World Cup fever is gripping those parts of the globe that have made a religion out of kicking round balls into square nets. But one group is watching the tournament from its own, very particular perspective. For economists, this is about more than on-the-pitch fireworks or even national pride. The question – admittedly asked with tongues firmly in cheeks – is how will it all affect the global economy?
Football provides a perfect opportunity for proponents of the dismal science to shed their glum reputation and indulge in some light-hearted research. “Is there any link between football and economics, or are we just finding excuses to have some fun?” muses an impressively self-aware Jim O’Neill, head of global economic research at Goldman Sachs, in the introduction to the investment bank’s 60-page report on the economics of the World Cup.
“We are convinced that soccer has an impact on the economy and therefore justifies some research effort,” insist Ruben van Leeuwen and Charles Kalshoven, authors of Soccernomics, published by the economics team at ABN Amro, the Netherlands-based bank.
Their research concludes that a World Cup-winning nation enjoys 0.7 per cent additional economic growth compared to the previous year, as well as a boost to its stock market. This leads ABN Amro to punt Italy as its “favourite” – that is, the country whose victory would most benefit the world economy.
ABN Amro takes as its starting point the threat posed by global trade imbalances. “From the perspective of the need for balanced world economic growth, a European country should win the World Cup,” says ABN Amro. “A US victory would further skew the imbalance and an Asian victory could lead to an overheating of the region’s already booming economies.” A South American victory would not be bad for the world economy – but would not help it much either.
Of the five large European countries in the tournament, the two weakest economic performers in recent years have been Germany and Italy. So ABN Amro’s dream final would be between these two nations, with Italy as the winner because of its poorer record. Germany, in any case, enjoys a home advantage as tournament hosts, argues the bank.
That dream scenario – a Germany versus Italy final – actually came to pass in 1982. Unfortunately for the ABN Amro theorists, Italy did not appear to reap any direct economic benefit that year, remaining mired in recession. In 1983, however, economic growth accelerated, so perhaps the influence of footballing success should not be discounted.
The World Cup has an impact on the economy in two main ways: one a blow, the other a boon. The setback is to productivity as employees call in sick or sneak off work early to watch games. But additional consumption provides a boost. The feelgood factor, especially in countries that progress to the semi-finals, leads to happier consumers – and contented shoppers tend to spend more.
The London-based Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that the World Cup will boost the economies of participating nations by a net £13bn ($25m, €19m). It reckons that Europe will reap £11.3bn of this because of increased consumer spending, especially in Germany.
But it thinks that economic growth in football-mad South America will suffer because the damage to productivity caused by absenteeism will outweigh the benefits from additional consumption. South America is disadvantaged by its time zone as most of its teams’ matches will take place during the working day. In Europe, kick-off will usually be in the late afternoon.
Among economists in general, the odds-on favourite is Germany. As host country, Germany will reap a variety of benefits, including increased capital spending on its stadiums and transport infrastructure, more tourists and more employment. The German Chamber of Commerce expects the World Cup to create 60,000 jobs and boost national income by 0.3 per cent.
Even economists, however, are more excited by the football than the numbers, which they acknowledge are comparatively small.
Mervyn King, Bank of England governor, recently pointed out that the main effect of the World Cup will be on the timing and pattern of consumer spending and not on its long-term level. In other words, any boost is likely to be short-lived, as people bring forward spending from later in the year or decide to spend less on other things to compensate.
For example, in the 1998 World Cup, hosted and won by France, domestic consumer spending rose sharply in the run-up to the tournament, only to drop back by 0.8 per cent during the games before eventually recovering.
Because spending patterns will be distorted, economic trends may be harder to read this year. Lucy Hartiss of Capital Economics, a London-based consultancy, thinks the indirect effects of the World Cup are likely to have a much more significant and lasting influence on the German economy than the direct effects of tourism and consumer and capital spending.
“Hosting a major sporting event raises the profile, status and reputation of the host nation, providing a lasting boost to tourism and business investment,” she says. “More immediately, it is possible the World Cup will provide a timely boost to German consumer confidence at a crucial stage of the economic recovery.”
But economists have an apt alibi if their predictions are not fulfilled. Football, as its commentators like to remind us, is an ever-unpredictable “game of two halves” – an ideal fallback position should their spreadsheets end up bearing little relation to the final outcome.
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