When the history of 2020 is written, COVID 19 will loom large—as a public health crisis, but especially for its effects on economic and civic life. While different decisions could have been made, the fiscal and monetary policy interventions by Congress and the Federal Reserve, while controversial, have provided some essential stability for individuals, families, businesses and communities in the face of catastrophic state quarantine orders.
As Americans cope with pandemic fatigue and economic uncertainty, much of the economy remains in a state of limbo. More and more Americans feel a disconnect between themselves and the policymakers they elect to represent them. Likewise, the disconnect between marketable securities on Wall Street and Main Street is growing. While capital markets remain strong, across America, many people remain unable to return to work, landlords cannot collect rent from tenants who cannot pay or have been exempted, and many businesses struggle to get loans, leaving people and businesses distraught as their livelihoods crumble.
It is essential that we end policies that keep businesses closed and consumers fearful. However, two other factors are also prolonging economic stagnation. Flat unemployment benefits created by the CARES Act have kept many hourly workers at home instead of returning to work. Similarly, the Federal Reserve has incentivized banks to hoard cash, rather than lend it. Put plainly, Congress and the Fed are paying people and banks to maintain the broken status quo that has shackled both the labor and lending markets.
While I supported the CARES Act, the issuance of a flat $600 a week federal unemployment benefit—in addition to regular state unemployment—is one of the worst provisions in the bill and an unsustainable distortion for the U.S. labor market. This flawed structure sends a federal payment of $15 an hour (assuming a 40-hour workweek) to workers who may not have even made $15 per hour when working. Those workers also collect traditional state unemployment, pushing the total compensation over $25 per hour for not working. While cash is hitting the macro-economy, the effect on the labor market has proven disastrous.
Businesses struggle to hire workers as they fight to re-open and stay solvent. Employers cannot compete with a new artificial minimum wage, particularly one that is nearly double the market rate. As expected, when the excess benefits expired, employers found people more willing to return to work. Now, House Democrats want to restart these unemployment benefits, just as we are seeing an increasein job growth. This gross distortion to the labor market can be avoided by refusing to reauthorize a program that pays people more for not working than they were making while working. An alternative approach could pay workers 67-80% of their wages earned while working, with a floor and a ceiling.
Even when businesses have the workers they need to re-open, they encounter yet another hurdle. Banks would rather sit on excess cash than lend funds right now. This is because the interest on excess reserves (IOER) pays banks interest on this cash. In an uncertain market, the guarantee of interest on excess reserves is a safer bet than lending money on a venture that may fail. Again, this is the Federal Reserve paying banks to do nothing and hold the cash instead of investing in ventures (or even U.S. Treasuries) that collectively grow our economy. We need to end this perverse incentive so that banks put their balance sheets to productive work.
Sadly, some Federal Reserve leaders have called for even more restrictive lending conditions, for fear that low interest rates will motivate risky investing into ventures that will fail. Yes, banks should protect their customers by making sound decisions, but paying IOER keeps all of that cash entirely out of the market—not deployed, diversified, and at risk in exchange for appropriate returns.
Of course, governors must first stop the crippling mandates that are disparately stifling recoveries across the country, but changing course to stop policies that stagnate the labor and lending markets will help jumpstart our economic engine. Businesses will get two of the things they need: access to loans against good collateral and more skilled workers reentering the workforce—two major components that will lead the U.S. out of the post-Covid stagnation.
It’s time to rebuild the robust economy Americans enjoyed until the coronavirus brought everything to a halt. Printed money and central planning are poor substitutes for America’s strong and growing market economy. Persistent attempts to substitute are dangerously growing government, distorting markets, and unduly accelerating the risk of national bankruptcy.
This opinion piece appeared in RealClearMarkets.