One lesson of the COVID-19 crisis is that there are some contingencies that nobody can realistically plan for. Whether you are an airline or the New York City subway system, there’s no rainy-day fund big enough to get through months of revenue falling 90%. Sometimes, the only entity big enough to offer financial relief is the federal government, meaning the vagaries of politics and public sentiment all of sudden matter a lot. Given this reality, companies and industries in the future should act more in the public interest — not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also to ensure that the goodwill will be there if and when the next crisis hits and financial relief is the difference between getting wiped out or not.
This dynamic is apparent in the debate around fiscal relief as Congress works through new rounds of legislation to shore up the economy. Democrats have prioritized the interests of working families, small businesses, hospitals and increasingly state and local governments. Republicans have focused more narrowly on small business, with demand for the Paycheck Protection Program running so high that Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is looking to rush through an additional $250 billion in funding for it less than a week after the program was rolled out. Both parties have made both moral and pragmatic appeals to win support for their interests
It has been a different story for large corporations and investors. Democrats have made the case that companies that enriched their shareholders with stock buybacks in the good times shouldn’t come asking for fiscal relief now, or at least without strings attached. Even President Donald Trump says he dislikes share repurchases. Airlines in particular have come under scrutiny for some of their business practices during the past decade, with some arguing that in exchange for fiscal relief they should increase legroom in coach class.
Cruise lines were excluded from fiscal relief in part because they are incorporated offshore in order to avoid paying U.S. taxes. There’s also the argument that there’s nothing about the cruise industry that’s in the national interest — if people can’t sail around on boats going from destination to destination, life will go on.
Colony Capital founder and Chairman Tom Barrack has similarly blamed politics for congressional unwillingness to support asset-backed securities markets, which some accuse of enabling borrowers to overleverage. There has been a similar reluctance to bail out the nonbank lending industry. Neither is deemed systemically important, and there are other ways to provide liquidity to households and businesses, including through some of the programs Congress has already passed.
Although politics behind fiscal relief continue to evolve, what’s becoming increasingly clear is that the priority is support for workers, small businesses and important institutions. Anything run solely for the benefit of investors is finding itself on the outs, except perhaps with conditions such as maintaining employment levels or giving the government an equity stake in the business. George Pearkes of Bespoke Investment Group has shown how congressional support so far has focused on households rather than large corporations.
Companies that have been overly focused on shareholders and executive enrichment rather than a broader coalition of stakeholders should use this crisis to rethink their business practices. Whether it was the financial meltdown in 2008-2009 or the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the unexpected can happen. A scenario exists for most companies where they may run out of money and be unable to access private capital, making the federal government the liquidity provider of last resort. If and when that time comes, it helps to be in the good graces of the public. Paying taxes, accepting regulation, treating workers and customers well is like buying an insurance plan that can be cashed in when disaster strikes.
In that spirit, the banks are an industry to pay special attention to as this crisis unfolds. No industry saw its reputation tarnished more during the Great Recession, and the sector has been a target of scorn and attacks from the public and some politicians during the past decade.
But they may be able to redeem themselves in this crisis.
By suspending stock buybacks, deferring mortgage and credit-card payments and helping businesses stay afloat during this crisis, they have the potential to be part of the solution rather than the problem. That may mean a significant decline in earnings in 2020. But if it buys the industry long-lasting goodwill with the public, it might end up being an investment that pays dividends.
Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.