Working Paper Revision

What Happened to the US Economy During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic? A View Through High-Frequency Data

Abstract: Burns and Mitchell (1946, 109) found a recession of “exceptional brevity and moderate amplitude.” I confirm their judgment by examining a variety of high-frequency, aggregate and cross-sectional data. Industrial output fell sharply but rebounded within months. Retail seemed little affected and there is no evidence of increased business failures or stressed financial system. Cross-sectional data on manufacturing employment indicates that most of the recession, brief as it was, was due to the Armistice rather than the epidemic. Data from the nationwide coal industry documents the sharp but short-lived impact of the epidemic on labor supply and the lack of spill-overs on demand. City-level economic indicators show that the (brief) interventions to hinder the contagion reduced mortality at little economic cost because reduced infections mitigated the impact on the labor force.

Keywords: 1918 influenza epidemic; US economy; business cycles; recession; non-pharmaceutical interventions;

JEL Classification: E32; H12; I18; I19;

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Bibliographic Information

Provider: Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

Part of Series: Working Paper Series

Publication Date: 2020-07-07

Number: WP-2020-11

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