Covid-19: What should Uncle Sam do?

On February 29 the first person in the United States died from Covid-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, the so-called novel coronavirus first observed in Wuhan, China.  On March 12, three more people succumbed from this disease bringing the total to 41. Ten days later on March 22, 117 died bringing the total to 419 as the exponential growth of Covid-19 deaths continues. Globally 15,420 had died by midday March 23 and deaths are rising fast.

How and where will this end?  Shutting the economy down and keeping everyone isolated in place until the virus “dies” for lack of new victims would ultimately kill everyone from starvation (if not boredom).  This pandemic will only end (stabilize with the status of the flu, which currently kills about 34,000 per year in the U.S.) when an effective vaccine is developed and administered to almost everyone. This will take one year to eighteen months if it is discovered today, and that is if we are lucky that the safety and effectiveness trials go according to plan. Without a vaccine, the pandemic will “end” when most of us have acquired immunity to it as a result of having and surviving (as almost everyone will) covid-19 –acquiring so called herd immunity.  This assumes that having and surviving the disease will immunize us. This is generally the case with viruses but has not yet been established for SARS-CoV-2.

Our hospitals and medical services could not handle the patient load if every one contracted this disease over too short a period, so it is important to slow down the pace of infection–so called flattening the curve (which could spike quickly as you see from the opening paragraph). The ideal strategy is to allow the infection of those with low risk of serious illness or death to speed up herd immunity with minimum demand on our limited health facilities, while protecting and treating the most vulnerable. The young and healthy are least vulnerable and the old and health-impaired are the most vulnerable.  We should reopen schools and restaurants after Easter and gradually restart our cultural entertainment lives adhering to higher standards of hygiene and public interaction. This would be ideal both with regard to speeding up herd immunity and with regard to minimizing that damage to the economy.

What should government do?

I am from the government and I am here to help (it is risky to attempt humor in these times, but what the hell). “Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned GOP senators that the unemployment rate could spike to nearly 20 percent if they fail to act dramatically…. The United States is expected to lose 4.6 million travel-related jobs this year as the coronavirus outbreak levies an $809 billion blow to the economy, according to a projection released yesterday by the U.S. Travel Association…. Research from Imperial College London, endorsed by the U.K. government, suggests that 2.2 million would die in the United States and 510,000 would die in Britain if nothing is done by governments and individuals to stop the pandemic.” “six-chilling-estimates-underscore-danger-of-coronavirus-to-public-health-and-the-economy”

“Infectious disease experts do not yet know exactly how contagious or deadly the novel coronavirus is. But compared to SARS and MERS, SARS-CoV-2 [as the novel coronavirus is now labeled] has spread strikingly fast: While the MERS outbreak took about two and a half years to infect 1,000 people, and SARS took roughly four months, the novel coronavirus reached that figure in just 48 days.”  “Mapping the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak”

The U.S. does not have the medical equipment or hospital beds that will be needed for those anticipated to need ICU facilities.  And as poorly equipped medical staff fall ill from their exposure to the Coronavirus, we will run out of enough doctors and nurses to care for them forcing us to default to the unpleasant realities of medical triage where doctors begin to assess and choose those that have a higher probability of survival and to leave the weakest to fend for themselves. This has already started in Italy.

So, what should the government do? Its response might be considered under three categories:  a) Stop or slow the spread of covid-19; b) Help state and local health service providers care for those needing it; and c) minimize the damage to the economy (i.e. to those whose income is affected by the disease or the measures taken to slow the spread of the disease).

As with all good policies, as the government determines its immediate approaches to the crisis, it should keep one eye on the longer run implications of the policies adopted. It should balance the most effective immediate actions with the minimization of what economists call moral hazard in the future.  The simplest and best-known example of moral hazard results from the now hopefully banished practice of governments bailing out banks when they fail as a way of protecting depositors. This one way bet for the banks–they profit when they win their bets and the government bails them out when they lose them–encouraged banks to take on excessive risks. In the U.S. we have replace bank bail outs with deposit insurance and efficient bank resolution (bankruptcy) procedures. “Key Issues in Failed Bank Resolution”

If economists do nothing else, we pay very close attention to incentives, particularly those created by government rules and regulations (including taxes and subsidies).  Government financial assistance must also be carefully designed to be temporary, recognizing the danger that expansions of government into the economy in emergencies have the bad habit of becoming permanent.

From these general considerations our response should be guided by these principles: Measures should be effective with the least cost. They should be narrowly targeted. They should be temporary. The cost of financial assistance should be shared by all involved–no bailouts.

Flatten the curve 

The government’s first priorities must be to slow the spread of covid-19 while supporting the medical needs of those contracting it.  Limiting the number of infected will limit the resulting deaths (guesstimated to be around 1% of those infected by this virus). Slowing the rate at which people are infected–flattening the curve–will reduce the peak demand for hospital beds and related services until a vaccine is found (once one or several candidates are discovered today, it will take 12 to 18 months of tests to establish its safety and effectiveness and manufacture enough to start administering it).

