Germany Unleashes $800 Billion Package to Cushion Virus Blow

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(Bloomberg) --

Germany signed off on taking on billions in new debt as part of an unprecedented package totaling more than 750 billion euros ($800 billion) to cushion the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Under a supplementary budget, the government will borrow 156 billion euros to fund additional social spending and company aid in a coordinated effort to prevent deeper economic disruption.

Germany has also agreed to set up a 600 billion-euro rescue fund to provide virus-hit companies with loans and guarantees as well as buy stakes in stricken businesses. The fund consists of 400 billion euros in guarantees, 100 billion euros to bail out companies and 100 billion euros for state-backed loans.

The government did the right thing to “deploy the bazooka,” Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said at a press conference in Berlin, warning off investors from taking advantage of the crisis to snap up German companies on the cheap.

“To everyone in hedge funds or elsewhere who is already looking forward to buying one or the other cheaply, make no mistake about it: We are determined to assist our companies in this situation,” he said.

As the devastating implications of the disease become clear, Merkel’s ruling coalition is abandoning a long-standing commitment to balanced budgets and using emergency powers to suspend rules restricting borrowing that are enshrined in the constitution. As cases rise to nearly 25,000 and nearly 100 deaths, Germany banned gatherings of more than two people as part of tougher lockdown rules intended to slow the pace of the spread.

With modern life severely disrupted, the economy could shrink by about 5% this year, according to Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who held aloft a large stack of legislation to illustrate the government’s efforts to limit the damage.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet signed off on the spending plan in an emergency meeting on Monday. The German leader was forced to chair the gathering via video conference after quarantining herself at home on Sunday following earlier contact with a doctor who later tested positive, taking her out of the public eye just as she asserts herself into the crisis.

The chancellor, who has been tested for the virus, was in good health and going about her duties at home like many other people in Germany, according to her spokesman Steffen Seibert.

Decisions by Merkel and German state leaders on Sunday move Europe’s biggest economy a bit closer to the drastic steps taken in Italy, the country with the most coronavirus deaths worldwide. The tighter rules in Germany include shutting hair dressers and limiting restaurants to take-out and delivery services.

In addition to the 156 billion euros for the supplementary budget, the rescue fund could issue up to 200 billion euros in additional debt if needed. The ultimate size of the rescue fund’s borrowings depends on how many companies ask for government help, according to Deputy Finance Minister Joerg Kukies.

The supplementary budget equals about 4.5% of gross domestic product and will be presented to the lower house of parliament on Wednesday. It could move on to Germany’s upper house on Friday.

A government initiative to lend firms about 500 billion euros via state-owned development bank KfW kicked off on Monday as aid programs start getting rolled out.

“It’s all about helping businesses quickly and unbureaucratically,” Altmaier said. “A large part of that is providing liquidity.”

(Updates with government minister comments beginining in fourth paragraph)

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