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The Political Economy of Covid-19

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Governments around the world are attempting to prop up a failing capitalist system by — surprise! — throwing money at wealthy individuals and corporations, especially in the financial industry. In other words, in this time of unprecedented crisis and economic difficulty, it’s business as usual.

We were here not much more than a decade ago, although the rise in unemployment has been more dramatic than during the economic collapse of 2008. That global economic crisis was a long time coming but was inevitable for anyone willing to pay attention. During the 1990s stock-market bubble, traders repeatedly said the dramatic price rises could not last, but as long as the consensus view was that the long bull market would continue they were not going to step off the ride. When the bubble did burst, new forms of speculation kept the financial industry’s party going for several more years. Credit was the lubricant for the later round, both inflating a real estate bubble and enabling consumer spending to continue in the face of declining wages, until the speculation became unsustainable.

No more bubbles to inflate, governments representing the world’s four largest economies alone committed US$16.3 trillion in 2008 and 2009 on bailouts of the financiers who brought down the global economy and, to a far smaller extent, for economic stimulus. Those commitments included $11 trillion for the U.S. (where money thrown at capitalists far exceeded the $700 billion in the Troubled Assets Relief Program), $4 trillion for the European Union, $750 billion for Japan and $600 billion for China. Smaller economies did that too. The Reserve Bank of Australia shoveled A$1.8 billion (US$1.5 billion at the then exchange rate) at financiers to shore up its banking system. The Reserve Bank of India did the same, handing out 60 billion rupees (US$1.3 billion).

All that was simply to deal with the immediate crisis of 2008. As stagnation continued, many of the world’s most prominent central banks decided to throw new gigantic sums of money at the financial industry. Specifically, through programs known by the technical name of “quantitative easing.” What that is are central banks buying in massive amounts bonds issued by their own governments, corporate bonds and/or mortgage-backed securities. For all the talk of the world’s governments taking “unprecedented” measures to deal with the dramatic economic crash triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, most of the money being committed is in the form of new quantitative easing.

An economic song and dance

The supposed purpose of quantitative-easing programs is to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. Under this theory, a reduction in long-term interest rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; encourage businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the currency, thereby boosting exports by making locally made products more competitive.

In actuality, quantitative-easing programs cause the interest rates on bonds to fall because of the resulting distortion in demand for them, enabling bond sellers to offer lower interest rates. Seeking assets with a better potential payoff, speculators buy stock instead, driving up stock prices and inflating a stock-market bubble. Money not used in speculation ends up parked in bank coffers, boosting bank profits, or is borrowed by businesses to buy back more of their stock, another method of driving up stock prices without making any investments.

By any standard, we are indeed talking about massive amounts of money. Just on “quantitative easing” alone, the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of England and Bank of Japan spent approximately US$9.36 trillion, or, if you prefer, €8.3 trillion, in the years following the 2008 collapse. Here’s a breakdown:

  • The Federal Reserve spent $4.1 trillion in three QE programs that ended in November 2014.
  • The European Central Bank spent €2.6 trillion on its QE programs, which only concluded at the end of 2018.
  • The Bank of England spent £375 billion on its QE program.
  • The Bank of Japan has spent north of ¥200 trillion; precise figures are not available. Japan’s QE has been so large and long-lasting that the Bank of Japan now owns assets valued at more than the entire country’s economy.

Think of all the social needs that could have been fixed for such sums. For example, the British think tank Policy Exchange estimated in 2015 that Britain’s needs for investment in transportation, communication and water infrastructure to be a minimum of £170 billion. That is less than half of what the Bank of England spent on its quantitative-easing scheme. The U.S. could have wiped out all student debt, fixed all the schools, rebuilt aging water and sewer systems, cleaned up contaminated industrial sites and repaired dams — all for $700 billion less than what was spent on quantitative easing.

Given this recent history — by no means an aberration in the history of these capitalist governments — it is no surprise that relief for the economic crash caused by Covid-19 has been largely directed at corporate boardrooms and the bank accounts of the wealthy.

Stimulus packages to deal with pandemic, but who gets stimulated?

The Federal Reserve, like most central banks, is “independent” of the rest of government. The reason given is to avoid “political interference,” but in reality so the elites of financial institutions can continue to do whatever they want without consequence. But as is customary, the Federal Reserve doesn’t act in a vacuum; Congress and the White House are also doing what they can to shovel gigantic sums of money at financiers and industrialists.

So far, Congress has passed two stimulus packages that were signed into law, one in late March and the second in April. A third has been passed by the House of Representatives, but the Senate has shown no inclination to take it up and there is reason to doubt House Democrats are actually serious about this last effort.

