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The government needs to bail out people, not corporations | COMMENTARY

U.S. airlines, including Fort Worth-based American, are among big corporations getting federal bailouts because of the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. airlines, including Fort Worth-based American, are among big corporations getting federal bailouts because of the coronavirus pandemic. (MAX FAULKNER/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)

The coronavirus relief enacted by Congress more than three weeks ago is barely reaching Americans in need.

Checks of up to $1,200 are being delivered through direct-deposit filings with the Internal Revenue Service. But low-income people who have not directly deposited their taxes won't get these checks for weeks or months. Worse yet, the Treasury is allowing banks to seize payments to satisfy outstanding debts.

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Meanwhile, most of the promised $600 weekly extra unemployment benefits remain stuck in state unemployment insurance offices now overwhelmed with claims.

None of this seems to bother conservative Republicans, who believe all such relief creates what’s called “moral hazard” — the risk that government benefits will allow people to slack off.

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Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, says state unemployment offices are overwhelmed because the extra $600 is "incentivizing people to leave the workforce." Hello?

When it comes to big corporations and their CEOs, however, Republicans don't worry about moral hazard. They should.

Before the coronavirus, corporations were borrowing money like mad, capitalizing on the Fed’s bargain-basement interest rates. Total corporate debt topped $16 trillion last year.

Corporations used much of this debt to buy back their own shares of stock. This raised the earnings of each remaining share, creating a bonanza for big investors and top executives.

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President Donald Trump never tired of pointing out how spectacularly stock prices had risen on his watch. But he neglected to mention that those stocks were floating on a rising sea of corporate debt — which left corporate America dangerously unprepared for any sharp downturn.

Then came the coronavirus and the sharpest downturn on record.

American corporations spent $730 billion on buybacks last year, much of it financed by debt. If they hadn't frittered away that money, they'd be better able to cope with this emergency.

Over the past five years, four major U.S. airlines and aerospace giant Boeing spent more than $70 billion buying back their own stock, putting them deep in debt. If they hadn’t binged on buybacks, they’d be better equipped to weather this storm.

No worries. Government is bailing all of them out, just as it did the Wall Street banks in 2008.

On April 9, the Fed announced that it will buy up corporate debt — even backstopping private-equity firms that also borrowed to the hilt. Last week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced an agreement with the airlines to give them billions of taxpayer dollars.

Forget moral hazard. They're all too big to fail.

The Fed and the Treasury had little choice. Massive defaults and bankruptcies would wreak even more havoc on the economy. Better to maintain some payrolls than add to the unemployment rolls.

But by saving the derrières of big corporations and their CEOs, the bailouts have rewarded corporate America’s obsession with short-term profits regardless of longer-term risks to the corporation, its employees and the overall economy.

Tell me: Why is moral hazard a problem when it comes to millions of jobless Americans but not a problem when it comes to CEOs who have borrowed to the hilt, used the money to artificially boost share prices, and raked in an average of nearly $20 million a year?

Giving the vast majority of Americans a bit more cushion against the economy's downdrafts is surely less risky than giving CEOs a cushion against irresponsible bets.

It's not too late for the Fed and the Treasury to take shares of stock in every corporation that they bail out, equal to the amount of government help provided.

That way, CEOs and big investors aren't rewarded for binging on debt to finance stock buybacks. The public gets in on the upside of any eventual recovery. And there will be more money to finance stronger safety nets for Americans who actually need them.

The real moral hazard is occurring at conference tables in C-suites, not at kitchen tables in the homes of average Americans.

It's time to stop bailing out corporations and start bailing out people.

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley and a former labor secretary.

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