The Price of a Cynical Electoral Calculation

Thisi is a slightly edited version of the article published in NIN magazine on July 30th, 2020.

Author: dr Kori Udovički

At a time when officially hundreds, and possibly many more, people are dying from covid in Serbia, it is important to be quite clear that this was not inevitable. It is not true that in this crisis one has to choose between the health of citizens and the economy. On the contrary– health management has become one of the most important economic policy tools – if the government does not keep the epidemic under control, its explosive spread takes control of everything, no matter how much the government resorts to repression. People in Serbia are dying today because of a cynical electoral calculation, but also because Aleksandar Vučić– despite holding a tight grip over his party and the (repressive) state apparatus– is not able to manage the fine web of measures and incentives needed to take the Serbian economy to safety.  Had he been able to, he could have won the election with greater political gain and benefit for the economy, without the unnecessary loss of life.

The first and second waves

Every day of this second wave of the pandemic is costing the Serbian economy over a million and a half euros in earnings—a rough and conservative estimate– compared with what could realistically have been expected after the state of emergency. It was to be expected that, at least for a year from now, businesses would operate under the twin effect of the restrictions’ direct limitations, as well as of the contraction in demand caused only partly by the restrictions themselves, but more so by the broader effects of the crisis in Serbia and internationally. The estimate of the additional cost includes the effect of the current deterioration in both these factors. Not included are the increased costs of health treatment (which will ultimately also be paid by businesses) and the chain effects of increased uncertainty and of failures of the most affected businesses.

In order to understand this wave, as well as how the epidemic can be better managed, it is useful to look at what can be learned from the state of emergency—although it is quite safe to assume this will not be exactly repeated.  It should not repeat because everybody – businesses, citizens, and the government—have in good measure become adapted to the inevitable new circumstances.

As with the first wave, this one is most strongly affecting micro, small, and medium sized limited liability companies and sole-proprietors (SMEs) – those that make the heart of the domestic economy.

The chain of causality during the state of emergency started with the closure of those activities that require direct contact or the gathering of large numbers of people (hotels, restaurants, personal care, open and enclosed market places). CEVES’ research shows that every fifth limited liability company (LLC) mainly micro, and every third sole-proprietor (with a total of some 230,000 formally employed) were not able to operate at all. In addition to businesses closed outright by the measures, also blocked were workers older than 65 and those that were not able to organize transport for their employees. However, for the majority of businesses, the first wave was centered around the need to adapt to safer working conditions. Establishing physical distance, working in staggered shifts, the use of PPE and disinfectants, shifting to digital/remote work in whatever capacity possible- all of that entailed costs that continue to burden businesses.

For the two thirds of SMEs that could not (partially or fully) shift to remote work, shortened work hours were highly limiting. Retail outlets were hit particularly hard, not only by the shortened work hours, but the many days of forced holiday.  Difficulties with, and the increased costs of, procurement and transportation of inputs should be added –problems which continue to be felt, especially in the import and export of goods.

Once operations were adjusted, the main cause of SMEs’ loss of income was the fall in demand. During the state of emergency, 40% of SMEs lost over 50% in profits; only every fourth LLC and every fifth entrepreneur had profits in line with pre-epidemic expectations. As soon as the state of emergency was ended, some businesses had even higher demand than usual (e.g. hair salons), while others dealt with continued shortfalls. Some sectors, especially those related with tourism, faced an especially drastic decline- in May, Serbia had 87.6% less tourists than at the same time last year. It was realistic to expect a continued shortfall in demand in other exposed sectors as well, considering that the public needed to be continually reminded of safety measures.  Some niches (eg. international congress tourism) would clearly not find solutions for the medium-term on their own. Instead, in June and July, the neglect of strict safety measures and a “we beat corona” attitude took hospitality and other similar businesses to a surprisingly high level.

Their decline is now that much more severe, more so due to the fall in demand and caution by citizens than restrictions. Coming out of the state of emergency, SMEs were optimistic. Covid caught them in the first rush of economic growth since the last crisis. According to CEVES’ research, they had in the meantime significantly increased exports and their contribution to the Serbian economy. They had even built up reserves– during the state of emergency, only 1% of SMEs let go of employees.

Elan and reserves

The first set of economic measures served to replenish part of the reserves that SMEs spent during the state of emergency. As such it was justified and its lateness (in contrast to my previously stated expectations) was less important. About two thirds of businesses resorted to deferring tax debts (the moratorium on loans was used by much fewer of them, because few SMEs borrow at all). Additionally, two thirds of businesses stated that they relied on their own reserves and the help of family and friends in order to aide their financial problems during the state of emergency, while 90% took (or were simply given) the minimum wage subsidy. Still, surveys showed only 5-10% of them reported that the government measures influenced their decision to (not) lay-off employees. About one fourth said they didn’t even have issues with making payments.