The first stimulus is the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, worth $2 trillion, which was signed into law on March 27. This is the act that resulted in United Statesians receiving one-time $1,200 checks from the federal government. Considering that the average monthly rent in most cities of the United States is more than that, those checks are tokens that serve to obscure where most of the money went. It wasn’t to households left without work.

A second stimulus bill was passed and signed into law on April 24 and is worth another $500 billion. Most of the money in this second stimulus bill was earmarked for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a loan program in the CARES Act intended for small businesses that may be forgiven if firms use them to keep workers on payroll; the PPP had run out of money in two weeks. Democrats said they wanted money in this round to go to state governments struggling with suddenly shrinking tax revenue but, as is their custom, immediately capitulated when Republicans said no.

The CARES Act included $250 billion to bolster unemployment insurance, $500 billion in aid for industry and state governments, other monies going directly to specific industries and $350 billion for the PPP. Sounds nice, yes? Appearances and reality, however, diverge.

Before the second, supplemental stimulus package was passed, it had already become apparent that much of the stimulus money was going to Big Business. And that was not all, as yet more tax cuts for large corporations were included in the CARES Act. According to Democracy Now, “A congressional committee reports tax provisions in the coronavirus stimulus passed by Congress last month will overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest Americans. Four out of five tax filers benefiting from the $70 billion temporary tax loophole are millionaires or billionaires. They’ll receive an average windfall of $1.6 million — dwarfing the $1,200 payments for working Americans.”

Manipulation of Paycheck Protection Program

Meanwhile, much of the PPP money didn’t go to mom-and-pop businesses forced to close due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At least 75 publicly traded companies received funds from the PPP, which is supposed to help small businesses. The Associated Press reports:

“The Paycheck Protection Program was supposed to infuse small businesses, which typically have less access to quick cash and credit, with $349 billion in emergency loans that could help keep workers on the job and bills paid on time. But at least 75 companies that received the aid were publicly traded, the AP found, and some had market values well over $100 million. And 25% of the companies had warned investors months ago — while the economy was humming along — that their ability to remain viable was in question. By combing through thousands of regulatory filings, the AP identified the 75 companies as recipients of a combined $300 million in low-interest, taxpayer-backed loans. Eight companies, or their subsidiaries, received the maximum $10 million possible, including a California software company that settled a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation late last year into accounting errors that overstated its revenue.”

Even the Big Business cheerleaders at the CNBC business news cable channel reported that “Hundreds of millions of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program emergency funding have been claimed by large, publicly traded companies, new research published by Morgan Stanley shows.” This report estimated that at least $243.4 million of the total $349 billion handed out in the PPP as of April 21 — by which time the PPP had already run out of money — went to publicly traded companies.

The above figures might be an underestimate; a later Washington Post report said “hundreds” of publicly traded companies have received a composite of more than $1 billion in PPP funding, although some of that money has been returned under public pressure. Eighty percent of applicants were left with nothing after funding ran out.

Published reports differ in determining the number of inappropriate recipients of PPP money because there is little accountability. One reason for that, beyond the usual wanting to shield favored donors from public scrutiny, might be that several members of Congress have themselves received PPP money. The Trump administration is refusing to provide information; it would not be a surprise to find there is something to hide there as well. Politico reports that “at least four members of Congress have reaped benefits,” and the actual total might be higher. “It’s a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have acknowledged close ties to companies that have received loans from the program — businesses that are either run by their families or employ their spouse as a senior executive,” Politico reports, naming two Democrats (Susie Lee of Nevada and Debbie Mucarsel Powell of Florida) and two Republicans (Roger Williams of Texas and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri).

Tax breaks for the one percent slipped into stimulus

One tax break inserted into the second stimulus bill only applies to companies with revenue of $25 million and another provision lets people in households earning at least $500,000 a year deduct even more of their business losses from stock market profits, The New York Times reports. These deductions will enable the recipients to reduce what they owe in capital gains taxes. Victor Fleischer, a tax law professor at the University of California, Irvine, told the Times, “Many of the tax benefits in the stimulus are ‘just shoveling money to rich people.’ ”

And given the grifters who occupy the White House, it will come as no surprise that there are special benefits for the owners of real estate. One of the goodies stuffed into the stimulus packages will allow people who own their businesses through partnerships or other similar structures to use all of the losses they claim on paper to offset taxes they might otherwise owe from other income, such as stock market profits, eliminating a cap on how much of those losses could be used. These partnerships can be very profitable, but as long as they show a loss on paper the owners can offset taxes. Jesse Drucker of The New York Timesin an interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program, estimates this tax break for the wealthy will cost the government $135 billion — essentially all of which will go to the top one percent.

