Bangladesh Economy at the Confluence of the Global Pandemic

The Corona Virus pandemic has been a ‘black swan’ event, particularly due to the extent and breadth of its impact. Starting in Wuhan, China, almost three months back, the virus has rapidly spread across the world in 180 plus countries infecting 351,198 and causing 13,361 deaths (as of 23rd March). The contagion effect of Covid-19 epidemic might not only bring about a health crisis, but will cause a full blown global economic crisis.

Bangladesh, till date, has remained immune from the onslaught of the Covid-19 epidemic. But reported cases are increasing steady (three deaths), mostly infected by inbound migrants. In the upcoming weeks, community level transmission might lead to manifold increase in the number of the infected. Government is trying to curtain the movement of people across the country, fearing that the pandemic might spread in remote regions with inadequate health facilities.

As an export driven economy, spearheaded by apparel export and remittances, the country has already started feeling the heat. The domestic demand is stuttering, and local companies are experiencing supply chain disruptions, as most industries are dependent on Chinese raw materials. ADB has predicted Bangladesh to lose 1.1% of GDP (USD 3 billion) in 2020 due to the fallout of the coronavirus.

  • The RMG sector has been suffering for the last couple of months due to supply chain disruptions. This coupled with the spread of Covid-19 pandemic in Europe and US, two major apparel markets contributing to 65% of Bangladesh’s apparel export, has further compounded the problem. The BGMEA President has claimed that global brands have already cancelled USD 1.1bn worth of orders, till date, and the association is fearing that this trend might proliferate in the coming days. In the event of large scale order cancellation, significant number of apparel workers might become redundant, while apparel companies might fail to payback bank loans. In the worst case scenario, the value of cancelled orders might quadruple to USD 4 billion.
  • Majority of the migrant workers in the Middle-East and Europe are engaged in the informal sector and are usually fall under the un-skilled category. Many of these workers might experience a prolonged period of loss in wages, while some might even lose their jobs. This would result in a steep decline in incoming remittances in 2020 and beyond. Declining oil price might also dampen the economies of the GCC countries, where more than 70% of Bangladeshi migrant workers are currently employed. Global recession coupled with the tussle between Saudi Arabia and Russia on oil production might further depress oil prices and lower future remittances.
  • A partial lockdown of the country and declining exports might result in job losses in the formal and informal sectors. According to BBS statistics, almost 80% of the working population is engaged in the informal sector. Many can’t afford to stay at home due to inadequate financial cushion. There might be large scale redundancies in the manufacturing and service sectors in the coming days, especially in apparel, leather and the jute sectors, which are mostly export dependent.
  • The financial system might suffer a major jolt due to the impending financial crisis. Many companies would fail to repay their loans, which would result in higher NPLs and would contribute to a liquidity crisis. SMEs would be the hardest hit as they would be suffering from declining sales and cash flow mismatch. It would be imperative to maintain the credit line for SMEs, which would help preserve jobs across the economy.

Government’s primary goal would be to ensure the survival of the low income population, while propping up major export earners like the apparel and leather sectors. Given the already heavy budget deficit (close to 5% of GDP) and revenue shortfalls, Government might be unable to undertake a massive spending spree. However, policymakers need to take into cognizance the enormity of the upcoming challenge by instituting direct or indirect cash transfer schemes for the low income population. Alongside, GOB would have to engage in government to government dialogues with apparel exporting countries, in an effort to protect the interest of the apparel sector. In the medium term, policy makers have to undertake a stimulus package by increasing fiscal spending and undertaking an expansionary monetary policies. Policy makers should also consider depreciating the domestic currency to help regain some lost cost competitiveness for the exporters.

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