Dusseldorf The Chairman of the Council of Experts, Lars Feld, urges the Federal Government to take measures to fight the corona crisis. “Above all, what is currently being discussed is problematic. You get the impression that every industry wants specific support, ”Feld told the Handelsblatt.
The hospitality industry wants the reduced VAT rate that has now been decided. The auto industry is again asking for a scrappage premium, and retailing vouchers, says Feld. “You could go on almost any way – who doesn’t have one yet, who wants to do it again.”
“If you go this route, you will hardly be able to catch it afterwards in terms of fiscal policy,” warns the head of the Freiburg Walter Eucken Institute. This applies “also to social policy measures such as the increase in short-time work benefits or the extension of the duration of unemployment benefits”. “I’m more worried about whether we will be able to return to normal economic policy,” says Feld.
The economist also disapproves of the federal government’s policy on industrial policy: “If Corona is now used to quietly implement questionable industrial policy goals, I find that unacceptable.”
Specifically, it refers to the recent tightening of the Foreign Trade and Payments Act. “The goal of building a fortress Europe is definitely the wrong way to go,” said Feld. Germany in particular, as the largest economy, must speak out for openness. “We cannot leave the Dutch alone to stand up for a market economy policy,” he warns.
He expressly warns against the introduction of a property tax. “To talk about a property tax in this situation is insane. The best way to pay off the debt is with an intelligent growth strategy, ”said Feld.
Read the full interview here:
Mr. Feld, you are considered the nation’s regulatory conscience. The state experiences something of self-empowerment in corona times. What scares you more: the virus or the political measures against it?
“Fear” is the wrong expression in both respects. I know the medical problems abstractly, but I don’t feel any threat. Of course, this can change quickly if I experience illnesses in my personal environment. This is often the case. As far as the state measures in the fight against the crisis are concerned, I am not afraid either, I am more concerned that we will be able to return to normal economic policy.
The state intervenes massively in contract law, it relaxes bankruptcy law, it communitises risks. In your opinion, is that all still proportionate?
Overall, I think the aid package is proportionate. You can argue about individual measures, especially with tenancy law. However, one has to say that the state there has been massively interfering with freedom of contract for a long time: through the rent brake or the rent cover in Berlin, which is probably unconstitutional. I criticized that before Corona – and I’m also criticizing it now.
So you don’t see a new quality of state intervention?
But, above all, what is currently being discussed is problematic. One has the impression that each branch wants specific support. The hospitality industry wants the reduced VAT rate that has now been decided. The auto industry is again asking for a scrappage premium, and retailers are demanding consumer vouchers. This could be continued almost indefinitely: Who has not yet, who wants again?
If you go this route, you will hardly be able to catch it afterwards in terms of fiscal policy. Ultimately, this also applies to social policy measures such as raising short-time working benefits or extending the duration of unemployment benefits.
The current bailout package is well over a trillion euros, i.e. more than three times the federal budget – these are sums that recently seemed unthinkable. Will the state’s calculation work, so now to save jobs, will it cost what it wants? Otherwise, the state would have to pay for the millions of unemployed anyway …
Yes, the sums are big. However, many simply add up everything that is put in the shop window – loans, grants, guarantees and guarantees. You have to take into account that not everything has an impact on expenditure, loans are repaid and guarantees are not drawn. The decisive factor is whether the measures are targeted.
Where do you see the debt ratio in the medium term?
By the end of 2021, we will probably be back to around 80 percent of economic output, roughly the level we had at the end of the financial crisis.
Do you think politics and science still have an overview? When was it that the state had to keep thousands of companies alive – and probably for months?
I don’t think the state will be able to maintain this for months. It can mitigate the consequences, but it will not be able to save all companies and jobs. We will have bankruptcies. Ultimately, it’s about helping companies that have a viable business model over this cliff. It should not be forgotten that companies are in this situation because the state massively restricts our freedoms during the pandemic. If there were a claim for compensation from the state, the whole thing would be more expensive.
Who pays the bill in the end? There is already debate about balancing the burden …
There is, of course, this debate, but it is a harmful one, with a particular focus on the ideological interests of the parties. To talk about a wealth tax in this situation is insane. The best way to pay off your debt is to use a smart growth strategy.
What do you think of the fact that the private banks are now providing KfW loans with a volume of up to 800.000 euros no longer have to assume any liability, so get a 100 percent guarantee from the state?
If you bear in mind the Federal Government’s goal of mitigating corona-related defaults with liquidity aid, that makes perfect sense. Of course, it is cleaner from a regulatory perspective to take the banks at risk. But then the measure would not work. Even with a liability of only ten percent, banks are very hesitant to grant loans in this difficult situation. Of course, we cannot grant such KfW loans on a permanent basis.
We cannot leave the Dutch alone to stand up for a market economy policy.
But isn’t that a disguised bank bailout program?
I would not say that. It dissolves the risk aversion of privately liable bank executives. Ultimately, credit-based liquidity support is hardly an option for many companies currently affected, provided they would become excessively in debt.
Another instrument that is often mentioned is government participation. Will it happen?
I cannot imagine that we can do without state participation in certain industries – for example, with airlines. Until the Lufthansa back to pre-crisis levels, it may take a long time. The decisive factor is whether they are silent participations or whether the state wants to exercise control rights. I prefer the former because with a stock package it usually takes longer for the state to withdraw.
The bank bailouts during the financial crisis in the USA are always considered exemplary, although there were equity investments …
Yes, that’s right, but the state quickly withdrew there. The following applies: If the control function, then please use the exit scenario.
They probably refer to Commerzbank, where the state is still involved after more than ten years.
Yes, it would be even more serious with massive industrial holdings like we used to have.
Now there was a trend towards industrial policy even before the corona crisis. The economics minister tightened the foreign trade law – and added again during the corona crisis: are we experiencing a turnaround?
Unfortunately, there is a turnaround. If Corona is now being used to quietly push through questionable industrial policy goals, I find it unacceptable.
Now this policy is being carried out by the CDU-led Ministry of Economic Affairs. Are we threatened by French conditions?
The goal of building a fortress Europe is definitely the wrong way to go. Germany in particular, as the largest economy, must speak out for openness. We cannot leave the Dutch alone to stand up for a market economy policy.
Isn’t there a good reason to protect some industries – when it comes to security, for example in the case of the Chinese network supplier Huawei?
Of course, the state has to look when a state investor from China is investing in critical infrastructure. But now that doesn’t just apply to China. American investors are now being looked at just as critically. A systematic foreclosure strategy threatens. What is considered “safety-relevant” must therefore be clearly defined.
The law speaks of an “expected impairment” of public order or security. There seem to be no limits to arbitrariness, right?
The Ministry of Economy is now keeping everything open to prevent any takeovers. The whole thing is also enriched with a participation facility and the economic stabilization fund. It is a very unfortunate combination.
Even mouth protection and protective clothing are considered to be safety-relevant. They may be relevant to health, but they do not have to be produced in Germany. In this case, the state must create strategic reserves.
Back to the economic risks again. If the lockdown has such devastating consequences in Germany, what about countries like Spain and Italy that are already heavily indebted?
There is no way around these countries pursuing an expansionary fiscal policy and driving up debt levels. There is no alternative in the face of this great crisis.
Aid programs such as those in Germany cannot be afforded by these countries, which have been hit much harder by the corona crisis …
I wouldn’t say that in general. Spain and France have enough leeway with a debt ratio of 100 percent. I think 120 percent would be possible without them being in the focus of the financial markets.
Italy, which has a debt ratio of almost 140 percent, financial market players have long had their sights on them. Only thanks to the massive intervention of the ECB has interest rates dropped to a tolerable level again …
Yes, Italy is the real problem. The government debt there is moving towards Greek dimensions in terms of economic performance – and this is about a G7 country.
As far as the corona pandemic is concerned, Italy is not in debt to this crisis. Regulatory policy or not: Do you understand Italy’s prime minister, who vehemently demands the solidarity of the strong countries?
I differentiate between understanding and acceptance. I understand that Italy needs support given the many deaths. And I understand that the Italians are now doing everything they can to protect themselves against possible distortions in the financial markets with external help. What I cannot accept is Premier Conte’s blackmail strategy, which is unique in its sharpness.
Isn’t this attitude due to sheer misery?
That may be the case, but the extortionate approach could end up being counterproductive. The government cannot credibly threaten to exit the euro because the economy would collapse completely.
But the Italians know very well that an exit from Italy would very quickly result in a collapse of the monetary union, which the rest of Europe can hardly afford …
This may be. Nevertheless, Conte’s strategy is questionable because Italy would suffer much more. In Italy, therefore, there is rightly a debate as to whether the prime minister does not overdraw. Italy is well supplied with the funds that have been made available – i.e. the scarcely conditioned loans from the ESM rescue fund with the possibility for the ECB to buy unlimited government bonds (OMT).
I reject joint and several liability. That would be a fall for me.
Italy insists on corona bonds, i.e. the joint borrowing for this crisis. Wouldn’t that be an important symbolic signal for Europe’s cohesion?
No, I’m completely the politician of order. I reject joint and several liability. That would be a fall for me.
But isn’t it the more honest way in the end? A communitization of risks has long been taking place through the ECB’s balance sheet, an institution that is not at all legitimized for such a redistribution policy …
Again, joint and several liability between states is out of the question for me. Other forms of joint liability, such as joint liability or guarantees for debt, can be discussed.
Discussions about a fund at EU level – possibly parallel to the ESM – that is financed by bonds guaranteed by member states and from which transfers are paid – all of this is conceivable. The problem with joint and several liability: Here the creditor can pick out the most solvent country – and force it to be repaid.
The crisis could hit the emerging markets even more severely than Italy. We are obviously experiencing a crisis of a whole new dimension. Not only almost all industries are affected, but also all regions of the world – at the same time. Some already compare the economic consequences with the Great Depression in the 1930s. Do you think this is alarmist?
No, I don’t think it’s alarmist. There are parallels as to the dimension of the economic downturn; but not on the job market. In addition, the reasons are completely different. The current crisis cannot be compared with the Spanish flu either. At that time after the First World War, the economies were very weak.
The fact is: A crisis as we are now experiencing it is unique. It is not only the slump in the economy as a result of the lockdown, but also the interruption of the international supply chains.
How do you explain that the markets are still reacting almost moderately?
The markets are still assuming that the gigantic rescue packages will help to overcome the liquidity problems. Whether this will really be the case depends on the further development of the pandemic. I would therefore not rule out further slumps in the financial markets.
The Ifo Institute anticipates a 20 percent drop in GDP in the worst scenario. Do you think such a scenario is conceivable?
I’m not that pessimistic. The 20 percent of the Ifo Institute is an annual projection, not an annualized quarter. This means that the relatively robust first quarter is included, so that the economy would not get on its feet in the third and fourth quarters.
At the moment, almost all countries except Sweden are pursuing the same corona strategy: lockdown, bans on contacts and so on. There has never been an experiment like this. Could this strategy turn out to be a global mistake in the end?
Afterwards we’ll be smarter. Yes, there are voices that can be taken seriously and say that we unnecessarily stall the economy. Only: If we look at the infection curves and compare them with other flu waves, we see that the rise at Corona is much steeper. If we let it go, significantly more deaths would be unavoidable. So I think trying to flatten the curve so as not to overload the health system is the right strategy.
Finally, a personal question: It was not long ago that your colleague Peter Bofinger from Würzburg was the last Keynesian. But now conservative economists are also calling for massive government intervention. Ifo boss Clemens Fuest, for example, or IW boss Michael Hüther, who most recently spoke in favor of corona bonds. Do you sometimes feel like the last politician in the country?
Do not worry. There are still a large number of economists who think in terms of regulatory policy. In addition, I am just as pragmatic as my colleagues in this unique crisis that we are currently experiencing.
Mr. Feld, thank you very much for the interview.
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