United States is built on heroic levels of government support, which will end at some point, but when? Will monetary authorities hold their nerve and keep the spigots open as the economy begins to open? Will fiscal stimulus continue to preserve incomes and employment? What about the high levels of debt that corporations and governments have taken on?

This will depend to a certain extent on politics. Each of the major economies is currently experiencing its own unique brand of political instability or crisis. It is easy to imagine scenarios where political crisis in one country creates contagious economic or social problems elsewhere. Here in the United States there is widespread disagreement about what a good political result would look like. Many observers, for example, were happy when it looked like Republicans would control the Senate and gridlock would prevail. Gridlock, to this way of thinking, would mean that only the most moderate policy actions would prevail.

The Curse of the Black Swan

Now, with Democrats in the White House and majorities in the House and Senate, more aggressive policies are possible, at least in theory. Is this good or bad? Opinions vary according to political persuasion and the particular programs considered. So you can see that ceteris is unlikely to be paribus in 2021. And that doesn’t take into account any “black swan” wild cards that might be on the deck.

A Black Swan event is something with very low (but not zero) probability, but very high impact. The covid pandemic of 2020 is a good example of a Black Swan event. The possibility of a global pandemic, originating in Asia and spreading through international travel vectors has been known for some time. Indeed several of my university students studied the situation in the aftermath of earlier Asian pandemics and a number of government- and non-government agencies worked on detailed response plans.

It seemed pretty clear that there would be a problem eventually, but the particular path and specific consequences were not clear. Looking back it appears that countries that had previously experienced such a pandemic took the possibility more seriously and acted more decisively than others did. In any case, the low-probability event happened and the cost has been very high.

Black Swan Inflation

Inflation is the Black Swan event I most worry about for 2021. (Although I am not sure which kind of inflation — see Neil Irwin’s recent New York Times column.)  Most economists acknowledge that there is a chance of an inflation spike is 2021 or 2022, but most assign a very low probability to the threat. Nothing to worry about. And probably they are right. However …

Literally trillions of dollars (and other currencies) have been pumped into the global economy recently and so far inflation in general has remained very low  Governments and businesses have borrowed enormous sums at the resulting low or even negative interest rates. A resurgence of inflation would push interest rates higher and alter dramatically the economic landscape.

In a way, an inflationary surge would make the covid pandemic crisis a bit like the oil crisis of the 1970s. The initial impact of the oil crisis was harshly disruptive, but the long term effects, including both high inflation and the draconian policies needed to contain it, were challenging, too, and cast a long shadow over global events.

Good, Bad, or Ugly?

So you can see that the Roaring Twenties is just one of many possible economic scenarios and, even if it comes to pass as many hope, there are still many possible pathways and denouements. Good, bad, or ugly? Too soon to tell.

I know that some people believe that wine is immune to economic cycles, but wine businesses are businesses with debts, interest payments, counter-party risks, and so on. What happens to the economy happens to all of us in one way or another and it is wise to think about the possibilities.

Times are changing and perhaps that’s as much as we can confidently predict. This kind reminds me of an old Bob Dylan song. Listen up!

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