US Fed chair urges more fiscal support to help economic recovery

Jerome Powell said policymakers need to do more to prevent mass bankruptcies and high levels of unemployment in the US

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell arrives to speak at a press conference after the Fed announced interest rates would remain unchanged, in Washington, DC, January 30, 2019. The Federal Reserve left the key US lending rate unchanged on Wednesday, and said it would be "patient" about making any further changes, in the clearest signal yet the central bank has heeded concerns about the economy. / AFP / SAUL LOEB

The US economy faces unprecedented downside risks that could do lasting damage to households and businesses if fiscal and monetary policy makers don’t rise to the challenge, Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell said.

“The recovery may take some time to gather momentum, and the passage of time can turn liquidity problems into solvency problems,” Mr Powell said on Wednesday in remarks prepared for a virtual event hosted by the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “Additional fiscal support could be costly, but worth it if it helps avoid long-term economic damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery.”

Mr Powell and his colleagues on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee have taken dramatic measures to shelter the US economy during the coronavirus pandemic. They have cut their benchmark interest rate to nearly zero, engaged in open-ended bond buying and begun rolling out emergency lending programmes as US unemployment has soared to levels not seen since the 1930s Great Depression.

The Fed chair in his speech outlined the worrying scenario posed by mass bankruptcies and unemployment while asserting that policymakers may have to do more to prevent it from coming to pass. He said the Fed would publish a survey on Thursday showing almost 40 per cent of Americans in households making less than $40,000 a year had lost a job in March.

“Long stretches of unemployment can damage or end workers’ careers as their skills lose value and professional networks dry up, and leave families in greater debt,” Mr Powell said. “The loss of thousands of small- and medium-sized businesses across the country would destroy the life’s work and family legacy of many business and community leaders and limit the strength of the recovery when it comes.”

Congressional lawmakers and President Donald Trump’s administration have passed almost $3 trillion (Dh11tn) in economic relief measures, including $454 billion to serve as a backstop for the central bank’s emergency programmes. Democrats and Republicans are currently talking about another round of aid, including measures to shore up state and local governments whose tax revenues have been decimated by stay-at-home orders that have shuttered entire sectors of the economy.

“While the economic response has been both timely and appropriately large, it may not be the final chapter, given that the path ahead is both highly uncertain and subject to significant downside risks,” Mr Powell said.

In an unprecedented step, the Fed this week also began buying exchange-traded funds invested in corporate debt to support liquidity in the market where large companies borrow.

Mr Powell added that the central bank would “continue to use our tools to their fullest until the crisis has passed and the economic recovery is well under way,” but cautioned that it could only provide loans and not spend money.

“When this crisis is behind us, we will put these emergency tools away,” he said.