Fed to buy unlimited government debt, lend to businesses
WASHINGTON — In its boldest effort to protect the U.S. economy from the coronavirus, the Federal Reserve says it will buy as much government debt as it deems necessary and will also begin lending to small and large businesses and local governments to help them weather the crisis.
The Fed's announcement Monday removes any dollar limits from its plans to support the flow of credit through an economy that has been ravaged by the viral outbreak. The central bank's all-out effort has now gone beyond even the extraordinary drive it made to rescue the economy from the 2008 financial crisis.
"The coronavirus pandemic is causing tremendous hardship across the United States and around the world," the Fed said in a statement. “Our nation’s first priority is to care for those afflicted and to limit the further spread of the virus. While great uncertainty remains, it has become clear that our economy will face severe disruptions. Aggressive efforts must be taken across the public and private sectors to limit the losses to jobs and incomes and to promote a swift recovery once the disruptions abate.”
Financial markets sharply reversed themselves after the announcement but then fell back again after the market opened. By mid-morning, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down about 1.5%. The yield on the 10-year Treasury bond fell, a sign that more investors are willing to purchase the securities.
In unleashing its aggressive new efforts, the Fed is trying both to stabilize the economic standstill and allay panic in financial markets. Many corporations and city and state governments are in desperate need of loans to pay bills and maintain operations as their revenue from customers or taxpayers collapses. That need has escalated demand for cash. In the meantime, large businesses have been drawing, as much as they can, on their existing borrowing relationships with banks.
The intensifying needs for cash means that banks and other investors are seeking to rapidly unload Treasuries, short-term corporate debt, municipal bonds and other securities. The Fed's move to step in and act as a buyer of last resort is intended to provide that needed cash.
The Fed's actions increase pressure on Congress to approve a nearly $2 trillion stimulus package that stalled late Sunday. The bill includes funds that would help backstop the Fed's lending. Many economists say that whatever financial support Congress eventually provides will likely be even more important than the Fed's intervention. And they warn that such fiscal help needs to come soon.
The Fed’s intervention is not a substitute for fiscal stimulus,” said Joseph Gagnon, a former Fed economist who is now senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "Let's hope Congress passes something quickly.’’
Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM, a tax and advisory firm, said that if Congress can pass the legislation and have it signed into law by Tuesday, banks could start making loans to small and medium-sized businesses, with the Fed's support, by Friday.
“It is dependent on the political authorities getting their ducks in a row and passing a bill,” he said.
In its announcement Monday, the Fed said it will establish three new lending facilities that will provide up to $300 billion by purchasing corporate bonds, a wider range of municipal bonds and securities tied to such debt as auto and real estate loans. It will also buy an unlimited amount of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities to try to hold down borrowing rates and ensure those markets function smoothly.