What’s next for the U.S. economy? Scholars discuss impact of election and pandemic

More than 4,000 people attended the virtual event, peppering moderator Hays with questions for the panelists which she incorporated into the lively, insightful and thought-provoking hour-long conversation. Some highlights from the event are featured below.

The Fed: How much influence will the virus have on its decisions this year?

The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has been the major driving force in the Fed’s decisions for the last year and will likely continue to be so for the foreseeable future, said Kroszner, a former governor of the Federal Reserve System.

“The Fed and Central Bank can provide the foundation for recovery and liquidity support,” said Kroszner, deputy dean for executive programs and Norman R. Bobins Professor of Economics at Booth. “They can make sure that markets are functioning appropriately, but it’s really hard for them to do the next step of creating jobs or moving people from one sector to another. The economy is not just going to snap back to the way it was, and so the Fed will need to continue to provide that support.”

Relief payments: How should future stimulus funds be spent to best spur the economy?

The federal government has approved two relief packages worth trillions of dollars in the hopes of boosting the economy through business loans, direct cash payments and the extension of unemployment insurance. As rebounding jobs numbers have stalled, now is not the right time for the government to tighten its belt over concerns about the deficit, said Goolsbee, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and a member of President Obama’s cabinet.

“Now is not the moment to cut the deficit. I just think that’s wrong, just completely misreading the economic moment,” said Goolsbee, the Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics. “I think that [policymakers] should spend money and they should direct the money to the places where the relief is the most necessary. What’s needed are monies to people who are about to be evicted, who are having gas shut off.”

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Emerging markets: What concerns exist about debt among emerging markets that have had to borrow heavily to face down the COVID-19 pandemic?

Emerging markets have certainly been hit hard economically, but the rise of technology offers them some opportunities as well. If broadband infrastructure is in place and agreements can be made, places like the Philippines could offer services like telemedicine to other countries, said Rajan, the Katherine Dusak Miller Distinguished Service Professor of Finance.

“Yes, the emerging markets have been hit tremendously, but the pandemic has also alerted us to the opportunities of trade in services,” said Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India and chief economist and director of research at the International Monetary Fund. “And it can be a two-way flow. The point is, it has created the possibility of opportunities. And when we build back, we shouldn’t build back the same way. We should indeed build that much better.”

Change: Things won’t all go back to the way they were a year ago. What major changes do you see emerging from this pandemic?

The hope we may have briefly had, that the economic impact of the pandemic would be short-lived, has passed. Now that it’s clear that certain sectors of the economy will be changed forever, it will be important for governments and industries to recognize that and adapt accordingly, Kroszner said.

“You’ve got a boom in tech, and you’ve got a very strong contraction in the hospitality and transport sectors,” Kroszner said. “It’s going to be hard to move those people from one to another. Some of those companies will have to shut down. That doesn’t mean that you don’t provide support for the affected households, but you need to facilitate their ability to move on. That’s one of the most difficult things for politicians to do, to accept that you need to move on. That gets people back into productive work more quickly, which is good for them and good for the economy.”

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Trade with China: How will the Biden administration deal with the ongoing trade war between the United States and China?

There is far more dividing China and the United States than simply commercial disagreements, Rajan said. That means the Trump tariffs won’t come down immediately under a new president, and many players will have to come to the table to resolve these issues.

“I think there will be a new process of dialogue, and I think this will be probably a little more systematic than the process of dialogue the previous administration followed,” Rajan said. “There will be an attempt to bring in the Europeans and the Japanese in a more comprehensive discussion on what the responsibilities of each side are. Economists would say it’s in everybody’s interest to take tariffs down immediately, and that’s probably the right view, but practically, it will take time, and it will take a certain amount of confidence building on both sides.”

Debt: The measures enacted to stimulate the economy and provide relief to citizens have cost significant amounts of money. How worried should we be about paying that back?

Concerns about the United States becoming like Greece during the global economic collapse of 2008–09 are unfounded, Goolsbee said. “The US’s debt capacity is massively higher than where we are now and the debt service costs have actually fallen as the debt has risen. If we were to have a problem, there are many other countries that will have a problem first and will set off warnings for us.”

“To me the issue isn’t that deficits will drive up interest rates here. The more relevant issue is about generational equity—should kids born in 2021 have to pay more of their lifetime income in taxes than people born in 1951?’” Goolsbee asked.

—This story was first published by the Booth School of Business. Visit the Chicago Booth website for a full transcript from the event


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