What lessons can be learned from the 1930s New Deal for post pandemic recovery?

economy recession recovery Jun 26, 2020

The New Deal was a series of measures introduced by President Franklin D Roosevelt to help the US economy recover from the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression.

It introduced a string of measures to better protect workers from ill-treatment and the consequences of unemployment and to better regulate banks and financial institutions.

As noted in the Encyclopaedia Britannica “Opposed to the traditional American political philosophy of laissez-faire, the New Deal generally embraced the concept of a government-regulated economy aimed at achieving a balance between conflicting economic interests”.

Perhaps one of the best-known Acts was the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933, which separated commercial from investment banking.

But the New Deal measures were also designed to stimulate and revive economic activity in agriculture and business, founded on the economic theory, as propounded by the UK economist John Maynard Keynes, that massive Government spending should be used to promote recovery and that spending cutbacks only hurt the economy.

Over the 20th Century the economic theory pendulum has swing back and forth between government regulation and a market driven laissez-faire economy with the later particularly being adopted by Margaret Thatcher.

The economic response to the Coronavirus pandemic and its consequences have opened the taps to flood cash into the market in a way that even Keynes would be impressed. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s initiatives to protect businesses, employees and other vulnerable groups are similar to the measures introduced in the early days of the New Deal.

But as lockdown measures are eased what other measures might the Chancellor adopt to stimulate the economy?

Similar to that adopted in the 1930s, the Government is considering a spending spree on what are called “shovel-ready” projects, particularly the construction of infrastructure (roads, railways, internet, schools, hospitals and other projects) that will get some people back to work quickly.

Other ideas used then and being considered now are how to get consumers to resume spending, although this should be more than just re-opening retail, leisure and hospitality businesses.

With so many people losing their jobs or worried about their economic future, there is a real concern that consumers won’t spend. Perhaps despite other short-term initiatives that were not used in the 1930s such as a reduction in VAT (Value Added Tax) on consumer products, a reduction in NI (National Insurance) contributions for employers and employees, and training people for the future.

For businesses, particularly, some reduction in Business Rates, or even a revamp which has long been called for, and more flexible repayment of the Coronavirus loans (CBILS) may help but the landscape has changed and it would appear unlikely that we shall return to a pre-Coronavirus level of business. None the least due to the number of redundancies that are coming, and perhaps just as bad, the likely prospect that the purchasing power of fiat currencies will reduce significantly despite any artificial manipulation of inflation data.

While it is often said that a recession can be the best time to start a new business, as companies ranging from General Motors, Burger King, CNN, Uber and Airbnb did, it is arguable that the post-pandemic economic damage will be so severe that more even more radical New Deal-type of measures will be needed.

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