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There is no Trade-off. Saving Lives is Good for the Economy

March 29, 2020 1 comment

At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, when policy makers were struggling to find ways to cope with a crisis that most of them had under estimated, the public discourse was dominated by a trade-off: should we shut down economic activity to enforce/facilitate social distancing and curb the pandemic curve before it leads to the collapse of health care systems, and to deaths by the hundreds of thousands? Or should we just let the death toll be what it has to be, and let the virus pass through our countries (build “herd immunity”), avoiding severe economic consequences? To put it somewhat brutally, should we save lives or the economy? This trade-off certainly is in the minds of most governments, even if most of them carefully avoided letting it surface in their public discourse. The countries that stopped the economy justified it as the price to pay “to save lives”; just a handful of governments made it explicit that they had made the opposite choice. The most reckless undoubtedly was Boris Johnson who initially argued that the best strategy was to build herd immunity by letting the virus reach 4O millions people, whatever the cost in human lives would be. Trump and Bolsonaro (a merry fellowship indeed) had a very similar stance, minimising the cost at first, and then arguing that the economy should not be stopped. But many other countries in Europe, with the same trade-off in mind, delayed going into lockdown in spite of Italy spiraling into the crisis just around the corner. They simply were less impudent than the British PM, while considering the same strategy.

It is reassuring that for most countries reality (and opinion polls) caught up, so that strategies eventually converged to giving priority to the health crisis over the economy: more or less compulsory social distancing, and the freeze of economic activity are now generalized, with almost half of the world population under lockdown.

This is reassuring not only because priority should be given to saving human lives. But also because, as I have always believed, the trade-off between public health and the economy is complete nonsense. I was glad to read a piece by Luigi Guiso and Daniele Terlizzese (in Italian) making this point. I just wish that they (or somebody else, including myself) had made it before. This would have been an immensely more valuable contribution by economists, than playing epidemiologists and fitting exponential curves on social networks (I never did!).

But why is the trade-off nonsense? Simply put, because the pandemic will cause enormous harm to the economy, whether it claims lives by the millions or not. Suppose the BoJo initial strategy was implemented, and a few dozens millions of British people were infected, many of them for several weeks. Abstracting from fatality rates, labour supply would drop for months, and disruption in production would follow. Fear of contagion would limit social interaction (a sort of self-imposed confinement) for many, impacting consumption, investment, but also productivity. Some sectors (travel, tourism, services) would see significant drops in activity. The global value chains would be disrupted, and trade would take a hit. Furthermore, the collapse or near-collapse of health care systems would impact the quality of life (and sometimes cause the death) not only of those affected by the virus, but also of the many that in normal times need to resort to health care services. Consumer confidence and corporate sentiments would remain low for months, consumption and investment would stagnate, government intervention would be needed as much as it is needed in the lockdown. Last, but not least, the heavy toll paid to the pandemic crisis would impact human capital (think of casualties among doctors), and thus productivity and growth in the long run.

A slowdown would therefore be inevitable, a harsh one actually. But still, it could be argued that such a scenario would not be worse than the total halt we are experiencing. I beg to disagree. Let me go back to Mario Draghi’s piece in the Financial Times. The former ECB boss there argues that the urgent task of policy makers is to keep the businesses that are short of liquidity afloat whatever it takes, so that when the rebound will happen, the productive capacity will be able to provide goods and services, and incomes will recover quickly. Said it differently, if policy makers manage to minimize permanent damage to the supply side of the economy, a short lived shock, however brutal, might leave few scars.

But there is more than that. In fact, the minimization of permanent damage becomes harder and harder, and probably costlier and costlier, the longer the crisis is. Following the crisis of 2008-2010, an interesting literature developed on the permanent effects of crises. This literature highlights how long and low-intensity slumps have an impact through hysteresis on the capital (human and physical) of the economy and permanently lower the potential growth of the economy. The conclusion to be drawn from this literature is that the risk of letting the economy in a slump for too long, and hence suffer permanent damage, is larger than the risk of over reacting in the short-run.

Applying this mindset to the current pandemic dispels once and for all the trade-off; more than that. It allows to rank the two policy options. Doing whatever it takes to save lives is causing a deep and hopefully short-lived economic slump. However devastating for the economy, such a slump is much easier to manage for policy makers than the (maybe) marginally milder recession but spread over a longer period of time, that one would have by not imposing a total lockdown of the economy. Shutting down the economy saves lives, AND it is better for the economy. A no brainer, in fact.

Even the most cynical among our leaders should understand this: Saving as many lives as possible is the best we can do to save the economy and their chances of reelection.

Lagarde: A Rookie Mistake?

