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Coronanomics 101

Summary:
In the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, economists, economic policymakers, and bodies like the G7 should humbly acknowledge that “all appropriate tools” imply, above all, those wielded by medical practitioners and epidemiologists. Coordination, autonomy, and transparency must be the watchwords. BERKELEY – Last week, G7 finance ministers and central bank governors vowed to use “all appropriate policy tools” to contain the economic threat posed by the COVID-19 coronavirus. The question left unanswered is what is appropriate, and what will work. Plagued by Trumpism Sean Gallup/Getty Images COVID-19 Trumps Nationalism

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In the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, economists, economic policymakers, and bodies like the G7 should humbly acknowledge that “all appropriate tools” imply, above all, those wielded by medical practitioners and epidemiologists. Coordination, autonomy, and transparency must be the watchwords.

BERKELEY – Last week, G7 finance ministers and central bank governors vowed to use “all appropriate policy tools” to contain the economic threat posed by the COVID-19 coronavirus. The question left unanswered is what is appropriate, and what will work.

The immediate response took the form of central bank rate cuts, with the US Federal Reserve fast off the mark. Though central banks can move quickly, however, it is not clear how much they can do, given that interest rates are already at rock-bottom levels. In any case, the Fed’s failure to coordinate its rate cut with other major central banks sent a negative signal about the coherence of the response.

Moreover, monetary policy can’t mend broken supply chains. My colleague Brad DeLong has tried to convince me that an injection of central bank liquidity can help get global container traffic moving again, as it did in 2008. (Now you know the kind of elevator conversations we have at UC Berkeley.) But the problem in 2008 was disruptions to the flow of finance, which central banks’ liquidity injections could repair.

The problem today, however, is a sudden stop in production, which monetary policy can do little to offset. Fed Chair Jerome Powell can’t reopen factories shuttered by quarantine, whatever US President Donald Trump may think. Likewise, monetary policy will not get shoppers back to the malls or travelers back onto airplanes, insofar as their concerns center on safety, not cost. Rate cuts can’t hurt, given that inflation, already subdued, is headed downward; but not much real economic stimulus should be expected of them.

The same is true, unfortunately, of fiscal policy. Tax credits won’t get production restarted...

Barry Eichengreen
Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley; Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge; and a former senior policy adviser at the International Monetary Fund.

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