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The COVID-19 Financial Hole is Getting Wider and Deeper

Even if COVID-19 were to disappear tomorrow miraculously, it would take years for the already inflicted damage to work its way through the financial system, causing a deep recession or depression, warns Les Nemethy. But the virus is not disappearing.

Photo by Shutterstock/Csaba Peterdi

In fact, in many countries, case numbers are rising, which brings me to the subject of this article: the financial hole created by the pandemic is getting deeper and wider. Just the long-term cost of the disability/health effects already created by COVID-19 is estimated at USD 35 trillion, according to a bloomberg.com article.

In this issue, I will deal with three examples of how the effects of COVID-19 are not immediate. They will take time to work their way through the system, like slow-motion dominoes falling. These examples include bankruptcies; the effects on the banking system; and deficits/burgeoning debt/monetary expansion.

Bankruptcies

We are at the very beginning of a long series of bankruptcies caused by COVID-19. According to the Financial Times, as of mid-August 2020, 45 companies with more than USD 1 billion in assets have declared bankruptcy, compared to 39 in the same period during the 2009 recession.

As the virus grinds on, as companies consume their capital reserves, the number of bankruptcies is only likely to accelerate, with further domino effects on banks (see below), medical costs, unemployment and hence deficit spending.

Effects on Banking System

Banks are better capitalized than in the 2008 crisis (see my earlier column in the May 22 issue on the subject, Could COVID-19 Trigger a European Banking Crisis?). However, as the coronavirus crisis drags on, the financial toll on banks will only increase. Bankruptcies create non-performing loans; hence capitalization may yet prove inadequate, triggering a crisis of confidence.

The amounts of derivative contracts held by many of the “too large to fail” banks (e.g. Citibank, JP Morgan) are each measured in the tens of trillion of dollars, according to the Quarterly Report on Bank Trading and Derivatives Activities for Q3 2019, published by the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in December 2019. That reminds me of Warren Buffet’s famous statement that derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction.  

Many countries have declared moratoria on debt payments, mortgage payments, rent payments, etc. Banks typically do not recognize loans subject to moratoria as being in default. But what happens when the moratoria expire? Moratoria and creative accounting cannot be extended indefinitely.  

What will happen in countries like India, Nigeria and Brazil, where there are many millions of COVID cases, and the banking system may be less able to withstand bankruptcies?

Deficits and Money Printing

The world was already facing a huge debt bubble prior to COVID-19. Government responses to the crisis have been to massively increase spending, including unemployment payments, “helicopter money”, bank guarantees, etc., which only serve to increase debt.

Global debt (households, non-financial corporates, government, financial sector) has reached a new record of 331% of GDP in Q1 2020, up from 320% in Q4 2019 and continues to increase rapidly. Gross debt issuance also hit a record of USD 12.5 tln in Q2, an increase of 127% in respect of the quarterly average of USD 5.5 tln in 2019.  

The money printing machines are working overtime. Forty percent of U.S. spending is already financed by the issuance of new debt/money printing, the New York Times has reported. References in the media to a dollar crisis, massive inflation or deflation, or a global financial reset are becoming increasingly frequent. The debt bubble and fiat currency debasement will be further accentuated as COVID-19 grinds on.    

Given the massive amount of debt, monetary expansion, etc., we are guinea pigs to a vast experiment. The debate going on among economists as to whether we might experience massive inflation or deflation demonstrates how little we know where this experiment will lead.

Vaccine to the Rescue?

A vaccine might arguably help stop further shocks to the financial system, but would not stop the domino effects from existing damage working its way through the financial system.

But will we ever have an effective vaccine? My own view is that many of the flu strains with us over the past years are also forms of coronavirus, and the vaccines against them provide at best partial effectiveness, and that viruses constantly mutate.  

The chances are that we will find ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and treat it better, but there will be no magic bullet (like a smallpox vaccine that totally eradicates the disease) in the coming year or two.

Given the logistics of producing billions of vaccines, and the anti-vaxxer objections of large swaths of the population against taking them in the first place, even if a semi-effective vaccine were to be found, it will take time to roll it out. We should plan to live with COVID-19 for at least the near- and mid-term, and brace ourselves for the financial aftermath.

Bottom line: expect turbulence and volatility ahead. Liquidity will help you survive a downturn and take advantage of opportunities.

Les Nemethy is CEO of Euro-Phoenix (www.europhoenix.com), a Central European corporate finance firm, author of Business Exit Planning (www.businessexitplanningbook.com) and a former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary.