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The Economist: The Politics of Pandemics - No 11.20 - 14th Mar, 2020

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On The Economist No.11: THE POLITICS OF PANDEMICS

 

The politics of pandemics

To see what is to come look to Lombardy, the affluent Italian region at the heart of the covid-19 outbreak in Europe. Its hospitals provide world-class health care. Until last week they thought they would cope with the disease—then waves of people began turning up with pneumonia. Having run out of ventilators and oxygen, exhausted staff at some hospitals are being forced to leave untreated patients to die.

The pandemic, as the World Health Organisation (who) officially declared it this week, is spreading fast, with almost 45,000 cases and nearly 1,500 deaths in 112 countries outside China. Epidemiologists reckon Italy is one or two weeks ahead of places like Spain, France, America and Britain. Less-connected countries, such as Egypt and India, are further behind, but not much. 

 

How to deal with a new sort of financial shock

When faced with a bewildering shock it is natural to turn to your own experience. As covid-19 rages, investors and officials are scrambling to make sense of the violent moves in financial markets over the past two weeks. For many the obvious reference is the crisis of 2007-09. There are indeed some similarities. Stock Markets have plunged. The oil price has tumbled below $40 a barrel. There has been a flurry of emergency interest-rate cuts by the Federal Reserve and other central banks. Traders are on a war footing—with a rising number working from their kitchen tables. Still, the comparison with the last big crisis is misplaced. It also obscures two real financial dangers that the pandemic has inflamed.

 

Corporate bonds and loans are at the centre of a new financial scare

Over the past decade officials—and some bankers—have tried to redesign the financial system so that it acts as a buffer that absorbs economic shocks rather than as an amplifier that makes things worse. It faces a stern test from the covid-19 virus and the economic ruptures it has triggered, not least a Saudi-led oil-price war (see next article). The locus of concern is in the world’s ocean of corporate debt, worth $74trn. On Wall Street the credit spreads of risky bonds have blown out, while in Italy, a bank-dominated economy that is already in lockdown, the share prices of the two biggest lenders, Intesa Sanpaolo and UniCredit, have dropped in the past month by 28% and 40% respectively.

The scare has four elements: a queasy long-term rise in borrowing; a looming cash crunch at firms as offices and factories are shut and quarantines imposed; the gumming-up of some credit markets; and doubts about the resilience of banks and debt funds that would bear any losses.

 

Check out more at: https://www.economist.com/printedition/2020-03-14

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