Review & Comment: It won’t be a ‘V’ recovery

The $8.3 billion going to Florida and $167 million going to Jacksonville for COVID-19 relief will do little to trigger a quick recovery. Visitors will need to know Florida is safe again.

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This is such a surreal moment — with the pandemic, anarchic violence, presidential campaigns via Zoom and the economic earthquake shattering so many lives.

Taken together, it’s difficult to imagine all of us bouncing back to normal by the end of the next six to nine months, especially economically.

Our prediction: Forget the “V” recovery in Florida. 

When you absorb all that you read, hear and observe firsthand, it’s obvious Florida’s recovery is going to be much like recovering from a direct hit from a hurricane — albeit to the entire state, not just one region. 

It’s going to take years. Especially in Florida’s all-important hospitality and retail-wholesale trade sectors. 

Those two sectors account for 35% of the private-sector jobs of the state’s economy, and yet they accounted for 312,900, or 63%, of the 497,700 jobs lost from July 2019 to July 2020.

Take this sobering pronouncement from the July forecast of the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research:

“The economy does not recover to the levels expected in December 2019 even at the end of the 10-year forecast horizon, reflecting the permanent economic damage inflicted by the virus. Across the various elements of the 10-year forecast, some measures of the Florida economy take two fiscal years to recover their pre-COVID peaks and normal growth patterns, while some never reach them at all … 

“Given the unusual circumstances wrought by the pandemic, jobs in leisure and hospitality are not expected to reach pre-COVID-19 levels within the 10-year forecast horizon … Previous economic studies of disease outbreaks have shown that it can take as much as 12 to 15 months after the outbreak ends for tourism to return to pre-disease levels.”

Ugh. All of us know all too well that for Florida’s economy to be humming at full speed, we need tourism, we need our snowbirds. As long as they are skeptical about the safety of their health in Florida, the state’s economy will underperform its pre-COVID-19 levels.

That won’t be the only thing holding Florida back. Washington is doing its part in a big way.

As a result of our national lawmakers’ urge to do something, to be heroes, they have been prescribing the same medicine that made the recovery from the 2008-09 recession as weak as it was: Printing and borrowing more money and handing it out like Halloween candy.

That process hearkens to those ever wise words of the late Milton Friedman: “You know how money is. There’s a tendency for it to grow … And as always when there is more money, prices go up. Inflation … Inflation is when the supply of money is growing more rapidly than the quantity of goods and services produced.

“Inflation is just like alcoholism,” Friedman said in a speech in 1976. “In both cases, when you start drinking or when you start printing too much money, the good effects come first. The bad effects come later.”

And that’s what is happening now. Washington politicians and the Federal Reserve Bank are printing massive amounts of federal relief money and handing it out to provide relief and recovery aid.

Just look at what is pouring into Florida. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act allocated $139 billion to be given based on population to 3,143 counties and similar jurisdictions in all 50 states. That’s the same amount that General Motors generates in annual worldwide sales.

Florida’s 67 counties are to receive $8,238,221,072.10, with Jacksonville/Duval County already receiving $167 million; St. Johns, $46.2 million; Clay, $38.2 million; and Nassau, $15.4 million. Altogether: $267 million in Northeast Florida.

While you have to believe that money will help, think of Friedman’s “the good effects come first. The bad effects come later.”

To that point: Whatever money the government has it takes from taxpayers. In the end, all the government is really doing with the CARES Act is taking away Peter’s wealth to pay Pauline. Congress has just saddled future generations with trillions of new debt.

What’s more, by flooding the economy with trillions in relief money, adding to the money supply, Congress is lowering the value of the money in your pocket now. Too much supply lowers prices. Too much money lowers its value. It’ll take awhile and be subtle, but over time your dollars will purchase less. Your grocery money won’t go as far as it did a year ago. This is the tax consumers seldom notice.

Economist Veronique de Rugy at George Mason University put it succinctly July 28 when she wrote: “The empirical evidence overwhelmingly supports the view that a large amount of government debt hurts economic growth, and in many cases the impact gets more pronounced as debt increases.”

