Fed's Powell to assess next phase of pandemic economy

Howard Schneider, Reuters

Posted at May 13 2020 07:05 PM

Fed's Powell to assess next phase of pandemic economy 1
The Federal Reserve building in Washington, U.S. Kevin Lamarque, Reuters file photo

WASHINGTON - Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, having overseen the rapid creation of the central bank's massive network of pandemic-era programs, turns his attention Wednesday morning to where things stand on the cusp of what may be a risky reopening occurring disparately across the 50 U.S. states.

Powell is scheduled to deliver remarks at 9 a.m. (1300 GMT) in a webcast event organized by the Peterson Institute for International Economics and to hold a question and answer session afterwards with the think tank's director, Adam Posen.

His appearances since the pandemic forced the Fed into a series of emergency actions starting in March have been aimed largely at reassuring people that the Fed would use its power to keep their finances afloat, and to explain the programs it had designed to do so.

His comments on Wednesday come at a different juncture, with an increasing number of U.S. governors now lifting the various restrictions on commerce and activity put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and attention turning to whether that reopening will lead to a quick return of economic activity or a second wave of infections.

"The next six to eight weeks will be fundamental" in determining whether consumers and workers feel safe enough to return to the marketplace, and if they are able to do so free of disease, Richmond Federal Reserve President Thomas Barkin said in webcast remarks on Tuesday. “We are at the brink of...some reemergence of the economy. It is a question of how do we get the pace up" of the recovery while keeping the health risks under control.

That has become a centerpiece debate in the United States, pitting the potentially catastrophic health outcomes should the virus resurge against the dire economic consequences of tens of millions out of work and business and family budgets stressed to the point of breaking.

The U.S. economy lost a staggering 20.5 million jobs in April alone and some 33 million Americans have claimed jobless benefits since late March, when many state leaders started telling people to stay home to fight the virus. Some analysts think the economy could shrink by as much as 40% on an annualized basis in the second quarter.

In a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke of the risk the country could "paradoxically" end up worse off if it reopens too haphazardly and ends up with not just new rounds of infections, but a second wave of restrictions on who can go to work and what businesses can stay open.

The Fed has put in place a broad set of programs offering trillions of dollars in credit support to companies, families and financial markets meant to get the economy through this period, and, more importantly, to be economically fit enough to participate in what is hoped to be a strong recovery later this year.

Some of those programs are only just starting to open - the Fed began purchasing corporate bond exchange traded funds on Tuesday - and will be rolled out more fully in weeks to come.

There may still be more. The Fed has said it is exploring a possible program to help non-profits, for example, and it could still make more explicit promises to buy U.S. government securities in order to keep long-term borrowing costs low for a longer period of time.

But in coming weeks attention will turn more closely to what happens as states take the first steps to let diners back into restaurants, shoppers back into stores, and workers back into factories.

If the state efforts succeed in getting people safely back to work, the Fed's programs will keep low-cost loans available for people to buy homes or cars or finance investments.

If they don't and the pace of infections intensifies again, "there is still a lot of balance sheet capacity at the Fed, there is still a lot of lending capacity," Barkin said.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci)