The long read: The crisis has brought the economy to a near halt, and left millions of people out of work. But thanks to intervention on an unprecedented scale, a full-scale meltdown has been averted for now
In the third week of March, while most of our minds were fixed on surging coronavirus death rates and the apocalyptic scenes in hospital wards, global financial markets came as close to a collapse as they have since September 2008. The price of shares in the worlds major corporations plunged. The value of the dollar surged against every currency in the world, squeezing debtors everywhere from Indonesia to Mexico. Trillion-dollar markets for government debt, the basic foundation of the financial system, lurched up and down in terror-stricken cycles.
On the terminal screens, interest rates danced. Traders hunched over improvised home workstations known in the new slang of March 2020 as Rona rigs screaming with frustration as sluggish home wifi systems dragged behind the movement of the markets. At the low point on 23 March, $26tn had been wiped off the value of global equity markets, inflicting huge losses both on the fortunate few who own shares, and on the collective pools of savings held by pension and insurance funds.
What the markets were reacting to was an unthinkable turn of events. After a fatal period of hesitation, governments around the world were ordering comprehensive lockdowns to contain a lethal pandemic. Built for growth, the global economic machine was being brought to a screeching halt. In 2020, for the first time since the second world war, production around the world will contract. It is not only Europe and the US that have been shut down, but once-booming emerging market economies in Asia. Commodity exporters from Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa face collapsing markets.
It is now clear that we can, if circumstances demand, turn the economy off. But the consequences are catastrophic. Across the world, hundreds of millions of people have been thrown out of work. From the street hawkers of Delhi to the personal trainers of LA, the service sector by far the most important employer in the modern economy has been poleaxed. Never before has the global economy suffered a shock of this scale all at once. In the US alone, at least 17 million people have lost their jobs in the last three weeks. A severe global recession is now inevitable.
The crucial question is how much of the world economy will survive the lockdown, and this depends on the availability of credit. Business runs on credit. The bits of the economy that do continue to function the warehouses, the mobile phone providers and internet firms all need credit. Wage bills for those still working are financed through credit. Even greater is the need of those who are not working. If they cant get loans, bills will go unpaid, which spreads the pain. To survive the lockdown, millions of families and firms around the world are relying on grants and loans from the state. But tax revenues have collapsed, so states need credit, too. Across the world we are witnessing the largest surge in deficits and government debt since the second world war.
But who do we borrow from? Banks, financial markets and money markets provide the financial fuel of the world economy. Normally, credit is sustained by the optimistic promise of growth. When that dissolves, you face a self-reinforcing cycle of collapsing confidence, contracting credit, unemployment and bankruptcy, which spreads a poison cloud of pessimism. Like an epidemic, if left uncontrolled, it will sweep all before it, destroying first the financially fragile and then much else besides. It is not for nothing that we speak of financial contagion.
What began with the lockdown in Wuhan in January is more intense and more fast-moving than any recession we have seen before. In a matter of weeks we have been confronted with an economic outlook that is as grim as at any moment since the 1930s. But it could have been even worse. Imagine a situation in which, on top of the pain of the lockdown and the hellish scenes in hospital wards, we also face calls for austerity because the government cannot safely finance extra spending. Imagine that interest rates were surging, and the terms for credit cards, car loans and mortgages were suddenly getting stiffer. All of this may still happen. It is already happening to the weaker economies around the world. But for now at least, it has not happened in Europe and the US even after the turbulence of March 2020, when the pandemic hit with full force.
What Europe and the US have succeeded in doing is to flatten the curve of financial panic. They have maintained the all-important flow of credit. Without that, large parts of their economies would not be on life support they would be stone dead. And our governments would be struggling with a financial crunch to boot. Maintaining the flow of credit has been the precondition for sustaining the lockdown. It is the precondition for a concerted public health response to the pandemic.
During major crises, we are reminded of the fact that at the heart of the profit-driven, private financial economy is a public institution, the central bank. When financial markets are functioning normally, it remains in the background. But when they threaten to break down, it has the option of stepping forward to act as a lender of last resort. It can make loans, or it can buy assets from banks, funds or other businesses that are desperate for cash. Because it is the ultimate backer of the currency, its budget is unlimited. That means it can decide who sinks and who swims. We learned this in 2008. But 2020 has driven home the point as never before.
The last six weeks have seen a bout of intervention without precedent. The results have been momentous. A giant public safety net has been stretched out across the financial system. We may never know what went on behind the closed doors of the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the Bank of England during those critical moments in March. So far, only muffled sounds of argument have reached the outside. But as the virus struck, the men and women in those three central banks held the economic survival of hundreds of millions of people and the fate of nations in their hands. This is the story of how global financial meltdown was averted by central banks taking decisions that, just a month earlier, they would have dismissed as utterly impossible.
The financial markets scan the world for risk. Even the slightest disruption in the vast networks of finance, production and trade offers the opportunity for profit or the threat of loss. So the news on 23 January, that the outbreak of an unknown virus was serious enough for the Chinese authorities to impose a gigantic quarantine, hit the traders on their Bloomberg terminals hard. Bank economists struggled to get a grip on the dimensions of the problem. Would this be a minor disruption like Sars in 2003? Or were we facing the nightmare scenario of the Hollywood film Contagion?
In late January, investors began to move more and more money out of things like commodities and shares in companies, and into the relative safety of government bonds. What comforted them was the idea that the virus was a problem contained in China. The day that illusion burst the day that investors realised that Covid-19 was becoming a global pandemic was Monday 24 February. Over the weekend the Italian government had announced that it was imposing a quarantine in parts of northern Italy. It was the first place in the west to do so.