The Coronavirus has been wrecking the US and global economies. While focus has been on addressing the biological devastation wrought by the virus, the economic devastation keeps growing.
Failure to properly address the deepening economic impact of the coronavirus has been no less shocking to date than the obvious failure of politicians and policymakers to get a handle on the medical-human impact of the virus.
Trump had called the virus a ‘hoax’, said it would be over by April, declared publicly there were millions of test kits being used when there weren’t, and blamed first the Chinese then the Europeans for the obvious spread of the virus, and rising death toll, in the US.
His answer thus far to the spreading and deepening economic impact of the disease has been to demand US Federal Reserve bank chair, Jay Powell, to drop interest rates further plus advocate a payroll tax cut across the board—the latter a measure that economists almost unanimously say will have no stimulus effect on the economy. Even his own advisers, Steve Mnuchin & Larry Kudlow, reportedly have advised against the payroll tax cut.
The payroll tax cut was first enacted under Obama to try to stimulate consumption in the wake of the last 2008 economic crash. It is generally acknowledged not to have had much, if any, effect on economic recovery.
How the Virus is Crushing the Economy
There are at least four major ‘channels of contagion’ by which the virus is driving the contraction of the US, and global economy:
- Global Supply Chain Disruption
This was the easiest to see. Intermediate and final goods exported from China to the US were halted in many industries. US production began to cut back on final goods delivery in the US economy, already affected by Trump’s trade war with China during 2018-19. Not only goods from China to US directly. But supply chains in which Japan and So. Korea goods, made in China and delivered to those countries, would otherwise be shipped to the US. Or goods shipped to Mexico and then exported as final goods to the US. Or from Asia to Europe, and then to the US. The net effect was a significant drop in US production and therefore sales and the output of the US economy in general. But that channel of contagion is now being dwarfed by another.
- Collapsing US Consumer Demand
We can see this now spreading and deepening rapidly throughout the US economy. First demand for travel related spending: airlines, cruise & shipping, hotels & leisure, entertainment, etc. were initially impacted. But that’s been spreading to other industries as rapidly as the virus itself. Personal services of all kind are coming to a halt, except for healthcare. Restaurants and bars are shutting down. Education is being driven to an online underground. Malls and stores are virtually deserted. Social entertainment, including sports, is suspended everywhere. Even grocery stores are experiencing empty shelves, and consumption in basic necessities will soon fall off. Then there’s online purchasing, now developing huge backlog and delivery problems.
The consumption sector is coming to a halt in industry after industry, and it’s not over yet. Social distancing required by the virus to slow its spread is, conversely accelerating the spread of the economic impact. Consumption was the only sector of the US economy in late 2019 holding it up. And it was slowing in that regard as well by year end. Now it is collapsing. Nearly 70% of the US GDP and economy, it is now joining the contraction in business investment and trade that was occurring throughout 2019.
The recession is here, as of March 2020, folks. The only real question now is how deep will it go and how long will it last! And that question depends, in turn, on how quickly and seriously will US politicians respond. And the actions thus far do not portend well for a prompt ‘v-shape’ recovery.
But there is yet a third & fourth channels of economic contagion emerging that may dwarf the effect of the supply chain disruption and household consumer demand collapse. It is the condition of the financial system itself.
3.& 4. Financial Markets Deflation & Default
Globally and in the US financial markets are churning and fracturing, with a net effect already of having deflated by more than 20% and in some cases 30% or more. Not just stock markets. But oil and commodity futures markets. Foreign exchange currency markets. Corporate bond markets, which are far more important to capitalist economies than stock markets, are showing signs of great stress, to put it mildly. Especially unstable are markets for what’s called junk bonds (especially in oil fracking, retail, and travel & leisure). And what’s called ‘junk loans’—i.e. leveraged loans. In the US the total at risk is a combined more than $7 trillion. Add to that the fact that banks globally are sitting on $10 trillion in non-performing loans. Should prices collapse further, widespread defaults on paying principal & interest on debt will take place. That will result in mass layoffs once again, as in 2008-09; a further collapse of business investment; and a yet further acceleration of contraction of the real economy.
It’s not coincidental that the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, last week pumped an extra $1.5 trillion into the banks via what’s called the Repo market, plus more through traditional bond channels, and is planning in a couple days this coming week to drop interest rates to near zero and re-institute special funding once again, as in 2008, to bail out mutual funds and other ‘shadow’ (i.e. unregulated) banks. Why? Because liquidity is rapidly drying up throughout the economy as businesses drawn down their bank credit lines to zero as well, in order to hoard cash to weather out the storm of consumption and production collapse on the horizon.
