How the Coronavirus Crisis Became an Economic Crisis

Fairlane Mall, Dearborn, Michigan, April 20, 2020. Photo: Jim West, jimwest.photo.com.

Part 2 of a joint series in Labor Notes and Dollars & Sense on the economics of the coronavirus crisis. Part 1, “Not Simply a 'Natural Disaster,'” is here.

An enormous infectious disease crisis would produce a big economic fallout in almost any society, regardless of its economic structure. Some of the consequences, however, depend on the economic system. The impacts of the coronavirus in this country are felt through the structures of a capitalist economy and through the particular features of U.S. capitalism.

Economists are now predicting that U.S. gross domestic product (GDP)—a standard measure of the total output of goods and services—will decline at an annual rate of 30 percent in the second quarter of this year. That means that if the same rate of drop-off continued for a full year, incomes would drop (on average) to only 70 percent as much as they were a year before. Total employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) jobs report for April, was down by more than 21 million compared to February.

We can place the mechanisms that have turned the public health crisis in the U.S. into a massive recession in two intertwined categories, those originating on the demand side of the economy and those originating on the supply side.

DEMAND-SIDE EFFECTS

In order to reduce risk of infection, people have cut way down on consumption that involves close contact with others, such as dining out, crowd events, and in-person shopping. In other words, demand for those goods and services has dropped. As a result, businesses have cut back worker hours and laid workers off. Hotel and restaurant workers, brick-and-mortar retail workers, and others—by the millions—have lost their jobs.

The BLS jobs report for April reflects the disproportional impact on the service sector. In leisure and hospitality alone, jobs were down by over 8 million. While leisure and hospitality accounted for only about 13 percent of total private employment before the massive job loss began, those industries were responsible for about 40 percent of the lost jobs.

The effects of job loss in one sector can then multiply across the economy: affected workers cut back their spending; that reduces demand for other goods and services; that decline in demand leads other businesses to cut hours and jobs too.

NOT INEVITABLE

The magnitude of this destructive ripple effect is not automatic or inevitable. It depends on economic policy and institutions.

The more replacement income laid-off workers get from “safety net” programs like unemployment insurance, the less they have to cut back their consumption spending. High levels of replacement income mean workers without jobs can still get the things they need to live, and workers in other industries are less likely to face layoffs or cuts in hours due to falling demand.

Economists term such policies “automatic stabilizers.” When there is a drop in demand, these policies automatically inject some spending back into the economy and reduce the overall blow to production and jobs.

We already have some income-replacement policies, such as unemployment insurance. The federal government and some states have expanded unemployment benefits during past crisis periods, such as the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and its aftermath, and have done so again in the current crisis. The recent “stimulus” bill increases benefit levels, duration of benefits, and eligibility.

Combined state and federal benefits, on average, will replace close to 100 percent of laid-off workers’ lost pay through the end of July (not including the value of employer-provided benefits like health insurance). This does not necessarily mean, however, that demand for goods and services will stay the same. Since the expanded benefits are only temporary, and future job prospects so uncertain, many may cut back their spending now anyway.

Bosses in the U.S. have historically been more successful than those in other high-income capitalist countries at limiting unemployment benefits. Eligibility, duration, and level of benefits are all typically lower here than in other similar economies. Such benefits reduce workers’ desperation to keep their jobs—and employers’ power over workers—so business owners and executives generally oppose them.

Employers and the politicians beholden to them, moreover, typically push for any expansion of benefits during a crisis to be strictly temporary. They don’t want increased economic security for workers to become the “new normal.”

SUPPLY-SIDE EFFECTS

Cuts to output and jobs also originate on the supply side of the economy. In the current crisis, production across many industries has been interrupted by individual workers’ refusal to go in to their workplaces, by groups of workers collectively demanding suspension of in-person work, and most importantly by government-mandated shutdowns of “nonessential” workplaces.

A report by Moody’s Analytics on behalf of the Wall Street Journal concluded, as of early April, that because of state shutdown orders “at least one-quarter of the U.S. economy has suddenly gone idle.” These job losses feed again into a decline in demand.

Declining production in one industry can also affect related industries, either “upstream”—those that supply it with inputs (materials, energy, etc.)—or “downstream”—those that use its output. When automakers shut down operations, for example, so do parts manufacturers. When meatpacking plants shut down, retail sales in supermarkets drop.

We've also seen a decline in work-related types of consumption, in part due to supply-side conditions like mandated shutdowns. With fewer people commuting to work, for instance, the demand for gasoline has dropped dramatically, sending oil prices plummeting.

THE DEMAND-BOOSTING PLAYBOOK

When demand collapses, government has a well-known set of policy options, going back to the Great Depression of the 1930s, for injecting spending back into the economy. The government might:

  • purchase goods and services from private businesses
  • make cash payments to businesses, without requiring goods and services in return
  • make cash payments to individuals, without requiring work in return
  • directly employ individuals for pay
  • cut taxes, to increase individuals’ disposable incomes
  • increase the money supply, with the aim of reducing interest rates
  • directly make loans to businesses or individuals.

We have already seen some of these demand-boosting policies. The late March stimulus bill included about $600 billion in direct cash to individuals. That is mostly the $1,200 and $500 “stimulus checks” plus expanded unemployment benefits.

It also included about $500 billion directly for large corporations, about $450 billion in loans but also billions in cash “grants” (much of that to airlines). Another $350 billion, mostly in the form of loans, was earmarked for small businesses. Some corporations, by no means small, sparked an outcry by grabbing some of these “small business” funds. No surprise there.

In addition, the Federal Reserve launched an “unlimited” program to purchase financial securities owned by private financial institutions, with the aim of driving down interest rates. The idea is that lower rates will get private businesses and individuals to borrow and spend more.

