The biggest lesson from the 2008 financial crisis was to act big as early as possible. The hesitation of regulators, governments and central banks had an enormous economic cost that led to hardship that more timely action could have at least in part prevented.
That’s the biggest lesson from the world stage borne out of the mistakes of governments who took too long to realise the extent of the collapse around them.
The biggest lesson from Malta was that every business has its own very specific needs. Broad macro schemes are insufficient for some companies and wasteful and unusable for others. That was a lesson borne out of the success of the government at the time to navigate through the 2008 crisis virtually without a scratch.
Robert Abela’s government appears to have forgotten both lessons from 2008, probably because he has bought into his own religion that nothing before Joseph Muscat descended to govern Malta is worth learning anything from.
Consider his repeated argument justifying his stepped-up approach to economic support from the government during the coronavirus saga. He says he doesn’t want to burn out “the war chest” too soon. That argument is designed to make its user sound prescient and capable of strategic thinking.
But a stepped approach to battle is useful when the enemy hits in waves. You keep your cavalry in the woods while your vanguard weakens the enemy’s infantry. Before that you volley your artillery over the heads of your front.
This presumes you are fighting a battle with a sentient enemy and you’re trying to outmanoeuvre their manoeuvres.
In spite of the romanticism of the wartime analogy of Trumpian demagogues wrapping themselves in Churchillian cloaks, saving the economy is not about fighting an enemy.
Compare rather the coronavirus crisis with any other natural disaster: a forest fire, a flood, an avalanche or an earthquake. The comparison is not unlikely. A viral pandemic is nothing more and nothing less than a natural disaster. As with all natural disasters it is compounded by human agency because our concern is its impact on human life – life and health first, economic wellbeing second.
So, if an earthquake strikes Antarctica we’ll be as bothered with it as we would with a supernova a thousand light years away. But an earthquake in London or Jakarta is another matter altogether. We care about this virus because our life is at stake and our ability to earn a living if we survive is at stake.
When facing the human impact of a natural disaster you do not hold back on the resources you can deploy. You do that when you underestimate the extent of the disaster making a bad situation worse. Consider the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2017. The cyclone was damaging. The flooding was devastating. But the delay in providing rescue, repairs and in propping up the economy and social life crushed by the incident proved the causes of the deepest and most lasting damage.
Robert Abela held back – and is still holding back – on the extent of economic intervention that is necessary to meet this worst blow on our economy in sixty years. He’s not doing that because of care for the war chest or because of a grand plan which is informed by predictions of future stages of this crisis. He’s doing that because he is way out of his depth and has not yet grasped what he must do to see us through this storm.
Consider the grand scheme of opening a field hospital for 90 patients which should come on line by the end of May. The spread of the coronavirus is, admittedly, hardly predictable. But the data that is available suggests that the peak of the crisis in Malta will hit us around the third week of April. There can be hardly a better illustration of the notion of sitting on ammunition that could save us if deployed sooner rather than later.
Saving the economy requires a similar shock and awe strategy. We need to retain the knowledge and the competitive advantage that we enjoyed before the crisis hit if not use this time to make some improvements. We need to make sure we do not lose specialist resources particularly the well-paid ones who will easily move away the moment planes start flying again. We need to keep the engine room warm and all the wheels well-oiled so that we can start as soon as we can.
And an economy is a system. It works like an ecological environment. If we let an element wither from neglect it will be hard for even the most liquid businesses to take off.
So, hotel employees are getting some money to keep them going and to help employers keep them on their books. That’s good. Why did it take so long to come up with this when other countries introduced these schemes weeks ago now? Why did we have to let people live through the fear of god before we understood what needed to be done? Why did we have to let some people lose their jobs while the government pondered how deep it was willing to dig into its war chest?
And yet questions remain. What conversation is the government having with airlines and the airport to make sure they’re fit to start when the crisis is over? What’s the state of play at Air Malta? What about our food supply chain? No one spoke of helping farmers and fishermen go through this unseasonal winter but their products are a key ingredient to the service offered by the hotel and restaurant industry.
Then there’s the question of financial commitments of people seeing a huge cut in their income. It is right of course that the lowest paid are propped up first. People on minimum wage need saving as clearly it is hard to imagine how one can have a decent life in Malta on €800 a month which makes it harder to imagine how anyone could live on even less.
But people on higher income have mortgages or pay rent. There is no transparency on the conversation with banks. And landlords are tenants are completely out of the picture in a situation where for many people rent is their biggest monthly expense and for many landlords – in spite of the grand feudal term we use to describe them – revenue from rent is income they depend on to subsist. And yet on this matter not a word.
Also, another issue is going to be how quickly will the money the government is committing going to take to actually get to the pockets where they are needed. This recalls the point I made earlier about producing broad stroke schemes without consideration to the specific circumstances of individual businesses.
Consider for example the scheme to compensate companies who spend money to equip their staff to work from home during the crisis rather than come to the office. The scheme requires the eligible companies to include a copy of their “teleworking agreement” with their employees. It should be logical that companies that only sent their employees to work from home after a virulent pandemic struck, would not have an existing telework agreement with their staff. They wouldn’t know what a teleworking agreement looks like.
The government excels at creating hoops for businesses to jump through even as the ground beneath their feet cracks open and spews the lava of a deadly crisis. How much of the promised billions will get into the right bank accounts in time to save these businesses?
Yesterday’s press conference was the third “wave” from the government’s so-called war chest. Expect more “waves” as the prime minister is enjoying these rather sad excuses for cheap electioneering. And as more sectors find that shouting loud enough slowly gets the government to move on its reluctance to do its job the government will need to react with more hollow but impressive PR stunts.
But these delays, this dragging of feet, this partisan grandstanding, this deafness to business sectors that are not mobilised in conventional lobby groups and this lack of appreciation of the depth of the crisis we are in could cost us deer and we’ll only know just how much when we’ve emerged from our lockdown to find a virus-free but devastated economic landscape.
Can the government save Malta Inc from devastation? A good start would be to stop hoarding that war chest.