Despite clear warnings that the novel coronavirus posed serious threats to the U.S. for which we were not prepared, President Trump failed to act until very recently, calling the scare a Democratic plot as recently as February 28. “Trump-says-the-coronavirus-is-the-democrats-new-hoax”  “U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen, according to U.S. officials familiar with spy agency reporting.” “US-intelligence-reports-from-january-and-february-warned-about-a-likely-pandemic”

Countries that acted quickly to identify and isolate those infected by the virus have generally succeeding in slowing its spread without shutting their economies down.  South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have tested widely and quarantined those testing positive, many of whom were asymptomatic. Their economies have not been shut down. Restaurants and bars remain open as do schools in Singapore and Taiwan.  New cases in S Korea have fallen to very low levels two weeks ago and active cases have been declining since March 11 as more people recover than acquire the disease. On March 22 only two people died from the disease.  Cases and deaths have remained low in Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. The following describes the lesson’s from Singapore’s success: plan ahead, respond quickly, test a lot, quarantine the sick, communicate honestly with the public, live normally:  “Why-Singapore’s-coronavirus-response-worked–and-what-we-can-all-learn”

As a result of the U.S. failing to act earlier, the potential for this approach has been reduced in the U.S.  Nonetheless, the government should urgently remove its barriers to testing, increase the supply of tests, and pay most of the cost of testing. In order to discourage frivolous testing those being tested should pay a small amount of the cost (e.g. ten dollars per test).  Even today (March 21) very few Americans are tested despite frantic catch up efforts by the U.S. government.  “A-government-monopoly-led-to-botched-covid-19-test-kits-but-private-labs-are-now-saving-the-day” Positive test results (“cases”) in the U.S. are rising rapidly (983 new cases on March 16 jumped to 9,339 on March 22, for a total of 33,546). However, as so little testing has been possible, there is no way we can know whether this dramatic increase reflects increases in infection or only the increase in the identification of existing infections. “Peggy Noonan gets tested–finally”

As a result, the government has urged people to stay home, and most entertainment centers (theaters, cinemas, restaurants, gyms, and bars) have closed, and a few state governors are mandating it.  Many international flights have been cancelled.  Aside from grocery stores and pharmacies, most shops and malls have closed. A controversy is raging over whether closing schools does more harm than good. Among the arguments against it is that because serious illness and death among the young is rare but they can spread the disease (to their families at home and others), attempting to block their infection interferes with herd immunization (protection from infection as the result of a large proportion of the population becoming immune as the result of recovery from infection).

The economic impact of those drastic measures will be explored below, but the government must now urgently prepare for the surge of covid-19 patients promising to overwhelm our brave medical health care workers, medical supplies and hospital beds even with these draconian measures. Priorities must be given to properly equipping medical service providers and training their replacements as they fall ill. Hospital beds and respirators and other equipment needed for the more seriously ill must be urgently produced, in part by turning out and away, less seriously ill patients and those with non-emergency, elective treatments. We can delay the investigation into why these steps where not taken two months ago when the need was identified.

Care for the sick

The government should support the market’s natural incentives to develop better treatments and ultimately a vaccine (i.e. profit). This raises challenging policy issues. Protecting the patent rights of firms developing treatments protects the profit incentive for them to do so. However, the sharing of research findings, thus threatening such patents, can greatly accelerate the discovery of helpful medicines or procedures. Hopefully rights can be established and protected that both encourage drug development and cooperative information sharing.

The failure of the U.S. government to provide for or allow significant testing for covid-19 is a scandal. The government should get out of the way. “Coronavirus-and-big-government” Its claim last week and the week before that testing was opening up is sadly not true.  By March 19th the U.S. with a population of 327 million had only tested 103,945 people (0.03%).  S. Korea with a population of 51.5 mil. had tested 316,664 by March 20th (0.6%) and Germany with a population of 82.9 mil. had tested 167,000 by March 15th (0.2%)  “Covid-19-why-arent-we-prepared”

President Trump’s trade war has damaged world’s ability to fight covid-19 in general but more specifically his tariffs on medical supplies are contributing to their shortage in the U.S.  “The US-China trade war has forced US buyers to reduce purchases of medical supplies from China and seek alternative sources. US imports of Chinese medical products covered by the Trump administration’s 25 percent tariffs dropped by 16 percent in 2019 compared with two years earlier.”  “Tariffs-disrupted-medical-supplies-critical-us-coronavirus-fight”

Save the economy

Having missed the opportunity to flatten the curve via testing and targeted quarantines, the U.S. has taken much more drastic steps to restrict public interactions, shutting down the entertainment, educational, and transportation sectors of the economy. These should result in temporary interruptions of the supply of these services that will bounce back when the restrictions are lifted. Some output will be lost forever (lost classroom time, and restaurant meals) but others can be recouped or at least restored to original levels (rates). Clothing and other retail items not purchased during the shut down can be purchased later.

What the economy will look like afterward (hopefully only a few months) will depend on several factors. The first is the extent to which our public behavior is altered permanently. Home movies might permanently replace some part of our usual attendance to the cinema. Teleconferencing might permanently reduce meeting travel or accelerate the existing trend in that direction, etc.

The policies being debated in congress at this moment for protecting individuals and firms from the financial cost of the temporary shutdown can profoundly affect the future composition and condition of the economy. Every big firm out there is working on how they can tap some of the taxpayer’s money that government will be giving out. Those pushing government interventions into new areas on a permanent basis will exploit the occasion to slip in their favorite policies. Unfortunately, once the government moves into an area– it rarely withdraws. Almost 19 years later, the horrible Patriot Act, adopted when a scared public was willing to trade off liberty for security, is still largely with us.

Our public interest would be served by incentives that lead those who might be sick with covid-19 to stay home rather than risk infecting others, and by policies that enable viable firms that lost customers and individuals who stayed home to bridge their financial gap until returning to normal. Affected firms and individuals will continue to have expenses (food, rent, mortgages, etc.) but no incomes. They should be provided with the funds to meet these expenses in order to return to life/work when the lights go back on. The sharing of the cost of those funds must be considered politically fair and must incentivize the desired behavior. Everyone must have some skin in the game (a share of the cost). Adopting measure that fill those criteria will not be easy.

The government (taxpayers) should cover much of the cost of the covid-19 related medical services and hospital costs, including very widespread testing. Medical service providers should be tested daily (e.g., several doctors have died from covid-19 in Italy). Anyone staying at home and testing positive should receive sick leave paid for by the government.

Assistance to companies and the self-employed should be as targeted as possible on those forced to reduce or stop operations as a result of covid-19. Where possible, assistance should take the form of loans to companies that continue to pay wages to their employees even if not working. Restrictions should be placed on how such loans are used (no stock buy backs, or salary increases during the life of the loans). Bank and lending regulators should allow and in fact encourage temporary loan forbearance by the lenders on temporary arrears from otherwise viable firms. “Bailout-stimulus-rescue-check” One small businessman convincingly argued that wage subsidies that keep working on the payroll are better than generous unemployment insurance, which makes it easier for firms to lay off their workers. “Dear-congress-i’m-a-small-business-owner-heres-what-my-business-needs-to-survive”

What about the big companies, such as Boeing, the airlines, the Hotel Chains, and Cruise ship operators? Yes, they should be included in the loan forbearance and incentive loan programs, but they should receive no special consideration beyond that. If government (partially) guaranteed loans through banks to pay wages and other fixed expenses for a few months are not enough to finance a firm’s expenses without income for a few months it is probably not viable in the long run anyway and should be resolved through bankruptcy as were GM and Chrysler in earlier financial crises. This would wipe out the stakes of owners while preserving the ability of the firm to return to profitable operation with new owners. “Bailing-out-well-if-bail-out-we-must”

Monetary policy

The American economy (and elsewhere) is suffering in the first instance a supply shock (sick people unable to work and produce). This fall in income from supply disruptions also reduces demand. Cutting the Fed’s already low interest rate target to almost zero is a mistake. No one will undertake new or expanded investments because of it, and its impact on reducing the return on pensions and other savings will, if anything, reduce spending. The last decade of very low interest rate policy targets has already contributed to excessive corporate debt and inflated stock prices (recently deflated back to normal).

Injecting liquidity via new lending facilities and international swap lines, as the Fed is now undertaking, is the correct response. If lenders allow their borrowers to delay repayments for a few months, they need to replace that missing income somehow (rather than calling in nonperforming loans and bankrupting the borrower). The Federal reserve should substitute for that income by lending to banks freely against the good collateral of government debt or government guaranteed debt.

“The vital need of everyone in the economy, from the corner drugstore to the local transit authority to the mightiest multinational, is liquidity: credit to meet payroll and other key obligations so as to remain solvent until the end of what we all must hope is a finite crisis.”  “Here’s-an-economic-aid-plan-better-than-mitch-McConnell’s”

Macroeconomic policy

As noted above, the government’s help should be narrowly targeted to the direct victims of covid-19.  A general fiscal or monetary stimulus is not needed or desirable.  Nonetheless, it will add to the federal debt that is already bloated by years of annual deficits at the peak of a business cycle when a surprise is customary and appropriate.

“The United States is not confronted with a financial crisis and a follow-on crisis of demand, as in 2008 or 1929. Rather, previously robust consumption and production are being deliberately halted to save lives. Thus, traditional tools of monetary and fiscal stimulus, such as zero interest rates and direct cash aid to households, are unlikely to prove decisive. You can’t shop, or invest in new construction, while on lockdown.”  “Here’s-an-economic-aid-plan-better-than-mitch-McConnell’s”

This is a dangerous period both for our personal health and for the health of the economy. Affected firms should be helped in order for them to continue paying their employees and to remain solvent until they can return to production. But the United States has failed to prepare properly and is handling the fight against covid-19 poorly. We need to reopen our schools and restaurants and return to normal at a reasonable pace while allowing herd immunity to develop at a faster pace while supporting the most rapid development of a vaccine possible. Don’t fight this wildfire with our eyes shut while enhancing the dangers of future fires from ill-advised measures undertaken in this emergency environment.

Stay strong everyone. We will all get through this.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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