Coronavirus: Could a People’s Bailout Help?

 Local residents line up outside a food pantry during the COVID-19 pandemic on 23 April 2020 in Brooklyn, New York. Due to increased levels of unemployment, the lines at the daily food pantry have been getting longer. Photo: Getty Images.
Local residents line up outside a food pantry during the COVID-19 pandemic on 23 April 2020 in Brooklyn, New York. Due to increased levels of unemployment, the lines at the daily food pantry have been getting longer. Photo: Getty Images.

What is quantitative easing? How was it used after the 2008 financial crisis?

Quantitative easing (QE) has been in existence since the Japanese central bank introduced it at the turn of the millennium. The simplest way to think about it is this: when interest rates can't go down anymore and play their normal role of stimulating growth, central banks try to expand the money supply. So, they're expanding the quantitative amount of money they put into the system.

Of course, after 2008 because of the scale of the financial and economic collapse, many Western countries resorted to QE. Some have never gotten rid of it. Others have started to, but as a result of this crisis, have gone straight back to that playbook.

33 million Americans have now filed for unemployment and one in five American workers have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. These are levels not seen since the Great Depression. You recently called for G20 countries to provide income support for all citizens. Why is this so urgent to implement now?

It is incredible to reflect back on the short time since I published that piece. I entitled it the need for a so-called people's QE, and in some ways a number of European countries, including the UK, have executed some aspects of what I was suggesting.

The United States has not, even though the absolute amounts of money the US authorities have put through their fiscal system to try and support the economy is actually bigger as a percentage of GDP than many in Europe.

What they haven't done is support ongoing employment through various schemes that many European countries have done, of which the UK has, to some degree, been one of the most ambitious.

That’s partly why you see such enormous filing for unemployment claims in the US. There’s no direct support to encourage employers to keep their employees on, in complete contrast to what you see in many Scandinavian countries who were the first to do it in Europe, and something the UK has since done.

On a practical level, what might a smart people’s QE look like?

We are living in an extraordinary time. Like many others in my generation, it’s nothing that any of us have gone through. Perhaps economically, the only parallel one can find is from the 1920s and 1930s.

It became obvious to me in early March that governments are going to have to essentially force as many of us as possible, if we weren't doing absolutely crucial necessities, to stop working or to work from home. It was pretty obvious that the consequences could be horrific.

So, the idea of a people's QE that I suggested then, some would have regarded as quite audacious. The most dramatic thing that could be done was, to put it simply, governments effectively pay for every business and every employee to have a two month paid holiday. Obviously, this would cost a very large amount of money for governments, but it would be the least disruptive way of getting us all to stay home.

And when the time is right to start letting us get back to anything vaguely like normality, there wouldn't be as much permanent disruption. I think about six weeks have passed since I wrote that piece. Actually, given the policies many governments have announced, I'm not sure undertaking the audacity in generosity of what I suggested would have cost any more. Over the long term, it might have actually turned out to be less.

Of course, there are ethics issues around whether the system could be gamed or not, amongst other issues. But six weeks later, I still believe that would have been the smartest thing to do. It certainly would have been much better than trying to encourage many businesses, particularly smaller ones, to take out loans.

A couple of countries got close to what I was suggesting – Germany and Switzerland were very quick to give 100% government guarantees to business, as well as generous wage support systems. But a number of other countries haven't, like the US, even though they wrote a $1200 check for each citizen.

Should a people’s QE involve the purchase and write off of consumer debt and student debt by a central bank?

I think these things might have to be considered. I remember being on a conference call to Chatham House members where we discussed what would be the likely economic consequences and what policymakers should do. One person on the call was talking about quite conventional forms of policy just through various forms of standard QE.

During the Q&A, someone asked whether we thought the US Federal Reserve might end up buying equities. And I said, well, why not? Eventually, it might come to that.

Actually, before that discussion was over, the Fed coincidentally announced they were going to buy high-yield corporate bonds, or very risky company debt. This is something that would have been unheard of even by the playbook of 2008.

So, I don't think ideas like a kind of provision to help student debtors is entirely crazy. These are things that our policymakers are going to have to think about as we go forward in the challenging and unpredictable days and weeks ahead.

Poorer countries like El Salvador have gone as far as cancelling rent and major utility bills for its citizens. Do you think countries like the US and UK have gone far enough to help people during the crisis?

Going one step further than a people’s QE and postponing major payments is a pretty interesting concept. I think in reality, it would be very disruptive to the medium to long-term mechanism of our societies. It could be very, very complicated.

But, of course, some parts of the G20 nations, including the UK, have moved significantly in these areas as it relates to rent payments or mortgage payments. There have been significant mortgage holidays being introduced for many sectors of our community. I think the British government has been quite thoughtful about it without doing the whole hog of potentially getting rid of our transaction system for two months or beyond.

You know, this may well be something that has to be considered if, God forbid, there is a second peak of the virus. If countries come out of a lockdown and all that results in is a dramatic rise in infections and then death again, we're going to end up right back where we are. Policymakers may have to implement more generous versions of what we've done already, despite what the long term debt consequences could be.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in the US has been criticized as a corporate bailout while offering little to the American people. It was recently reported that hedge fund managers are applying for bailouts as ‘small businesses.’ Do you think more oversight is needed in how the stimulus funds are allocated?

The speed at which many countries have responded and introduced policies means that there's going to be some gaping holes which allow people to unfairly benefit from the system. And if indeed, that were to be the case, I cannot see why a hedge fund should benefit from government generosity.

A true hedge fund is supposed to be a form of investment manager that thrives in times of great volatility, and knows how to better navigate such financial markets than more conventional funds. So this shouldn’t be an environment where hedge funds seek the same kind of help as small businesses. That is certainly something the government should be very careful about.

Some economists argue that central banks are not independent as they finance fiscal spending through purchase of government bonds. Do the strong measures taken by central banks in response to the crisis undermine the argument for central bank independence?

In my view, an effective central bank has to do whatever is necessary, including doing very unconventional things, when the society in which that central bank operates needs it.

Most of the time, central banks are pretty boring places, but they really become crucial organizations when we go through times like the 1920s, 1930s, 2008, and of course, this current crisis. If they want to maintain their legitimacy, whatever the true parliamentary or congressional legal standing is, they have to do things quickly and as we've seen in this case, differently than the convention in order to do what our societies need.

Somebody was asking me just last week whether the Fed buying high grade debt was legal or not. I think that’s a pretty irrelevant conversation because if it’s not legal now, it will be made legal tomorrow. So, I think central banks have to keep their legitimacy and they have to do what is necessary when the time requires it. In that sense, I think most central banks have handled this crisis so far pretty well.

Jim O'Neill, Chair, Chatham House and Lyndsey Jefferson, Digital Editor, Communications and Publishing Department.

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