The financial markets collapse, the 3rd channel, may prove to have the greatest devastation on the now already recession hitting the US economy. What began as supply chain and household demand problems will be greatly exacerbated by the financial instability.
Is Trump and the politicians preparing for this economic contingency? No, not at all. Here’s what Trump and even the Democrat leadership (Pelosi-Shumer) are proposing:
Trump’s Failed Economic Stimulus ‘Program’
In the middle of last week Trump addressed the nation on TV and proposed the weakest possible response. It was so weak even investors reacted with a 2,200 point fall in the stock market. There were basically three things Trump proposed:
First, a $50 billion increase in the small business administration loan fund. A hint of some kind of tax deferral extending the normal IRS April 15 deadline. And, third, a payroll tax cut costing the social security trust fund a hit of at least $800 billion.
He then revisited that paltry proposal on Friday, March 14. He proposed an apparent additional $50 billion for the states to spend on emergency measures to address the spreading virus. He clarified the tax deferral would be only for ‘some’, not all. He added a suspension of interest on student debt. But failed to explain if that meant a full waiver of debt for all students, or just a temporary halt to paying interest, which would nonetheless continue to accumulate and for which students would still have to pay later after the suspension was lifted.
Trump also added the proposal the US would buy more oil from US producers to fill the US strategic reserve. That was to help oil companies experiencing revenue loss from oil prices falling to the low $30s per barrel. Trump’s statements to the press indicated he still wanted the payroll tax cut, even as the Democrats were saying ‘no way’, it won’t have any effect except to further destroy social security funding.
Pelosi & Democrats’ Blocked Stimulus Program
As Trump was prevaricating and dribbling out minimalist economic responses to the cratering US economy, Pelosi and the Democrats were trying to address the real scope of the problem, even if not as broadly required as well.
Intense discussions were being held behind the scenes between Pelosi and Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin. All that came out of that negotiation by Friday, March 14, however, was an agreement to provide free testing of the virus. But how ‘free’ was defined was not all that clear. Did that mean those sick would have to pay out of pocket and then get reimbursed by the government. If so, millions will hold off getting tested. More than half US households have less than $400 for emergencies, according to the Federal Reserve’s own data research. They can’t afford to get tested.
Pelosi and the Democrats had also been proposing paid medical leave of 14 days, tax credits to small business to help pay for the leave, an increase in unemployment benefit payments in anticipation for all those, maybe not sick, who would soon be laid off or asked by their employers to stay home (on unpaid medical leave). Pelosi &company, to their credit, also refused to cut payroll taxes. They know of Trump’s leaked plans to cut social security and medicare after the November elections.
While there are some good provisions in Pelosi’s proposals, the Democrat economic stimulus doesn’t go far enough as well to address the scope and magnitude of the negative economic impact that’s coming to the US economy: as it shuts down in broad industries and should the financial system crack as it did in 2008.
Furthermore, it appears that both Trump and McConnell in the Senate are intent on doing their worst to refuse to agree on most of the proposals in the Pelosi plan; demanding in particular acceptance of a payroll tax cut in exchange for other proposals. So don’t expect anything big or effective in any agreement coming this week. Trump is determined not to have an effective fiscal stimulus, now that his budget deficit last year exceeded $1 trillion—and that his current budget deficit after only five months is running at a rate of $1.4 trillion for this year.
An economic stimulus must focus on government spending and income restoration. It cannot focus on tax cutting. Nor on interest rate reduction. Neither of those kinds of policies will stimulate investment or consumption. Why? Because there’s a massive shift to hoarding cash underway by business and consumers will not get relief quick enough, or at all if they’re unemployed.
Businesses is selling its financial assets across the board to gather in as much cash as possible, needed to continue to pay interest and principal on its $10 trillion debt run up since 2008, as its prices, sales and revenue drop precipitously in the meantime. There’s a ‘dash for cash’ underway. And no amount of tax cutting will lead to re-investing in production. The tax cuts will simply be hoarded and not spent. Ditto for households and consumers. Any payroll tax cut will be hoarded, not spent, to ensure households have enough to continue paying mortgages and car loans and student loans—assuming they still have jobs. If no jobs, it will be spent on trying to maintain current consumption, not increase it.
The same applies to interest rate reductions by the Fed. Why will businesses borrow even at a lower rate to expand production, when consumers are buying less of their goods or if they can’t get parts from abroad with which to build the goods? And why would households borrow to take the risk to purchase a new auto or even a new home given the current direction of the economy? Cutting the costs of business investment is now the least important variable determining the outcome of investment. Expectations of a collapsing economy and thus falling profitability is what’s driving investment now—and the anxiety of being able to continue to pay for debt accumulated in recent years in order to avoid default.
Yet that’s what exactly Trump will propose: more tax cuts, for business especially, and lower interest rates. It will prove throwing money down a rathole.
My Proposal for Economic Stimulus & Recovery
Make no mistake. The US is now in recession. And it will deepen considerably before it is over. Moreover, the great risk is now a spreading crisis of credit, a fracturing of the financial system as in 2008-09, and the potential emergence of another ‘Great Recession’, this time even worse than 2008-09. All the efforts by the Federal Reserve and other central banks to pump trillions of dollars more into the US and their economies may prove futile this time around.
What’s needed is an immediate restoration of consumer household spending power and a protective floor under incomes that may soon also collapse should mass layoffs emerge once again in another couple months. Here’s some measures, a necessary short list, expanding on some of my earlier proposals, to provide that immediate income effect:
I. Paid Medical Leave
A 14 day paid medical leave until vaccines for the virus are generally available, eligible for:
· Those tested with virus
· Those with symptoms
· All those Parents of K-8 students forced to remain home due to school closures
The 14 day paid leave should be renewable by state legislatures’ decision since the economic impact, nor the recovery from the virus, will not occur evenly across all states
II. Company Reimbursement for Paid Medical Leave
- Paid Medical Leave costs should be reimbursed by the federal government to companies with fewer than 500 workers. Reimbursement by tax credits for companies with more than 50 employees; and by means of direct subsidy payments for companies with fewer than 50.
- 50% reimbursement to companies with more than 500 workers by means of tax credits provided the company shows a full restoration of jobs for those laid off within a year of the development of a vaccine for the virus.
- Paid leave shall not result in a reduction of paid sick leave provisions already provided by a company or by union contracts, which shall otherwise remain accrued to workers
III. Employment Guarantees
- Employers are required to restore workers on paid medical leave, who return, and to their former position, pay and benefits.
- All other benefits shall continue to accrue for workers while on paid medical leave.
IV. Hospital Testing & Related Costs
- Costs for hospital-clinic-doctor office entry and testing will be billed by the health provider directly to the government, not paid by the worker and then reimbursed
- Provider costs associated with the visit for testing (i.e. labs, emergency or other room charges, out patient, in patient, etc.) will similarly be billed by provider to the government.
- Return or follow up visits if needed will be billed directly as well.
- Pharmacy and drug costs are waived for patients determined to be infected by the virus, and all their immediate dependents under age 21, or on Medicare, Medicaid, or otherwise uninsured.
V. Health Insurance Companies Responsibility
If a worker is insured and on medical leave, or if otherwise laid off due to the economic effects of the virus on their company of primary employment, the health insurance provider shall waive the worker’s share of monthly health insurance premium. This shall apply as well as for their immediate dependents covered by the company’s insurance benefits program.
- If a worker is insured, or if otherwise unemployed due to the economic effects of the virus on their company of primary employment, the health benefits insurance provider will waive all deductibles and co-pays for services for those determined infected or on leave due to school shutdowns. This shall apply as well as for their immediate dependents covered by the company’s insurance benefits program.
- Premiums, deductibles, copays and coverage shall remain frozen until the State legislature declares the virus effect is declared over.
- State legislatures shall review all insurance company requests to raise rates after the virus effect is over for the next 3 years. Attempts to recoup costs during the virus period by accelerating price increases or reducing coverage will be denied if greater than the rise in the local consumer price index for the urban region.
VI. Medicare & Medicaid
For those employed while receiving Medicare coverage, the monthly Medicare deductible payment shall be waived until the vaccine for the virus is made available.
For those employed while receiving Medicaid, all doctor or hospital costs to the employee or unemployed shall be paid for by the State’s Medicaid authority. All doctors and hospitals shall be required by law to accept Medicaid patients until the vaccine for the virus is made available.
Refusal by doctors, hospitals or clinics to accept Medicare or Medicaid patients will result in fines levied on the health provider’s annual federal tax payment.
VII. Unemployment Benefits
- The federal government shall immediately extend unemployment benefits for all layoffs for an additional six months (one year total), effective as of March 1. 2020.
- Companies shall be required to continue to pay unemployment benefits taxes to their states for laid off workers for up to a year, commencing March 1, 2020.
- There shall be no suspension of the Social Security 6.2% payroll tax or Medicare 1.45% tax by companies.
VIII. General Company Requirements
- For the duration of the virus crisis period, companies shall be required to continue to pay their workers’ health insurance monthly premiums if laid off, for a period of six months from date of initial lay off.
- Banks shall be required to provide lending to business customers at interest rates no greater than the original loan, if extended; or for initial loan, no more than the average rate for the local urban area in which the company is located.
· Banks and mortgage companies shall institute immediately a moratorium on mortgage payments for those on paid medical leave, or for those laid off for economic reasons associated with the virus effect on their company for a period of three months or until returning to work, whichever is sooner.
