SYDNEY and KUALA LUMPUR, Jun 16 2020 (IPS) - The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly impacted most economies in the world. Its full impacts will not be felt, let alone measured, until it runs its course. Many countries are still struggling to contain contagion, while the costs on both lives and livelihoods will undoubtedly have long-term repercussions.
Back to the future?
The pandemic has exposed economic vulnerabilities building up for decades, especially since the counter-revolution, against Keynesian and development economics in the 1980s, gathered pace with transnational corporation-led privatization, liberalization and globalization.
As the world become more interdependent via trade, finance and communications, inequality and economic insecurity have waxed and waned unevenly, exacerbated by deregulation, reregulation, financialization and less public social provisioning, undermining public health and social protection.
Policymakers shied away from addressing the fundamental causes of several financial crises from the 1990s (e.g., in Mexico, East Asia and Russia) and during the first decade of this century, e.g., the dotcom, food and global financial crises. Now, once again, all too many are focused on getting back to ‘business as usual’.
What multilateral coordination?
The global economic situation remains unpredictable, with uncertainties about the varied nature of pandemic recessions. Government responses have not only been diverse, but often poorly conceived due to the novel nature of the crisis. Impacts have varied with the contagion and policy responses, unhelped by often confusing, if not misleading metrics.
Such uncertainty is also reflected in the wide-ranging growth forecasts by major international organizations. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has recognized the ‘Great Lockdown’ as due to ‘self-imposed’ contractions, leading to the “worst recession since the Great Depression”.
The IMF has supported government fiscal and monetary initiatives, declaring that it “stands ready to mobilize its US$1 trillion lending capacity to help its membership”. The World Bank has also promised an additional US$14 billion to help governments and businesses address the pandemic.
Plurilateralism also almost irrelevant
A March G-7 countries’ joint statement promised “a strongly coordinated international approach”, with no specific actions mentioned or forthcoming thereafter. Instead, countries have pursued their own divergent strategies, even banning exports of medical equipment.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to prioritise ‘America First’ while undermining most multilateral institutions and even plurilateral arrangements, including those created by the US, such as the G20.
Already, G20 members have been dragged into US-China tensions, as the White House blames China for the pandemic and other American problems. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the G20 chair for 2020, is itself embroiled in its own political and economic quagmire, undermined by falling oil revenues, worsened by its oil price war with Russia.
Poor diagnosis, bad medicine
Economic growth slowdowns, especially in manufacturing, services and trade, started prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. Yet, the pandemic’s economic effects were expected to be short-term as factories and offices were closed, and strict ‘stay in shelter’ lockdowns were enforced to stop contagion.
The drop in economic output, as the epidemic began and spread to industrial hubs, has had international repercussions with supply chains disrupted.
Such supply disruptions have engendered and interacted with prolonged, wide-ranging demand shocks as Covid-19 crisis-induced policy responses and other uncertainties reduced consumption and investment spending, slowing economic growth and undermining employment.
Almost 2.7 billion workers, around 81% of the world’s workforce, work and earn less due to the Covid-19 recession, with those in lower middle-income developing countries losing most. And almost 1.6 billion in the informal economy are in the hardest hit sectors or significantly impacted by lockdown measures.
The longer the lockdowns persist, the greater the economic disruption and adverse impacts as the effects spread via trade and finance linkages to an ever growing number of countries, firms and households.
Governments have adopted various monetary and fiscal measures to try to revive and sustain economic activity. Such measures include cash transfers to households, extending unemployment insurance or social security benefits, temporary deferment of tax payments, and increasing guarantees and loans to businesses.
Early ‘stimulus packages’ assumed that the ‘pandemic shock’ would be short-lived and easily reversible. They have largely ignored addressing the unsustainability, inequality, instability and other vulnerabilities of their economic, social and ecological systems.
Monetary ruse, liquidity trap
Basel 3 recommended capital conservation and countercyclical capital buffers for all banks. Many central banks have cut interest rates and increased liquidity through a combination of measures, by lowering reserve and Basel 3 requirements, besides easing loan terms for new temporary loan facilities for banks and businesses.
Continued credit support, through unconventional monetary policies, has not addressed liquidity problems due to truncated business turnover. Increased liquidity provision has instead been captured by better ‘credit risks’, even fuelling inflation while doing little for the most vulnerable and needy, deepening pre-Covid-19 inequalities.
Unconventional monetary policies before Covid-19 were already creating stock market bubbles, instead of financing investments in the real economy, thus contributing to growing inequality.
Central banks have not been able to repair their balance sheets or draw back excess liquidity, for fear of financial sector collapse, thus ironically increasing its fragility by pumping in more liquidity, increasing speculation and fuelling inflation.
Fiscal traps unsustainable
Without better planned coordination, initial relief measures for households and businesses were often wrongly portrayed as fiscal stimulus packages while output has remained constrained by lockdown enforcement.
Despite cuts in government expenditure, especially for public health and social protection, there was little political will to increase progressive taxation. Still mounting government debt, already at historically high levels prior to the pandemic, has not helped.
Instead, earlier tax cuts have increased public debt, while the failure to improve fiscal capacities after the 2008 global financial crisis has meant eschewing productivity enhancing public investments, boosting revenue via progressive taxation, and strengthening universal health coverage and social protection.
The design of measures matters, crucially affecting likely effects. As countries prepare for recovery, they should ask what ‘recovery’ can and should mean. To address the many problems we have to contend with, it should not mean a return to ‘business as usual’.
First, as workplaces and social spaces – where people meet, socialize, shop, etc. – have to be redesigned and repurposed to meet precautionary public health requirements, such as physical distancing. Second, the unsustainable, financialized and grossly unequal pre-Covid-19 economy needs to be fundamentally transformed.
Covid-19 policy responses have rarely addressed deeper prior malaises, such as stagnant or falling productivity growth and declining labour remuneration, not to speak of ‘sustainable industrial policy’ measures to address global warming, resource exhaustion and other sustainability problems.