This massive tax break is not specifically written for the real estate industry, but that is the industry that is likely to benefit the most as corporate real estate operations are often structured in these ways. Mr. Drucker said:

“In real estate, you can actually have, in the real world, what is quite a profitable business that generates losses on tax returns because real estate developers get to write down the value of their buildings. That turns into a deduction. And the result is that people like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump — to the degree that we have had some insight into their taxes over the last few years, we have seen that they have reported big losses on their tax returns. In many cases, it’s almost certainly the result of some of these favorable provisions that let them write down the value of their buildings. So the point is that any tax law change you make that gives people the ability to make maximum use of their losses is something that could very easily benefit real estate investors because they have so many losses. And in the case of Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, we don’t have to speculate on that. We know that in previous years, they have reported big losses, which would put them in a position to benefit from this.”

Not even the most elementary provisions to put some limits on where the money is going were inserted into these stimulus bills. For example, although there is a clause prohibiting the use of the money for stock buybacks and extra executive pay, it’s followed by another clause allowing Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin (the foreclosure king) to waive the prohibition. Nor are there measures to demand that corporate recipients even pay tax. Reuters reports that the PPP has given “millions of dollars in American taxpayer money to a number of firms that have avoided paying U.S. tax.” Twelve companies provided with $104 million in loans use offshore havens to cut their tax bills, seven of which paid no taxes.

Federal Reserve offers trillions of dollars

The Federal Reserve’s contribution to the wealthy goes far beyond the two stimulus bills. By the end of March, the Fed had already committed more than $3 trillion in loans and asset purchases in the wake of a rapidly collapsing economy. This included fresh commitments to a recently announced new quantitative-easing program in which the Fed had pledged to spend $700 billion to buy Treasury and mortgage-backed bonds in addition to multiple loan programs. Although most of this will come from printing money, $450 billion of this came from the $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus passed by Congress.

Following its March 23 announcement, the Fed announced another round of measures on April 9, this time committing $2.3 trillion in new loans and credits for business and local governments. The centerpiece of this round is the “Main Street Lending Program,” which makes it sound like these loans will be earmarked for small businesses, but loans will be offered to corporations with as many as 10,000 workers and revenues of up to $2.5 billion. Not exactly what we have in mind when we think of “Main Street.” The set of measures could inject $6 trillion into the financial system, but that money, if actually spent, seems mostly destined for the pockets of speculators.

With state and local governments dangerously short on revenue due to the economic crisis, and thus putting social programs in jeopardy, what does the White House want to do? The only “solution” demanded by Donald Trump is to cut the payroll tax, the source of money for Social Security. The president claims he wants a “temporary” payroll tax cut, but that has to be seen not only in light of his complete inability to say anything truthful but his and his administration’s stated desire to cut Social Security. Cutting the funding for the retirement program is a good way to undercut it, which has long been the wish of Wall Street. Even if there weren’t nefarious reasons at work, would a temporary payroll tax cut provide a jolt to the economy? Definitely no, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in a May 12 commentary.

“President Trump has said he will not support any additional relief or stimulus measures in response to the human and economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic unless they include a temporary payroll tax cut,” the Center said. Stimulus packages are only effective “if they quickly deliver resources to people and businesses that most need it and so are most likely to spend rather than save any extra dollars they receive.” But the Trump plan would fail to help either. The Center said:

“Cutting the employee share of payroll taxes gives the most help (in dollar terms) to higher earners, who are less likely to need the help or to spend most or all of the extra money. Compounding the weaknesses of this approach, it does less for those with lower earnings and nothing at all for people who have lost jobs. And cutting employer payroll taxes is an ineffective way to shore up business hiring and investment. Business’ main problem now is lack of customers for their products — both because of social distancing measures and because many customers’ incomes have fallen dramatically as unemployment has risen. Businesses will not hire (or retain) more workers or invest in more equipment than they need to produce the goods and services they can actually sell.”

Already there are signs that the windfall large businesses have received from the Trump administration have been slipped into bank accounts, not into investment. Economist Jack Rasmus has calculated that the loss of income for the tens of millions of United Statesians plunged into unemployment has cost them a composite $1.3 billion in lost wages. Ridiculing the orthodox economic “theory” that the problem with recessions are “sticky wages” — in other words, wages don’t fall fast enough or far enough during downturns — Professor Rasmus notes that businesses are not investing in the wake of the wage reductions. He writes:

“They’re hoarding the $1.74 trillion in Congressional loans and grants bailouts. And hoarding the $650 billion in business tax cuts also in the bailout legislation thus far (which one hears very little about in the media, I might add). … [T]he short term cash deposits by business in just institutional money funds (only one source) has risen from $2.3 trillion before March 1, 2020 to $3.3T today. That’s a $1T rise in cash deposits by businesses, just in institutional money funds. More is being deposited in commercial banks. The long run average of business deposits in commercial banks has been around 5% (6% under Obama and 4.6% under Trump 2016-19) to 15.8% since March 1. Businesses and investors are hoarding their cash and stuffing it in their short term accounts in banks, funds, and who knows where else, on and offshore.”