Arbiters of rationing

Just think of this gargantuan process of 3,143 county commissions all over the U.S. spending hours upon hours determining how they will hand out that CARES Act money; who will receive it; how much they’ll receive; what the criteria are; and each commission essentially creating new government operations staffed with county employees and consultants to oversee and coordinate the distribution of this cash.

All of these county and city commissioners suddenly are the arbiters of rationing. And you know what that means: Any time government is placed in that position, there are always market distortions, waste and winners and losers.

In Jacksonville, the City Council and the mayor’s office devoted hours upon hours determining how to divvy up the $167 million as grants to cover COVID-related expenses: 

• $40 million to provide $1,000 grants to Duval County residents intended for rent, mortgage and utility relief.

• About $35 million to expand testing access in Duval County.

• About $10 million was used to roll back and, in some cases, lift permit and other city fees for developers and the construction industry. 

• $12.5 million for a COVID-19 emergency account for response spending not reimbursed by FEMA.

• $25 million to offset an expected decline in tax and fee revenue due to COVID-19.

• $20 million to help nonprofit and for-profit businesses that provide services to the city or on the city’s behalf that have lost revenue due to COVID-19. 

Amounts of these grants varied, based on a scoring system, ranging from $2,500 to The 5 & Dime Theatre Co. to $630,000 to the Regional Food Bank of Northeast Florida.

Is all of that above the most efficient use of the funds? You could quibble forever. And mind you, we’re not second-guessing the Council members. They were just doing their jobs. 

What’s more, surely that $167 million they divvied up will do some good. 

The pie has shrunk

But in truth, that $8.3 billion and $167 million injected into Florida and Jacksonville, respectively, will do little to reignite the economy. It will do little to solve this fundamental problem: As a result of the economic shutdowns and quarantines, Florida’s economy has shrunk. 

The size of the economic pie is smaller. Demand has contracted. After all, Florida’s unemployment rate is 11.3%. More than 1 million Floridians are not earning a steady paycheck and have less money to spend. The number of tourists coming to Florida shrunk by 68% in the second quarter of 2020. 

So even if a small business owner receives a CARES Act grant, that money won’t increase consumer demand and sales for the business’ goods or services.

If a restaurant is operating at a loss because of a lack of consumer demand or regulations restricting capacity, a grant won’t solve the bigger issue of not enough customers to cover the restaurant’s monthly expenses. Consumer demand needs to be restarted.

And that is the crux of Florida’s economic recovery: How to boost demand.

To its credit, Florida TaxWatch recently released 29 smart, practical recommendations for the state and Legislature to enact immediately to provide financial and regulatory relief to businesses and property owners. They are a start. 

TaxWatch, for instance, is recommending a long-standing wish of Florida businesses: To eliminate the sales tax on commercial rents.

That would immediately free up cash for businesses; increase the value of commercial properties; and make Florida more attractive for all those businesses that want to flee the Northeast.

Or, really go bold: Back in April, supply-side economist Arthur Laffer told us Florida could spur consumer demand if it lowered the state’s 6% sales tax — while simultaneously eliminating many of the state’s sales-tax exemptions.

Lawmakers would loathe lowering the sales tax when forecasts are projecting the state’s sales tax collections — Florida’s primary source of revenue — will decline $4 billion, or 8%, over the next two fiscal years.

That lost revenue means the Legislature, local governments and school boards are heading into another period of having to make cuts — just as they did during the 2008-09 recession.

The reality is there are few government policy options to kick-start consumer demand in Florida. 

It comes down to this: That $167 million and $8.3 billion being disbursed in Duval County and statewide, respectively, will do some good, but that money won’t change the drawn-out pace of Florida’s economic recovery. 

The recovery will speed up only when Florida consistently shows the pandemic is under control and the state is safe to visit once again.

Government won’t solve that problem with more devastating shutdowns or restrictions on businesses’ use of space. But personal responsibility and behavior can help solve the problem. 

That’s the message Gov. Ron DeSantis should deliver every day: The more Floridians do what they can to control COVID-19 — however annoying and overblown it may be, the faster Florida’s economy and jobs will come back.