Epidemics, of the size of Covid-19, have huge economic impacts – not just from the costs of managing the health of people, but stopping them, and keeping the economy working. The 10% fall in global stock markets since it became clear that Covid-19 would not be limited to China has boldly highlighted this.
Suppressing the epidemic, but allowing the economy to still function, requires key decisions, in which central banks and finance ministries play a part.
The role of fiscal and monetary authorities in managing an epidemic economy
The scope to use monetary policy to manage the economic impact of Covid-19 is limited. The fact that the underlying cause of the shock is an infectious disease outbreak (rather than a banking crisis, as in 2008-09) and nominal interest rates are currently close to zero in most major advanced economies reduces the effectiveness of monetary policy.
Since 2010, reductions in fiscal deficits mean there is more scope for supportive fiscal action. But even here, high public debt levels and the desire not to underwrite ‘zombie’ companies that may have been sustained by a decade of ultra-low interest rates remain constraints.
However, outside broad based fiscal and monetary policies there are six ways in which finance ministries and central banks will play a critical role in responding to the crisis.
A first crucial role for finance ministries and central banks is in helping provide the best possible economic evaluation of strict containment measures (trying to isolate each potential case) versus managing the epidemic (delaying the spread of the virus, protecting the most vulnerable and treating the sick, while enabling the majority of people to get on with daily life). Given the economic consequences, they must play a full part, alongside health experts, in advising political leaders on this key decision.
Second, if large numbers of staff are required to work from home to manage the epidemic, they have the lead role in doing whatever is necessary to ensure that financial markets – and thus the wider economy – will continue to function smoothly.
Third, they need to ensure adequate funding for the public health response. Steps that can make an enormous difference to the success of containment strategies, such as strengthening surveillance, and guaranteeing the availability of testing kits and protective equipment for front line health workers, must not fail because of a lack of funding.
Fourth, they have a lead role in designing targeted economic interventions for the wider economy. Some of these are needed immediately to re-enforce and incentivize strict containment strategies, such as ensuring that employees without full or adequate sick leave cover have the financial support to enable them to report and self-isolate when they get sick.
Other interventions may help improve the resilience of the economy in accommodating moderate ‘social distancing’ measures; for example, by providing assistance to small firms to help them gear up for home working.
Yet others are needed, as a contingency, to safeguard the most vulnerable sectors (such as tourism, retail and transport) in circumstances where there is a prolonged downturn. The latter may include schemes to allow deferral of tax payments by SMEs, or steps to encourage loan extensions and other forms of liquidity support from the banking system, or by moves to underwrite continued provision of business insurance.
Fifth, national economic authorities will need to play their part in combatting ‘fake news’ through providing transparent and high-quality analysis. This includes providing forecasts on the likely economic impact of the virus under different scenarios, but also detailed information on the support and contingency measures they are considering, so they can be improved and refined through feedback.
Sixth, they will need to ensure that there is generous international support for poor countries, by ensuring the available multilateral support facilities from the international financial institutions and multilateral development banks are adequately funded and fit for purpose. The World Bank has already announced an initial $12 billion financing package, but much more is likely to be needed.
They also need to support coordinated bilateral aid where this is more effective, as well as special measures to support particularly vulnerable groups, for example, in refugee camps and prisons. Given the importance of distributing sophisticated medical equipment and expertise quickly, it is also important that every effort is made to avoid delays due to customs and migration checks.
Managing the future
The response to the immediate crisis will rightly take priority now, but economic authorities must also play their part in ensuring the world finally takes decisive steps to prevent a repeat of Covid-19 in future.
The experience with SARS, H1N1 and Ebola shows that, while some progress is made after each outbreak, this is often not sustained. This epidemic shows that managing diseases is absolutely critical to the long-term health of global economy, and doubly so in circumstances where traditional central bank and finance ministry tools for dealing with major global economic shocks are limited.
Finance ministries and central banks therefore need to push hard within government to ensure sustained long-term funding of research on prevention and strengthening of public health systems. They also need to ensure that the right lessons are drawn by the private sector on making international supply chains more robust.
Critical to the overall success of the economic effort will be effective international coordination. The G20 was established as the premier economic forum for international economic cooperation in 2010, and global health issues have been a substantive part of the G20 agenda since the 2017 Hamburg Summit. At the same time, G7 finance ministers and deputies remain one of the most effective bodies for managing economic crises on a day-to-day basis and should continue this within the framework provided by the G20.
However, to be effective, the US, as current president of the G7, will need to put aside its reservations on multilateral economic cooperation and working with China to provide strong leadership.