Paul Anand highlights the key economic policies announced in response to the ongoing pandemic and assesses their likely implications. He concludes that existential threats to economic systems seem not to be as rare as we believed, and so economists ought to be giving more thought to how we respond to them.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has seen policy-makers shift from pondering whether COVID-19 will have much economic impact to, within two or three weeks, scrabbling around to find policies that address existential threats to economic systems around the world. The economic priorities and problems that emerge are doing so on a daily basis, and it will now be clear to many that conventional policy actions simply do not apply, even if basic underlying principles do.
At the time of writing, the major economic challenges concern the likely effectiveness of a series of (fiscal) policies announced by the UK government. Initially, the government and the Bank of England seemed to be focussed on supporting businesses and announced a range of measures including loans to tide businesses over. But it is already becoming clear that the devil is in the detail.
There is still a huge amount of uncertainty about how long social distancing will last – perhaps it will be three weeks or three months; in the UK, emergency powers have been requested for two years. As a result, the massive £350bn package of support – which includes business loans – risks being substantially ineffective. Company directors are being asked to take out loans, but where companies have costs and close to zero revenues for several months, they could face the prospect of being without profits for two or three years. For these reasons, banks offering loans even with substantial underwriting by government will not able to easily judge whether and when many businesses will be clearly solvent.
I regularly collaborate with the UN and the World Bank, where the concept of human development is an important driver of economic thinking. The UN has an index which monitors health education and gender equality as well as national income, providing this war a focus for what economies need in a way that goes ‘beyond GDP’, a need that economists have increasingly recognised in recent years. From this perspective, COVID-19 is a human development crisis in the making which also demands immediate policy attention.
In the past few days, one UK charity food bank has reported a quadrupling in referrals over the space of a week. At the same time, other food banks and organisations trying to arrange food deliveries for the most vulnerable have reported thefts of food. Supermarkets have been addressing some of the challenges by creating particular times when older people or front-line workers can shop. These latter initiatives are welcome, but local government does need to be empowered to address the issues of hunger that some families are already facing.
There are also huge short- and long-term implications for education and labour markets. The closure of schools challenges both children’s learning and schools’ abilities to offer learning online. But it also throws into sharp relief the extent to which businesses depend on schools for childcare and we should expect the losses of national income to be significant if closures carry on for several months.
Furthermore, there is evidence that those who find it difficult to enter the labour market for the first time because of economic recessions are scarred and achieve poorer economic outcomes over the longer term. This is yet another source of inequality that we should try to combat.
In terms of health and health services, shortages of protective equipment in the NHS are contributing to staff shortages, as doctors and nurses self-isolate or go sick. Matt Hancock has suggested this reflects a logistics problem but whatever the reason, this is a serious constraint on the country’s response and one that makes understandable the reason thousands of NHS staff have complained about the lack of appropriate masks and gowns.
Currently, medics are also suggesting that by early April there will be a need to make decisions about who gets access to a ventilator. The government has, for several weeks, said that it will purchase all the ventilators that suppliers can produce but there are limits to how quickly their production can be ramped up. The fact that doctors and nurses are being invited out of retirement and back into work is an indication of just how dramatic the demands on the service are expected to be and highlights also the fact that other aspects of healthcare will suffer.
The pandemic has created unexpected calls for economic policy responses. Over the course of three budgets in nine days, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has acknowledged that this is not just another recession and this is not a time for ideology. Rather, he has shifted to a position where he is listening and responding to the existential risks to large numbers of jobs, to whole industrial sectors, and to vulnerable groups within society. The offer to underwrite 80% of worker salaries up to £2,500 per month is a potentially sizeable and welcome signal that livelihoods should be the focus of economic policy because they support workers and businesses at the same time. In normal times, policies for both seem to be siloed and disconnected – but we cannot afford to think like that right now.
That said, support for the self-employed and those in the gig economy on zero-hours contracts has been slower to work out. There are some five million workers classed as self-employed in the UK and another million working on zero-hours contracts; these cover a diverse set of groups – from high-paid celebrities to working mums and taxi drivers. When they stop work, currently many are entitled to £94.25 per week, a figure that Matt Hancock accepted that he could not live on.
The issue caused some confusion, particularly in the construction industry where many workers have wondered if they should carry on working on the grounds they cannot work from home and need to put food on the table. As a result, the London underground, supposed to be running for emergency workers with passengers keeping two meters apart, has been crowded and remained a hotspot for transmission that undermined the first days of the three-week lockdown.
Following the initialy delay, on March 26 the Chancellor announced a scheme that would give such workers 80% of normal earnings up to £2,500 per month and subject to a means test of no more than £50,000 per year to ensure benefits are targeted to those in greatest need.
Rents and mortgages
There are also issues concerning rents and mortgage repayments that affect most of society. The agreement between the government and the banks that those paying rent or repaying mortgages would be able to have a three-month holiday was welcome a couple of weeks ago. But it now looks certain that those living on low incomes in high-cost cities like London will need much more help if we are to avoid a rise in evictions further down the line.
The COVID-19 pandemic created a twin economic and human development crisis that standard economic thinking is not well-suited to. The Chancellor is to be applauded for moving quickly and dramatically in the right direction but there is still much evidence of what behavioural economists call anchoring and adjustment – that is, failing to adjust enough because our actions are often based on small incremental steps from where we start. The signs from China suggest severe measures can be effective over a three-month period and it remains to be seen whether Johnson’s libertarian inclinations will allow him to pursue the strategy, even though it seems to be supported by most. Existential threats to economic systems are not commonplace, of course, but experience of the financial crisis, the climate crisis, HIV and AIDS, as well as war is beginning to suggest that economists should give more thought to policies and analysis of such situations, which are perhaps less rare and unusual than we might have thought.
About the Author
Paul Anand is a Professor of Economics at the Open University and Research Associate at Oxford University and London School of Economics.