The greatest price of the new wave lies in the collapse of that optimism and the aimless depletion of those reserves. It takes the courage or ambition of many entrepreneurs to secure sustainable economic growth– and it requires that they believe it makes sense to risk their assets and savings. The crisis is not an opportunity as such, but crisis or not, the chances and ability of every entrepreneur to uncover solutions, to invest their reserves in the small opportunities they see – must be protected. This is possible only with consistent, predictable, and, if possible, agreed upon economic policies. In their absence, discouragement and costly directionless searching take over.  Although the delay of the first set of measures did not in itself create a problem, it is a reflection of a deep problem that is yet to take its toll.  First of all, let’s clear up the myth that the first set of measures had to be so broadly targeted and expensive due to the speed and limited administrative capacity of the Serbian state. All the countries that Serbia compares itself with adopted the first set of measures in the third or fourth week of March. Serbia announced a set on March 31st, and it adopted it only on April 10th.  Additionally, all the countries in the region, and many others outside it, had much more targeted sets of measures.

One instead of all

The question is why was the set of measures late? I have no doubt that it waited on the “de facto” Minister of Finance to stop doing the job of the “de facto” Minister of Health. The public is very familiar with the effort Aleksandar Vučić personally put in to control the health aspects of the epidemic during the first month of the crisis: from selecting the professional advice to rely on, through the procurement of respirators while playing geostrategic policy, to the role of a spokesman for the Crisis Task Force. In the meantime, the economy and economic line ministries were preparing proposals that were waiting for a response. The first economic messages he sent into the ether were related to maintaining salaries in the public sector, supplementing pensions, and giving raises to health workers. Most likely, he was only able to pay attention to the economy when new health policies were following advice from the Chinese physicians (at the beginning of the last week of March). Meanwhile, only the National Bank appears to have acted autonomously.

The biggest problem in all of this is not the tardiness of important decisions (e.g. currently—forming the new Government). Even the disenfranchisement of ministry leaderships is not an insurmountable problem – Vučić can replace more than half the ministers (the policy of mass testing adopted near the end of March was in fact correct). The problem is that the occasional benefit from such engagement cannot even remotely compensate for the damage done by the unpredictability and caprice of such decision-making at the highest level. It disempowers and paralyzes entire ministry realms, from top to bottom. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is accompanied by a subtle, yet effective, message that nothing is to be expected from the initiative of the small individual, within the government and outside it. There is no hint even of a message that joint action, mutual help, but also a free (and fair) competition of many small and big players in society can create something valuable for the whole society.

When we look at how other countries adopt measures, it is obvious that they work in parallel tracks. Measures spring up in waves: first one minister, then another is announcing a step, there is a public dialogue – some of it nationwide, some between ministries and their constituencies. Businesses are investing in adapting to the new situation by connecting their interests and the health of citizens in ways that only they could have thought of – digitalization, better ventilation, new procedures that protect both employees and clients. The governments, with detailed sanitary analyses and instructions, support and follow the initiatives.

Do not get me wrong: business people in Serbia are fighting hard, and individuals and institutions everywhere, even within the government, are working as hard as they can to adjust their activities and make them as useful as possible in this moment. During the crisis, the Chamber of Commerce stood out with its engagement and agility. But that is not the same as mobilizing entire ministry realms into coordinated action top-down and bottom-up. The first set of measures should have been understood as buying time – to prepare the economy and the state for the “new normal”.

A chip off the old block

The set of measures did buy time, but — what for? The clarification did not follow. Immediately after coming out of the state of emergency, many businessmen probably had unrealistic expectations. Less than five percent thought they would need any debt forgiveness to survive! Only later in June did the realization begin to set in that serious problems await for the medium term. Like anywhere, the business sector needed political leadership: the “de facto” prime minister initiating and supporting a nation-, or at least government-, wide dialogue about what this “new normal” will look like- how much will it cost, what expectations could no longer be realistic? Hardly anyone reading the international press could have doubted that the hospitality sector, and especially hotels focused on international tourism, would remain under unbearable pressure. What is the country’s policy for them five months after the outbreak of the crisis?

In this unprecedented crisis, no one has the crystal ball (or time) to work out ambitious policies and strategies. But it is possible and necessary to clearly weigh what portion of the country’s resources will be allocated to civic solidarity, and what to investments that we believe can pull everyone ahead? What principles do we stand for as a nation? One must, for example, choose between the following two: “unless something much worse than expected happens, we will not allow the country to be left without these, or such and such, hotels” or “we do not believe that even in a crisis like this, hotels should be helped. Some will fail, some who still have the resources will buy them.” With or without a national dialogue – which of the two is Vučić’s position? Instead of answering these questions, more than two months after the adoption of the first set of economic measures, the announcement of the second begins, and it is just a chip off the old set’s block.

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