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Economic tide is well and truly out as virus strikes hard

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Mis-spoke: ECB head Christine Lagarde caused panic with comments in a press briefing

Mis-spoke: ECB head Christine Lagarde caused panic with comments in a press briefing

REUTERS

Shock: Markets have been panicked

Shock: Markets have been panicked

PA

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Mis-spoke: ECB head Christine Lagarde caused panic with comments in a press briefing

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett remarked back in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew struck Florida and inflicted more economic damage on insurers than any other storm to date, that "it's only when the tide goes out that you learn who's been swimming naked".

In just a few weeks, coronavirus has had a profound impact on the world economy, as well as exposing the inadequacy of the official policy responses from those of US President Donald Trump to the European Central Bank's Christine Lagarde.

By yesterday, according to the World Health Organisation, the virus had infected 125,048 people, caused 4,613 deaths and had hit 118 countries.

An initially muted reaction in global markets, focused on supply chains, has now morphed into a global panic and on Thursday the S&P 500 had its worst day since Black Monday in 1987 as it fell 9.5pc.

"With this week delivering a further plunge in equity prices and a flight by investors to safe assets like government bonds, there's little doubt that the economic tide has gone out again," said Martin Beck of Oxford Economics.

The ebbing of the tide has exposed those who, in Buffett's words, were swimming naked, and Mr Beck notes the "disjointed" US policy and the "sloppily communicated" one in the eurozone, where rookie ECB head Lagarde triggered panic with comments in a press briefing.

The issue, however, goes much deeper than those individual errors.

The reason for the extreme response in share markets and bond markets is that no one knows when the spread of the pandemic will be halted as schools are closed, we see panic runs on basic foodstuffs, people start avoiding each other and stop travelling for work and pleasure.

The adverse economic effects of the pandemic could be exacerbated through financial channels and that is what the world's central banks, led by the US Federal Reserve and Bank of England among others, are trying to stem by cutting interest rates and improving the availability of credit.

"As banks begin to suspect that customers will be unable to repay loans on a timely basis, this could cause banks to raise borrowing costs and to tighten financial conditions," wrote Michael Klein, professor of international economic affairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the United States.

"The typical measures aimed at stimulating demand to counter a slowing economy are not likely to be effective in the short term - when reductions in supply are due to workers being sick and supply chains being disrupted and while demand is depressed due to people hunkering down in order to increase social distancing," Prof Klein wrote.

The ultra-low interest rate policies pursued by the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank among others, which have done so much to enable the world to recover from the 2008 global financial crisis, may also have sown the seeds of the current crisis.

A decade of central bank activism that has seen the likes of former ECB head Mario Draghi and his one-time counterpart in the United States, Ben Bernanke, portrayed as supermen or financial wizards looks like it is now coming to an abrupt end thanks to the spread of coronavirus.

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Shock: Markets have been panicked

Shock: Markets have been panicked

PA

Shock: Markets have been panicked

The pre-eminence of central banks has allowed politicians to get away with shirking their share of the responsibility for economic decision, especially in the eurozone where active budget policies are subject to the dead hand of the Stability and Growth Pact.

With interest rates at their lowest levels in 300 years, according to one Bank of England study, companies have ramped up borrowing.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the value of corporate bonds issued by companies outside the financial sector hit an all-time high of $13.5trn by the end of last year, spurred by those ultra-low rates.

Total corporate lending, according to 'The Economist' magazine, stands at an eye-watering $74trn, roughly equal to estimates of the total output of the world economy at around $80trn.

Oxford Economics notes that a large fraction of households - often 40pc-50pc - have limited liquid assets to tide them over if they cannot work, and access to sickness and unemployment benefits varies widely across economies.

Back to Mr Buffett from 1992: "Occasionally, also, the unthinkable happens."

It now has with coronavirus and institutions are being tested and have been found wanting.

A hard-hitting opinion piece from six of Europe's leading economists published yesterday by the Centre for Economic Policy Research called for a "catastrophe relief plan" for the EU that would release tens of billions of euro.

The ECB has run out of firepower, the economists wrote, and on the fiscal side, "the European roof is not only leaking, it is missing altogether for the kind of shock that is unfolding".

"This is not only an economic crash test, but also a test of European unity.

"How European leaders will deal with the fear and the suffering of their fellow citizens will be remembered," the six wrote.

Irish Independent