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“Potential Capital,” Working From Home, and Economic Resilience (WP-21-48)

Janice Eberly, Jonathan Haskel, and Paul Mizen

The impact of an economic shock depends both on its severity and the resilience of the economic response. Resilience can include the ability to relocate factors, for example, even when new technologies or skills are not yet at the ready. This resilience per se buffers production and has an economic value, which the researchers estimate. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a widespread decline in recorded gross domestic product (GDP). Yet as catastrophic as the collapse was, it was buffered by an unprecedented and spontaneous deployment of what the authors call “Potential Capital,” the dwelling/residential capital and connective technologies used alongside working from home. Together potential capital and labor working from home provided additional output margins and capacity. The researchers estimate the contribution of this capital, and the remote work that it facilitated, to have roughly halved the decline in GDP in the U.S., reducing the fall in GDP to 9.4 log points in the second quarter of 2020 at the trough of the recession. Similar effects are seen in the six OECD countries for which data are available; output fell by 14 log points, but would have fallen by 26 log points had only workplace inputs been available. Accounting for the contribution of “Potential Capital” also revises downwards estimated total productivity gains in the business sector during the pandemic from 8 log points to 5 log points in the second quarter of 2020. The authors also find an output elasticity of domestic non-dwellings capital to be similar to that of workplace ICT capital, reflecting its role as productive capital. Turning to the future, changes in working from home depend upon relative costs, relative technologies and, crucially, the elasticity of substitution between home and work tasks. Eberly, Haskel, and Mizen estimate that elasticity to be more than unity, meaning that the growth of ICT will raise the share of work done remotely.

Janice Eberly, James R. and Helen D. Russell Professor of Finance and IPR Associate, Northwestern University

Jonathan Haskel, Professor of Economics, Imperial College London

Paul Mizen, Professor of Monetary Economics, University of Nottingham

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