By James Kwak
Our business and household sectors are losing lots of money every day, and will continue to lose money for the foreseeable future. People no longer spend money at restaurants. Restaurant owners can no longer pay the rent or pay back their business loans. Restaurants fire their workers, who lose their paychecks and can no longer pay their rent, or their credit card bills, or their student debt. In an economic crisis like this, the overriding question is: who ultimately bears the losses?
We’ve been through this before. In the 2008 financial crisis, we applied the usual rules of capitalism—unless you were a large bank. Businesses failed and their owners (including shareholders, for corporations) were wiped out. Renters were evicted. Homeowners lost their houses. Investment funds that had bought mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations lost their money. Workers lost their pensions. Small banks were shut down by the FDIC. Big banks, however, got unlimited cheap credit from the Federal Reserve to stay afloat, thanks the the people we all know.
Will things be different this time? Perhaps. The Trump administration seems more willing than the Obama administration to relax the rules of capitalism—which should not be too surprising with a president who flaunts any and all rules, is more than happy to dole out goodies to his friends, and is unable to add numbers together. I think the megabanks can rest assured that they are still too big to fail and can count on unlimited support from their friends at the Federal Reserve and Treasury—Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act notwithstanding.
The surprise so far as been the decision to suspend foreclosures and evictions of anyone with a federally-backed mortgage for at least sixty days. Fannie and Freddie also are suspending mortgage payments for up to a year. This, as far as I can recall, is more than the Obama administration ever did for ordinary people hit by the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008 and 2009. Again, it shouldn’t be that surprising that Donald Trump is willing to take losses onto the federal balance sheet—it’s not his money, after all. This time, though, it happens to be the right thing to do.
These rules, of course, don’t apply to the private sector. If you are a small business owner who owes rent to your landlord or interest to your bank, there’s no reason to think you’re going to be let off the hook. The same goes for tenants with private landlords. Which raises the question: When the economy is hit by what is essentially an “act of God,” why is it that the owners of capital are kept whole, and the renters of capital have to bear all the losses? It’s not efficient—the economy would be a whole lot better off if people didn’t have to leave their homes and businesses didn’t have to close—and it certainly isn’t fair. Yet that’s the way our capitalist system works.
There is only one entity in the country—and perhaps the world—that can absorb the losses being generated by this crisis: the federal government, with its unmatched ability to borrow money. This time around, the top priority of the government should be direct assistance to the people who need it most—both workers and business owners who need cash to buy food, stay in their homes, and take care of their families. It should finance that assistance by borrowing money—at record-low interest rates—and by taxing the rich people who can most afford to absorb losses. Landlords and lenders will be made whole because of the money their borrowers are getting from the government, but they or their shareholders, to the extent they are rich, will lose money in the form of taxes.
It’s not that complicated. But I doubt our society and political system are equipped to solve this problem.
This post was largely inspired by a friend who I think prefers to remain anonymous.