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Fed aims 'bazooka' at coronavirus to backstop economy

  • Howard Schneider

    Reuters

New York   /   Tue, March 24, 2020   /   08:25 am
Fed aims 'bazooka' at coronavirus to backstop economy Federal Reserve building. (Shutterstock/File)

The US Federal Reserve on Monday rolled out an extraordinary new array of programs aimed at blunting the “severe disruptions” to the economy caused by the coronarvirus outbreak, backstopping an unprecedented range of credit for households, small businesses and major employers.

In a series of actions the Fed agreed to historical measures that would see it for the first time back the purchases of corporate bonds and direct loans to companies, expand its asset holding by as much as needed to stabilize financial markets, and roll out “soon” a program to get credit to small and medium-sized business.

It marks both a massive intervention into the US economy by the central bank, and an quickly conceived move to adapt to the fact that the US economy may need to shut its doors to keep people safe.

“It’s their bazooka moment,” said Russell Price, chief economist at Ameriprise Financial Services in Troy, Michigan. “It’s their ‘we’ll do whatever it takes’ moment which should be a sign to financial markets and investors that the Fed will provide any and all liquidity necessary to support the economy through this period.”

Under the new programs, the Fed will lend against student loans, credit card loans, and US government backed-loans to small businesses, and buy bonds of larger employers and make loans to them in what amounts to four years of bridge financing.

Nearly a third of the US population is subject to new rules that close non-essential businesses and discourage people from leaving their homes in order to slow the spread of the virus. Hundreds of thousands of people have already filed for unemployment insurance in California alone, the state’s governor said at the weekend, and many analysts are projecting declines in economic output next quarter that are far worse than the steepest drop during the Great Recession.

A Reuters poll of economists estimated initial jobless claims rose an astounding 1 million last week, and some believe the number could be higher.

Stocks initially rose, then fell after the Fed announcement. US Treasury yields ticked higher.

The move helped lower risk premiums in key corporate credit markets that have been disrupted in the outbreak, analysts said.

In a statement the Fed said the effort, approved unanimously by members of the Federal Open Market Committee, was taken because “it has become clear that our economy will face severe disruptions” as a result of the health crisis.

“This is the Fed’s all-out effort to ensure that the business sector and households can continue on,” said Sam Bullard, senior economist for Wells Fargo Securities.

“The Fed is doing everything they can” to keep markets functioning smoothly after economic activity was disrupted, he said “We take this as a huge easing.”

Republicans and Democrats failed over the weekend to reach a deal on a $1 trillion-plus coronavirus stimulus package.

“We’ve known that the magnitude of help needed has been massive and growing for days now,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst of Bankrate. “The Federal Reserve continues to do all it can to keep markets operating. Now, the spotlight is on elected leaders to do their jobs as well.”