Post-lockdown: neither austerity nor voodoo economics

05.19.2020 2 min

The central banks took swift and effective action. States also acted rapidly in an attempt to handle the cost of the unprecedented fall in production as effectively as possible. They did so by enabling the financing of company losses and by taking on the cost of labour, since businesses generating zero revenue cannot continue paying their employees. The aims are to prevent layoffs and bankruptcies, protect production capacity and avoid an appalling rise in poverty.

The set of measures temporarily lifts monetary constraint – vital in normal circumstances to the efficient functioning of the economy – from economic players, businesses and households.

Monetary constraint

But in today’s economic meltdown, the normal exercise of monetary constraint would be catastrophic, leading to bankruptcies and countless irretrievable job losses. For their part, the central banks, while ensuring the liquidity necessary to the financial system, have wisely suspended the monetary constraint of states.

Once the health crisis is over, putting an end to this exceptional suspension will not be an easy task, and it would be dangerous to let people believe that monetary constraint at all levels could be durably lifted simply by central banks buying state and company debt on an ad lib basis.

While monetary constraint should not be abruptly reintroduced, as this could send the economy into a new downward spiral, neither should it be suspended for too long. This is because we must absolutely avoid a flight from currency, the value of which is wholly dependent on the trust placed in the effective exercise of monetary constraint, and hence in banks and central banks, as well as in the quality of debt, including public debt.

Fatal illusion

Central banks should make a part of the additional public debt resulting from the health crisis interest-free on a practically indefinite basis to lighten the load and foster the return of growth. But they must do so in a precise and strictly circumscribed manner. The idea of central banks permanently suspending monetary constraint is a fatal illusion. The major risk involved in acting as if monetary and economic constraints no longer exist is thus not a return of traditional inflation but a loss of confidence in currency. Sooner or later, this would lead to the appearance of a form of hyper-inflation and deep financial instability.

Pressure from public opinion

The reopening could thus entail elevated risks of economic policy mistakes. Under pressure from public opinion, policy may seek to return too swiftly to orthodoxy or assume that we are exempt indefinitely from any and all constraints.

A solid supply policy must be led to rebuild the country’s production capacity and even increase it to reduce its strategic dependence. The process will require all the capacity for work and entrepreneurial spirit of everyone involved. The supply policy must further mobilise labour and include a substantial focus on recapitalising businesses and facilitating investments. Failing this, companies will exit lockdown heavily in debt and may well be unable to invest sufficiently on a lasting basis.

The supply policy must be accompanied by a policy to boost demand, since both have suffered considerably during the crisis. Increasing taxes will not be compatible with either policy. Consequently, we will need to accept budgets with extremely gradual deficit reductions and the fact that monetary policies can only return to their unconventional practices in a cautious fashion. But to salvage trust in state debt and in currency, this should be achieved as part of a highly explicit plan.

CEO of BRED and associate professor at HEC, Chairman of LECE