Much of that hoard of cash is likely destined for stock buybacks, dividends, speculation, buying companies and boosting lobbying efforts down the road. U.S. corporations spent more than $1.1 trillion on buying back stock in 2018 and although the pace slacked a bit in 2019, more than $700 billion went toward buybacks. Stock buybacks are completely unproductive spending — they are simply corporations buying their own stock, giving those who sell a premium to the trading price and boosting profits for remaining shareholders because the profits will be shared among fewer people. Speculators love them.

Britain, EU and Canada: Lots for financiers, crumbs for working people

Capitalism is a global system, and thus using a crisis to benefit the wealthy and powerful is hardly limited to the United States, even if it is the center of the global capitalist system and thus at the forefront of propping up its winners. Tax Watch UK, which describes itself as an “investigative think tank,” discovered that among the recipients of loans under the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility are 13 companies with links to tax havens or that “have seen controversy regarding their financial affairs.” Those 13 companies received £4.8 billion, or almost 30 percent of the total. Tax Watch UK reports that among these is Baker Hughes, a subsidiary of General Electric, “which is embroiled in a £1 billion tax dispute over unpaid taxes going back to 2004.”

The British government, headed by the mendacious Boris Johnson, hasn’t been shy about handing out money to business. The Bank of England has committed £200 billion to quantitative easing (bond buying), £330 billion in loan guarantees for business and an unspecified amount for “short-term liquidity” for the government, among other measures. Separately, Whitehall has committed tens of billions of pounds to three separate loan programs, property tax holidays, direct grants for small firms, grants for “innovation” and other items. For working people? A total of £14.7 billion of additional funding to the National Health Service and £7 billion for increased payments under the Universal Credit scheme and other benefits. Overall, quite one-sided toward capital.

Similar to the United States and United Kingdom, the bulk of money committed by the European Union to shore up the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic is for quantitative easing. The EU has committed to pouring €1.35 trillion into buying private- and public-sector securities by June 2021 under its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program.

The EU will also offer a €540 billion addition to its European Stability Mechanism, an International Monetary Fund-style loan program under which money is loaned to governments under condition that recipients implement severe austerity. (This is the program under which the EU paid off the Greek government’s debt to European banks, meaning that Greece instead owed its debts to EU institutions rather than the banks, doing nothing to lower the debt level but forcing Athens to administer punishing austerity that left Greeks destitute.) And on top of the above, the EU has thrown in another €200 billion for businesses. For working people, nothing more than relative crumbs: €37 billion “to support public investment for hospitals, [small businesses], labor markets, and stressed regions” and €100 billion to protect workers and jobs. Once again, quite one-sided in favor of capital.

Back across the Atlantic, Canada has announced multiple programs, including quantitative easing. The Bank of Canada has implemented several QE programs for buying corporate bonds, federal and provincial government bonds, mortgage bonds and commercial paper (short-term debt issued by corporations), as well as programs to provide credit and “support the stability of the Canadian financial system.” The Bank of Canada is not forthcoming about the total cost of these programs; it has committed to spending C$5.5 billion per week, with no cutoff date, on just two programs, the purchases of federal government bonds and mortgage bonds. A measure of what has been spent so far is indicated in the central bank’s balance sheet, which reveals that total assets held by it increased from $120 billion on March 11 to $498 billion on June 11. So that’s $378 billion with more to come.

What is Canada spending on working people? $116 billion for “direct aid to households and firms” and $4 billion for the health system. So a lot less, and even some of this much smaller amount will be going to businesses.

Although more direct aid for working people is being included this time around — given the crisis of neoliberalism and that the massive subsidies to the same financiers responsible for the crash of the economy in 2008 haven’t been forgotten, political leaders had no choice but to sweeten the pot a little — the overwhelming majority of the money dispensed is going to the financial industry and to large corporations. Again it must be asked: How much more useful would it have been to use this money for practical needs and direct payments to people instead of propping up a bloated and wasteful financial system? More directly, how long can the peoples of the world continue to believe that a system in crisis so frequently and requires such massive bailouts works?

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Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His first book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books and he has completed the text for his second book, What Do We Need Bosses For?

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