Orvin T. Kimbrough: Survival of the fittest mentality won’t cut it for Main Street

This opinion piece originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 9th, 2020

The current pandemic begs two questions: Who will survive? and What businesses will survive? The cavalier might simply respond: Survival of the fittest.

The first time I heard that latter phrase was in an undergraduate sociology class. It has always been a curious ideology to me because it doesn’t refer to the smartest or strongest individuals and institutions. It refers to those who are most adaptable.

The shock waves of the pandemic felt on Wall Street and Main Street have entirely different impacts. We saw what happened on Wall Street during the 2008 recession, and we can be fairly certain that it will play out in a similar way now. Survival of the fittest is at play. Large multinational companies will fight it out to determine who wins and who loses in the race to create value for consumers. The fittest — those with the strongest balance sheets, best strategy and agile teams to execute that strategy — will likely come out on top. There are some in this category who have enough cash to simply hunker down and wait for the crisis to pass. Then, after other businesses have burned through their cash, they will pounce. These institutions generally reap the vast majority of benefits during a crisis like this.

The story on Main Street — where we all live, shop and work — is an entirely different one. As of this writing, nearly 40 million people have filed for unemployment benefits. Without interventions, Main Street will be decimated by the current crisis. As of mid-May, 3.5 million mortgage borrowers had requested forbearance, according to data released by the Mortgage Bankers Association. Despite that temporary relief, many still will lose their homes. We will see a record number of individual small-business owners abandon their entrepreneurial dreams. Forty-eight percent of all U.S. employees work for these small businesses. Imagine the devastation to local economies, neighborhoods and families.

We have to do better. We have to raise our collective voices to ensure that Main Street can survive. The discussion in the coming weeks will transition from one of liquidity to a focus on solvency. Solvency is just a fancy way of saying: Will you be in a position to keep your business and home?

Regardless of income, most of us don’t have an adequate rainy day fund to see us through the gentlest storm, much less a downpour. The rule of thumb is to have six months of take-home pay set aside for emergencies. Despite the long period of economic growth and low unemployment we experienced, the vast majority of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings set aside to cover major unexpected expenses. Without a paycheck coming in, many folks now are finding that the hole they’ve been trying to dig their way out of is only growing deeper.

We need an infusion of job-creating policies, subsidies and access to reasonably priced debt. Much like the Federal Reserve pulled every lever to ensure that the proverbial wheels of the markets and economy were greased with liquidity while production was close to idle, we need to pull every lever to inject hope into Main Street.

Government, especially during this period, has to work for all people. Anything the government does to shore up a private or public company is on the backs of taxpayers. Corporations have to exercise fairness to workers in exchange for the tremendous public support they are getting. They need to provide good wages and benefits and safe working conditions.

Finally, we the people have to do our part by getting back to work when the opportunity becomes available. We can do this. It will be hard and we will have to adapt to changing realities. But we already are seeing how our local community responds. Neighbors have dusted off their sewing machines to make face masks for essential workers, the elderly and the frail. Children have drawn smiley faces and hopeful messages on our sidewalks. We have seen the power of kindness and connection. It will be hard, but we, the citizens of Main Street, can do it and we should expect the same from our governmental and corporate leaders.

Orvin T. Kimbrough is chairman and chief executive of Midwest BankCentre, the second-largest locally owned community bank serving the St. Louis region.

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Elise Amendola

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