Hoping to soften the economic blow of COVID-19, governments are hammering out the details of what could be the biggest corporate rescue in history.

Companies across industries are running out of resources to keep their doors open. Governments are responding with sweeping economic measures, led by America’s $2 trillion stimulus package. Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain are putting together aid packages of their own worth hundreds of billions. What is not yet known is exactly who the beneficiaries will be, how much they will receive, and in what form.

The airline industry, as one of the hardest-hit, is one of the first in line for government aid. In an impact assessment released April 14, the International Air Transport Association estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic could cut this year’s global passenger revenue by $252 billion, or 38% relative to 2019. The trade group also reported that worldwide flights were down nearly 80% by early April. Some airlines, including Alitalia, Emirates and Singapore Airlines, have already been bailed out.

Two-thirds of all airline profits are generated in the U.S., where lobbyists have managed to secure tailored packages for individual carriers, worth a total of $50 billion in government loans and grants. Airlines will be eligible for support equivalent to six months of payroll, much more than any other businesses. American Airlines alone is expecting $12 billion. In return, airline carriers agree to retain workers until October, cut executive salaries, and freeze shareholder payouts until late 2021.

Apart from the airline industry, the only other American businesses eligible for government loans are those considered “critical to maintain national security.” Boeing is a likely candidate, given its recent troubles and standing as one of the world’s top defence contractors. Energy companies are in the running. And with demand for cars expected to plummet, carmakers could also make a case for themselves. As The Economist explains, these companies are household names and “sit at the heart of complex ecosystems with millions of employees.”

The financial sector is yet another potential recipient of government aid, particularly in insurance, which could see a major economic impact from business interruption claims. In the U.S., considerable wrangling has already taken place between politicians and insurance companies. The latter contend that if they are required to cover policyholders for business interruption losses due to COVID-19, they will need rescue packages. Banks are in a stronger position, and could even be part of the solution, serving as conduits for state-guaranteed loans.

Much of the government aid will go to the millions of small businesses facing months of losses due to shutdowns. Some corporate rescue could come out of this for big business as well. In America, for example, small business programmes are intended for companies with fewer than 500 employees; however big hotel chains have been granted the right to treat each of their locations as an individual business.

An easing of government regulations is another form of relief welcomed by companies in various industries, including banks. In Europe and the U.S., this is taking the form of capital relief for lenders. Many countries have prohibited betting on share price falls. Some airlines in Europe are being allowed to hold slots at airports despite not using them. The U.S. has weakened restrictions aimed at protecting the environment, a move that could come at a cost in the longer term and is meeting with resistance from some states.

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