- Auto companies’ financial services, credit unions auto financing, and other sources of financing of vehicles shall introduce a moratorium on monthly auto loan payments for those on medical leave, or for those laid off for economic reasons associated with the virus effect on their company for a period of three months or until returning to work, whichever is sooner.
IX. Federal Student Loans & School Districts
- For college students who work, but are laid off due to economic effects associated with the virus at the company or institution for which they work, student loan principal and interest payments shall be suspended until returning to work. Suspension shall be defined as permanent waiver of all interest charges. Such interest payments shall not further accrue.
School districts that shut down shall continue to receive per pupil reimbursement from their states on the same schedule as when students were attending sessions.
X. Food Provisioning & Delivery System
K-8 students who were receiving meals while in attendance at their school, but are not so doing due to school shutdown, shall continue to have meals delivered to their primary residence daily. State programs providing ‘meals on wheels’ for elderly residents or similar programs shall be expanded to cover K-8 students.
All former cuts to the SNAP (food stamp) program since January 2017 shall be restored for all those eligible on paid medical leave, leave from work due to school shutdowns, receiving unemployment benefit payments, or on Medicare or Medicaid.
Federal & State governments shall undertake whatever measures necessary to ensure the physical delivery of food to local grocery outlets, and to remove bottlenecks to online ordering and delivery of food and necessary household items to residents or local distribution centers, including if necessary mobilization of state national guard units and requisitioning temporarily of private delivery company facilities and equipment.
Some have asked how much would my own Fiscal ‘Economic Recovery Program’ cost? It can’t be quantified exactly, as the impact on working families is spreading rapidly. But here’s some financing, administrating, and implementation principles associated with my proposal:
* First, the amount of financing applied in its first phase should be no less than the same amount that the Federal Reserve bank has already allocated to spend on the banks and investors. That’s $2.2 trillion in just the last week. So if we can spend that on the bankers, why can’t we allocated the same funds to bail out workers and the middle class. Index that $2.2T to whatever further increases the Fed spends on its pre-emptive bailout of bankers and investors already under way. If the Fed can ‘create $2.2 trillion’ out of thin air to give to bankers and investors, why can’t it do the same for Main St. and working families?
*Second, use some of the money to enroll those without health insurance or whose insurance will not cover the costs of health services, apart from the actual tests only, in the Medicare system. Introduce a one page sign up for Medicare online. Create a special ‘temporary’ membership category. Have healthcare providers bill Medicare for the tests costs to workers, and for all other related costs, as well as costs for those on unpaid medical leave or unemployed due to the economic effects of the virus on the economy-i.e. economic layoffs. Immediately enroll the 30 million uninsured. Voluntarily enroll the 87 million who are under-insured with massive deductibles, copays, with no dependents covered, etc. Immediately allocate funds from the $2.2 trillion to bail out Main St. and transfer the allocated funds to the Medicare-Social Security Trust Fund. And hire as many workers in the Medicare administration as needed.
*Third, instead of reimbursing companies for continuing paying wages to workers sent home on unpaid leave, or who are laid off because of the major economic impact that’s coming (there will be mass layoffs starting in May), why not have the government ‘hire’ the laid off for the duration of the crisis –which today Trump admitted will likely continue through August. Adapt the unemployment benefits system to make the payments to those so covered. This would be a 21st century, electronic administered ‘Works Progress Administration’ that provided 8 million government jobs to the unemployed.
The administrative apparatus is there already: Medicare and Unemployment Benefits. Why not use it. And make it clear it is the government that is providing their health care and employment protection–not the private employers or bankers who would otherwise cut them loose to scramble individually to protect them and their families.
*Fourth, immediately create a ‘Public Investment Corporation‘, funded and managed by the government (Federal, State & Local) to invest in alternative energy expansion and other climate crisis mitigation that would hire workers, since the current crisis will mean private business investment will collapse across the board and such much needed investment from the private sector will not be forthcoming for some time.
Let the Federal Reserve pre-emptively bail out its bankers and billionaire private investors! But if they can spend $2.2 trillion, then the government can, and should, pre-emptively bail out Main St. as well for no less!
Further economic measures will be needed to address the current US recession, and the increasing possibility of the recession morphing into another ‘great recession’ (or worse). But the above represents an initial phase of immediate fiscal spending response in the short run to restore incomes being devastated right now.
Jack Rasmus is author of the recently published book, ‘The Scourge of Neoliberalism: US Economic Policy from Reagan to Trump’, Clarity Press, January 2020. He blogs at jackrasmus.com and his twitter handle is @drjackrasmus. His website is http://kyklosproductions.com.