March 12, 2020 Leave a comment

So the ECB has spoken in response to the Coronavirus crisis, and it was a problematic response to say the least. I watched Christine Lagarde’s Q&A with journalists, which as usual was the most interesting part of the press conference. But boy, I wish today it had not taken place…

The bottom line is that Lagarde made a huge misstep in stating that the ECB is not going to close the spreads. I hope it is just a communication misstep, otherwise Italy (and probably other countries) will pay a heavy price.

But let’s see what happened today.

First, there is an attempt to put on the Eurozone governments’ shoulders most of the burden of reacting to a shock that will be “significant even if temporary”. Lagarde said clearly, towards the end of the press conference, that what she fears most is insufficient fiscal response coming out from the Eurogroup meeting next Monday:

It is hard to disagree with this approach. To target firms’ liquidity problems one cannot count on banks alone, (especially in countries where they have still not completely recovered from the sovereign debt crisis). As a side note, I welcome the provisions contained in the Italian €25bn package, such as the temporary lifting of short-term businesses obligations towards the government (VAT, social contributions, taxes). These seem to be the right measures to ease short term liquidity constraints.

But let’s look into what the ECB itself commits to do. Besides technicalities that I did not study yet, there will be two sets of measures:

  1. The first set concerns (continued) provision of cheap liquidity to banks, in order to ensure continuing supply of credit to the real economy. This will be ensured through a new and temporary long-term refinancing scheme (LTRO), together with significantly better terms for the existing targeted loan programs. This amount to a large subsidy to banks. Loans conditions will be more favorable for banks lending to Small and Medium Enterprises, which are the ones more likely to become strapped for liquidity in the current situation. Furthermore, as a supervisor, the ECB engages in operational flexibility when implementing bank specific regulatory requirements, and to allow full utilization of the capital and liquidity buffers that financial institutions have built. I am unclear on how much this will work in order to keep the flow of credit flowing, but overall, my sentiment is that on cheap and easy financing to banks and (hopefully) to firms, there is little more ECB could do.
  2. The second set of measure is a ramping up of QE, with additional €120bn (until the end of the year). Lagarde seemed to suggest that the ECB could use flexibility to deviating from capital keys, the quota of bonds the ECB can buy from each country. This means that maybe more help will be given to countries like Italy, and the ambiguity was probably on purpose.

But then came the Q&A, and with it, disaster. At a question by a journalist on Italian debt and yields, Lagarde replied the following:

This also made it on the ECB twitter feed:

This simple sentence was a reversal of Mario Draghi 2012 “whatever it takes“. Mario Draghi, in 2012, had basically announced that the ECB would act as a crypto-lender of last resort (conditional, way too conditional, but still), and since then the scope for speculation has been greatly reduced. Spreads have been much less variable since then (I wrote a paper with Roberto Tamborini, on that, that just came out).

Protection from the ECB against market speculation is what countries like Italy would need most. Fiscal policy is the tool that can be better targeted towards supporting the supply side of the economy and preventing liquidity problems from evolving into bankruptcies. Lagarde herself stated it many times in the past few days, and again today.

So, governments should be put in the conditions not to worry, at least for a while, of market pressure. Lagarde should have said the exact opposite: “we commit to freezing the spreads for n months so that governments can focus on supporting their productive sector, and restoring more or less normal aggregate demand conditons”. Lagarde said the opposite. And here is the effect of that on Italian ten year rates. Look what happened at around 3pm, when she answered the question:

The yields Other Eurozone peripheral countries had similar behaviours. Why did Lagarde say that? Maybe Because she wanted to appease fiscal hawks ahead of the Eurogroup meeting of next week, so that they are more willing to agree on a fiscal stimulus? Or because she was afraid to be accused to be too soft on Italy? Or to actually care about one single country, which is what the ECB is not supposed to do? Or was it simply a communication misstep? A rookie mistake? Whatever the reason, it is clear that Lagarde made a huge mistake, and even apparently she partially backpedaled in a NBC interview shortly thereafter, this is what remain of today’s press conference.

So, my assessment of today’s ECB move is mixed. It was as good as it gets on financing the banking sector, and we just have to cross finger that this is enough to keep credit flowing.

But it is disappointing on the support of expansionary fiscal policies. All the more disappointing that the ECB and Lagarde have insisted on the need for a fiscal response “first and foremost”.

My only hope is that that was a misstep, or just lip service to fiscal responsibility. If market pressure prevents governments from supporting their firms, and if liquidity problems evolve into solvency problems, a “significant but temporary” shock will become a permanent hit to long-term growth capacity. And let’s not forget that the Eurozone economy is today more diverse and less resilient than it was in 2008.

Brace yourself

ps. You can find my live tweeting during the Q&A (a bit confused at times. Live tweeting is not my thing!) here: