Closed for business in Paris. Picture: NUR PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES/SAMUEL BOIVIN
Closed for business in Paris. Picture: NUR PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES/SAMUEL BOIVIN

In the first half of 2020, Europe mounted a bold and swift economic response to the Covid-19 recession. As the second wave of the pandemic triggers a new slowdown, policymakers appear to have lost some of their mojo.

Governments are struggling to deal effectively with the health crisis, as they dither between keeping economies open and imposing new restrictions. The European Central Bank (ECB) looks set to announce a new round of stimulus in mid-December, but it’s unclear how much it can contribute to the recovery. EU member states are at loggerheads as the bloc tries to finalise a multi-year budget that includes a joint pandemic recovery fund. While an agreement appears the most likely outcome, the delays will hurt the prospects for a speedy economic rebound.

Thankfully, this year’s second downturn appears less pronounced than spring’s sharp contraction. Manufacturing has maintained a decent pace thanks to the resilience of global trade, helped by China. Even in services, the new lockdown restrictions have largely been less draconian and hence less damaging. The euro area is expected to contract by 1.7% in the three months to end-December, according to a composite forecast from Bloomberg. That’s much less than the second quarter’s 11.8% fall.

However, it would be wrong to treat these two recessionary waves as distinct, since their cumulative effect matters greatly. It was bad enough for restaurant owners and shopkeepers to close during the first restrictions. The second lockdown, while milder, has been more brutal in many ways, piling misery on top of the lost revenues from the first half of the year.

As ECB president Christine Lagarde noted this month: “If the public no longer sees the pandemic as a one-off event, we could see more lasting changes in behaviour than during the first wave.” This could mean more bankruptcies, more discouraged workers and greater long-term damage to the economy.

At least the eurozone had a strong foundation for coping with the latest shutdowns. In spring, the European Commission suspended the bloc’s fiscal rules, paving the way for a forceful response from governments. The ECB launched a large package of bond purchases, which became more flexible over time. To top it up, EU leaders agreed to a programme of grants and loans that the commission will fund by borrowing on the financial markets. The lessons of the slow response to the last decade’s eurozone debt crisis appeared to have been learnt.

And yet, the ghosts of failure are haunting Europe again.

In Spain, France, Italy and elsewhere, governments failed to prepare adequately for the virus’s second wave; healthcare systems and track-and-trace operations collapsed under the weight of case numbers. Governments were desperate to keep businesses open but in doing so they failed to contain either the humanitarian or the economic crisis.

Politicians are plotting a new round of reopening to “save Christmas” (and retailers), but hospitals are already running near capacity. There’s the risk of a third wave in January, just before the expected widespread rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.

The ECB is doing its part. Bond yields are at record lows; 10-year government debt from Spain and Portugal could join soon the sub-zero club. Lagarde is ready to add to the ECB’s €1.35-trillion  asset-purchase scheme, and offer more generous cheap loans to the banks to ensure they keep lending to the real economy.

However, there are limits to what she can achieve. Lowering funding costs to governments, businesses and families is welcome, but that won’t by itself spur investment nor ensure that money is well spent. The limits of monetary policy have become visible.

The biggest political failing concerns the “Next Generation EU” fund, Europe’s attempted fiscal response to the pandemic. Hungary and Poland are threatening to veto the multi-year budget because of the linkage of payments to abiding by the rule of law. Warsaw and Budapest are likely to backtrack, since a veto would deprive them of financial aid at a time of acute distress. But these tensions lay bare the difficulties of mounting a joint EU fiscal response.

Eurozone countries should consider creating their own budget instead, to escape the whims of countries that aren’t members of the single currency.

Summer’s short-lived optimism, as the first outbreak receded, gave Europe the illusion of having managed the pandemic and the economic shock as competently as Asia and better than the US. The second wave shows this was wrong. The end of the health crisis looks tantalisingly close, but it’s not here yet. Worse, a vaccine won’t cure long-term damage to the economy. Europe must rediscover its earlier urgency.

Bloomberg

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