THE MULTIPIER EFFECT

All of these actions could boost spending in the short run.

When lower-income people receive additional income, they tend to spend most of it, so the demand boost is relatively large.

During the Great Recession of 2007-2009, economist Mark Zandi estimated that the total spending impact of an extra $1 in unemployment benefits or nutrition assistance was between $1.60 and $1.75. That’s because recipients’ spending became income for other people, who in turn spent most of it; that spending becomes income for still other people, who spend most of that, and so on. This is known as the “multiplier effect.” The multiplier is smaller when higher-income people receive extra income, since they are likely to save more of it.

Businesses that receive stimulus money may also refrain from spending it, especially if there is little reason to expand production. During a big recession like this one, businesses may decide to pocket extra money as a hedge against running out of cash down the road. (Some of the corporate bailout money was earmarked for wages and benefits, so that may reduce businesses’ cash hoarding.)

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An infusion of money into the banking system, likewise, does not always translate into substantial new lending. During the 2007-2009 recession, the Federal Reserve bought trillions of dollars worth of bonds from banks, but the banks largely sat on the additional cash, holding it as “excess reserves.”

NO QUICK FIX?

The current crisis poses some special complications, making it unlikely that standard demand-boosting policies will quickly restore production and jobs.

First, the sectors that are hardest hit—leisure and hospitality—are the least likely to respond to the general sort of demand-boosting that’s in the stimulus bill.

If people remain worried about coming into close contact with others, increased overall purchasing power isn’t likely to translate quickly into more demand for restaurant meals, sporting events or concerts, or hotel stays. (Nor would we want it to.) It may boost demand for other kinds of goods and services—take-out meals, online retail, and so forth—and some of the workers who have lost jobs in the hardest-hit sectors might get jobs in those other sectors. But not all will, especially not in the short run.

Second, business shutdown and state stay-at-home orders constrain supply. Even if consumers were demanding more goods and services, in many sectors businesses would not be able to meet that demand. (Nor would we want to see more in-person employment in the short run, since that would accelerate the spread of the virus.)

THE UPSHOT

In the short and the medium term, big declines in output and work hours are a fact. Demand-boosting policies can lessen the carnage. Not all policies out of the recession-response playbook, however, are equally effective in boosting demand. Nor are the various options equally good for other reasons.

Some options, for example, reduce economic inequality; others increase inequality. Those that primarily benefit low- and middle-income people are better on both scores than those that benefit high-income individuals and giant corporations.

We clearly cannot avoid falling incomes and hours altogether, so responses to the crisis need to cope with that reality.

Far-fetched as it may seem, it is possible to manage significant declines in a country’s average income without a disastrous human toll. The key is that the brunt must not be borne disproportionately by a vulnerable group, like those who lose their jobs, and that none of the burden should be borne by those who are already struggling. We’ll see how in Part 3.

Alejandro Reuss is an economist and historian, lecturer in Labor Studies at the University of Massachusetts, and former co-editor of Dollars & Sense. A longer version of this article (with full list of sources) is available at Dollars & Sense.

What Is Capitalism?

Mainstream economists don’t tend to talk about “capitalism” very much, preferring terms like “market economy.” They like to celebrate markets—unregulated “free markets” most of all—and to emphasize markets in describing modern economies like that of the United States.

But there is more to capitalist economies than just markets. Economists of non-mainstream theoretical persuasions (known as “radical political economists”) emphasize three major characteristics of capitalism—private property, wage labor, and production for profit.

1) Private property.

When people think of private property, they may think first of personal belongings like their clothes, furniture, cars, and homes. Radical political economists, however, emphasize the private ownership of the “means of production”—the things that are used to produce other things, such as land, factories, machinery, and raw materials.

In the U.S. and other capitalist societies, these are owned mainly by a few private individuals or companies. This is a familiar fact of life, yet there have been other societies, both ancient and modern, where such resources—or at least certain key resources—could not be privately owned.

It makes sense to focus on who controls these kinds of resources, especially if one is interested in power inequalities. Highly concentrated ownership of the means of production gives a small number of business owners enormous power over the majority, who have no other way to make a living but to work for them.

2) Wage labor.

In capitalist economies, most people work for someone else for pay—they are “wage and salary employees”—and the vast majority of wage workers work for private for-profit employers.

In the United States and other similar economies, the predominance of wage labor has grown dramatically over time. Over the last couple of centuries, the U.S. economy has been transformed from one based on a combination of slavery, self-employment, wage labor, and unpaid household labor to one largely based on just the last two.

Since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, large capitalist enterprises have come to dominate most industries, and small-scale self-employment has become quite marginal. The U.S. “market economy” is not mainly populated by independent proprietors—however much nostalgia may exist for a bygone age of small farmers, craftspeople, and shopkeepers—but by capitalist employers and wage workers.

3) Production for sale (with the aim of profit).

The people who employ wage workers mostly do not directly consume the goods and services that those workers produce. Yes, rich people do employ cooks, cleaners, drivers, and gardeners to produce goods and services directly for them. But for the most part, employees make goods and services for their employers to sell at a profit.

The shareholders and executives of General Motors do not want the cars; the owners of McDonalds do not want the hamburgers. They want the profits from selling those goods.

Business owners make choices about investment and employment based on their expectations of future profit. If the executives at just a few thousand large corporations decide to cut back on business spending because they think opportunities for profit are not good, millions of workers can be thrown out of work.

This puts pressure on governments to create profitable conditions for private business and gives owners and executives a great deal of political power at the level of entire nations.

For a more in-depth discussion, see Bowles, Edwards, Roosevelt, and Larudee, “Capitalism as an Economic System,” in Understanding Capitalism: Competition, Command, and Change in the U.S. Economy.)

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