The stock market, after dropping 35% from its all time high on February 19th sits today up about 30% from its March 23 low. Overall the S&P 500 is down a mere 14% from its apex. Everything being equal, things must be pretty good…
Not so much. Although the world is slowly thawing from its government imposed freeze, the truth is far less sanguine than the stock market might suggest, i.e. that this Coronavirus scare was just a minor speedbump on our economic march to prosperity and beyond…
The reality is far darker, and the only reason that’s not readily apparent is that the federal government and the fed have poured $10 trillion or so into our economy via direct payments, loans, bonds and guarantees and governments around the world have taken similar steps.
The fact that 30 million Americans today find themselves out of work will not be quickly fixed. Jobs are not the kinds of things you can simply switch on and off… at least not in a capitalist economy. Businesses create jobs by trying to meet market demands in hope of earning a profit. The Coronavirus shutdown has obliterated that entire dynamic.
Restaurants are possibly the best resource to look to in order to get a picture of what the future holds. Why? Because restaurants are among the most entrepreneurial aspects of the American economy and they employ fully 10% of American workers. There are about 1,000,000 restaurants in the United States and 13,000 more open each year, while a similar number close annually. Of those million restaurants, 70% are single unit operations, 90% employ fewer than 50 employees and 6 in 10 adults have worked in a restaurant.
So what do restaurants tell us about the future? It doesn’t look good…
Imagine you own a restaurant. Not a fast food chain restaurant where 70% or more of the business was drive thru even before Coronavirus hit, but a restaurant where patrons come in, look at a menu, give their orders to a waiter and then eat on the premises.
You’ve been largely idled for much of the last two months. You might have been able to retool a bit in order to serve some take out or delivery orders, but odds are you simply closed.
Over the years you’ve adjusted your floorplan, you’ve tweaked your menu and you’ve trained your employees to upsell everything from wine and add ons to desert and cappuccino. All for a business that probably gives you a 3-5% net profit or twice that if you’re lucky.
Now you’ve been closed for two months and you’re wondering where you go from here. Even if you laid off your staff so they could collect unemployment, you were probably still paying (or trying to…) your rent, pest control, outstanding invoices and making payments on the debts you incurred to open the restaurant in the first place. If you didn’t make the payments, they didn’t just disappear; they accumulated and will be waiting to be paid once you open back up.
Now you find yourself in a quandary. The governor has said that you can reopen, but in doing so you must take into account social distancing, i.e. your restaurant can only operate with 25% or 50% of the customer capacity. That means that other than less labor and food, your restaurant has to operate with outlays almost exactly where they were before the virus, but do so with only half or less of the customers and revenue, plus now there are added costs of masks, extensive cleaning operations and perhaps even disposable silverware! For most restaurants, that’s a money losing proposition. Even if to-go business were to pick up, there’s little chance that the additional revenue would make up for that lost business.
More important than the revenue, is the margin. Dine in restaurants make big profits on alcohol, sodas, coffee and desserts, all things that take out customers are less likely to buy than dine in customers.
Adding to all of that, your employees, who are collecting state unemployment plus $600 a week from the federal government, are now earning twice what they earn while working for you, and may well do so for months to come. Given the economics, many will decline the opportunity to return and lose half the income they’re currently making, which generates pressure on you to offer higher wages. So now your formerly relatively robust 5% profit margin restaurant business has transformed into a money losing albatross.
How can one stay in business with numbers like that? You can’t of course… And that’s the math quandary facing businesses across the country, and of course it’s not just restaurants. It’s hair stylists and barber shops. It’s nail salons and massage parlors. It’s karate classes and dance instructors. It’s accountants and business consultants. Its gyms and movie theaters and many other businesses. And don’t be surprised if schools, churches, hospitals, and government agencies don’t pile on. Sure, those aren’t businesses, but they are all buy substantial goods and services from businesses…
All of this is particularly important for small businesses because unlike big businesses who often can tap into debt or equity markets, small businesses often face high hurdles when it comes to financing. And, small businesses (as defined by the SBA as those with under 500 employees) are the lifeblood of the American economy. They make up 99% of all businesses, employ half the workforce, and generate 70% of all new jobs. And they are the ones most likely to have been sidelined by this lockdown and will have the most difficult time emerging.
While government loans and guarantees are helpful, they can’t replace customers who are not there. They can’t replace demand that has evaporated. They can’t keep a business in business… and they can’t do any of that for any sustained period of time. If printing money was the solution to this problem the Weimar Republic and Zimbabwe would be poster children for growth and prosperity.
Hence the divergence of the markets and main street. Government largesse may work in the short run to keep the markets calm and the breadlines from forming, but it’s no recipe for prosperity or even economic growth. Indeed, big businesses aren’t doing that badly under the current plan because they have legions of lobbyists who can ensure that they successfully navigate the restrictions and find the nuggets in the fine print of outlays, and Wall Street can see that. But on Main Street, Adam Smith is coming, and he’s bringing Hell with him…
At the end of the day, all businesses depend on customers. Customers spend money they’ve saved, earned or borrowed. The first will eventually run out, the second can’t happen without a job and the third will soon be limited to those with pristine credit scores. The Coronavirus lockdowns and government restrictions haven’t just killed the world's most prosperous economy since World War II, they have kneecapped the basic premise of free markets, that customers are free to buy what they want and sellers are free to sell their goods and services however they see fit. True, we were hardly a free market before all of this, but now with government edicts about when you can open, what you can sell and how many customers you can have, we’re far closer to Karl Marx than Mr. Smith.
There will be economic blood in the streets as America realizes that prosperity and economic growth can’t be dictated by government and that in most cases government action is a hindrance to both. Prosperity requires entrepreneurs who are willing to risk their sweat and treasure to build something in pursuit of profit. Economic growth requires markets that match consumer demands with businesses who can meet them. Lockdowns and government edicts hinder both and the longer they go on and the more restrictive they are the more carnage there will be. Business failures. Bankruptcies. Loan, mortgage and credit card defaults. Tens of millions of Americans who can't find work. And those are just the things you’ll see. Imagine the new companies that won’t ever get out of the starting blocks. The jobs that won’t be created. The demand that’s simply not there…
Wall Street might imagine this Coronavirus disaster (the lockdowns, not the virus) is just a bump in the road, but it’s not. It’s a cliff that we’ve been pushed off of, or more accurately, jumped off without much of a fight. And it looks like the bottom below is littered with jagged rocks and glass. Sadly we're not Road Runner in a cartoon where we can simply turn around in midair and run back onto solid ground. It appears that we've become Wiley E. Coyote. History will not look back favorably on the petty fascist autocrats and their delicate snowflake supporters who used a marginally dangerous virus in their march to undermine capitalism and decimate freedom and prosperity.