LONDON – The COVID-19 crisis and recession provides a unique opportunity to rethink the role of the state, particularly its relationship with business. The long-held assumption that government is a burden on the market economy has been debunked. Rediscovering the state’s traditional role as an “investor of first resort” – rather than just as a lender of last resort – has become a precondition for effective policymaking in the post-COVID era.
Fortunately, public investment has picked up. While the United States has adopted a $3 trillion stimulus and rescue package, the European Union has introduced a €750 billion ($850 billion) recovery plan, and Japan has marshaled an additional $1 trillion in assistance for households and businesses.However, in order for investment to lead to a healthier, more resilient, and productive economy, money is not enough. Governments also must restore the capacity to design, implement, and enforce conditionality on recipients, so that the private sector operates in a manner that is more conducive to inclusive, sustainable growth.Government support for corporations takes many forms, including direct cash grants, tax breaks, and loans issued on favorable terms or government guarantees – not to mention the expansive role played by central banks, which have purchased corporate bonds on a massive scale. This assistance should come with strings attached, such as requiring firms to adopt emissions-reduction targets and to treat their employees with dignity (in terms of both pay and workplace conditions). Thankfully, with even the business community rediscovering the merits of conditional assistance – through the pages of the Financial Times, for example – this form of state intervention is no longer taboo.
And there are some good examples. Both Denmark and France are denying state aid to any company domiciled in an EU-designated tax haven and barring large recipients from paying dividends or buying back their own shares until 2021. Similarly, in the US, Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for strict bailout conditions, including higher minimum wages, worker representation on corporate boards, and enduring restrictions on dividends, stock buybacks, and executive bonuses. And in the United Kingdom, the Bank of England (BOE) has pressed for a temporary moratorium on dividends and buybacks.Far from being dirigiste, imposing such conditions helps to steer financial resources strategically, by ensuring that they are reinvested productively instead of being captured by narrow or speculative interests. This approach is all the more important considering that many of the sectors most in need of bailouts are also among the most economically strategic, such as airlines and automobiles. The US airline industry, for example, has been granted up to $46 billion in loans and guarantees, provided that recipient firms retain 90% of their workforce, cut executive pay, and eschew outsourcing or offshoring. Austria, meanwhile, has made its airline-industry bailouts conditional on the adoption of climate targets. France has also introduced five-year targets to lower domestic carbon dioxide emissions.