By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica
“Why are there so few cash transfer programs, anywhere in the world, that are universal and come without strings attached? One simple reason is money. Universal programs in which no one is excluded are expensive…Initially, most of the money will have to come from shutting down other programs…” (Banerjee & Duflo, 2019).
Nothing short of cash transfers will do
With a significant reduction in economic activity due to COVID-19 restrictions, there is likely a substantial reduction in money supply in tandem. Many companies would probably lay off staff, cut salaries and even close shop. Participants in the informal economy, forced to stay at home, and deprived of an income, would have no new money to spend. A central bank could fill that gap by printing money equivalent to the shortfall for the purpose of unconditional cash transfers.
This is not theory. The United States has passed into law a $2 trillion stimulus package to deal with the negative economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis. It includes a direct payment of $1,200 to each American citizen and $500 per child. Small and medium-sized enterprises would also be able to tap $350 billion in loans. Big companies would similarly have access to $500 billion in loans.
How would it be funded? Money printing, of course. And are there not worries about inflation and a ballooning of the fiscal deficit? In an emergency, these concerns are insignificant. Is this a solution available to other countries? If the medium of exchange in a country is a currency issued by its central bank, yes, of course.
Besides, the consequent increase in the money supply could simply amount to bringing the overall level back to normal, after likely falling off due to the restrictions, with a likely non-differential inflationary impact. But even if that turns out to not be the case, that is, an above-normal increase in the money supply with a resultant inflationary impact of similar magnitude, the increase in the price level might not be as significant as some fear.
This is because ordinarily, sellers of essential goods like food and others, would likely hike prices on the back of hoarding behaviour regardless. That is, even before demand and supply dynamics dictate a need for one. What giving money to everyone to buy essentials does is ensure that it is not only the rich that are able to buy whatever limited stock of goods that are available.
But if there is more money chasing fewer goods, would that not stoke inflation? In the absence of controls, yes it would. Rationing, which is already being done in some countries, would be necessary, clearly. And some countries have already started banning the export of food and crucial medicines.
Besides, the global lockdown has already started to create international trade-related logistical challenges: transporting imported goods is increasingly now with some great difficulty. Available food for sale in many countries now is probably just those imported and stored in silos long before restrictions took effect; and of course, those produced locally.
The other concern could be that the cash transfers may be diverted to other purposes by recipients? Yes, they could. But if well managed, the proportion diverted might not be differential. Besides, research suggests most of the money from cash transfers tend to used for the desired purposes by recipients.
What about those without a bank account and/or debit card? There would need to be a tailor-made solution for those. The authorities already have a database of the very poor for its social programmes and an existing system for transfering cash to them.
Besides, the authorities could simply announce that those without bank accounts come to designated government centres to receive cash or the equivalent in food supplies and also get registered with one of the public social programmes in tandem.
How much would it cost Nigeria to pay the 30,000 naira minimum wage to its 40 million individual bank account holders for 3 months, say? 3.6 trillion naira; about a third of the 11 trillion naira 2020 budget.
With people staying at home and the world on holiday, who would work on any of the planned capital projects of the government for the remainder of the year? As there might clearly not even be projects for the government to spend money on, it could as well get the money into the pockets of citizens to spend. Printing money might not even be necessary for the task. Reallocations and cuts could simply be made to the 2020 budget to accommodate it.
Besides, there is already elite and political support for an unconditional cash transfer programme. Senior leaders in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have already come out in support of one. A taciturn President Muhammadu Buhari thus far probably now has an opportunity to speak to his people about some really good news in this time of general despair. And no, it is not populism. It is common sense.