The mammoth $2 trillion rescue package on the brink of heading to President Donald Trump’s desk would plug some of the massive holes coronavirus is ripping through the American economy.
But the massive effort — the largest single injection of federal cash into the economy in U.S. history — will do nothing to flip the switch back on for an economy enduring the swiftest paralyzation any major developed nation has ever seen.
The third phase of the government’s coronavirus response amounts to 10 percent of America’s total economic output for an entire year. But many economists believe it will need to be followed by a fourth phase and possibly more after that. That’s because damage is mounting across the U.S. and around the globe — even beyond the workers laid off and businesses shut down — with longer-lasting consequences that policy makers likely can’t even see yet.
“The Federal Reserve and Congress are helping avert for now a massive self-feeding economic and financial decline that threatens a devastating combination of a 1930s-like depression and a 2008-like global financial crisis. That’s the good news,” said Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief economic advisor at Allianz. “There will definitely be a need for a phase four.”
The timeline for more action would be “dependent on how long it takes for health policy to get its arms around virus containment, treatment and immunity,” El-Erian said. “The quicker this happens, the more phase four will be about reactivating economic activity rather than just damage containment.”
The need for a fast and massive infusion of federal cash became starkly evident on Thursday when the government reported that 3.3 million Americans applied for jobless benefits in a single week, by far the largest number in history. The previous record was just under 700,000 in 1982.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell took the highly unusual step of appearing on television on Thursday before the claims numbers came out to calm the public and markets.
“We may well be in a recession,” Powell said on NBC’s “Today” show. But he added that it could be a sharp and short one, particularly as the central bank is taking unprecedented measures to prop up markets and funnel money to small and medium-sized businesses most at risk. “When it comes to this lending, we’re not going to run out of ammunition,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”
The extreme volatility that has gripped markets over the past month jolted stocks higher in recent days, with investors riding a wave of momentum tied to the expected passage of the economic rescue package. But stocks remain far from their records of last month and most investors expect considerable volatility in the weeks ahead.
Few analysts are suggesting the “phase three” package is anything less than massive. Many believe it will bring significant relief by jamming cash into the pockets of Americans losing work in mass numbers while propping up many small and midsize business in danger of shutting down in the coming weeks.
It also funnels money to states, hospitals and airlines as well as other hard-hit large businesses. Some governors, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, have said the aid to states is far too small to help with what are expected to be massive declines in tax revenues that will wreck many state budgets. That is expected to be on lawmakers’ plates in the coming months.
Economists and Wall Street analysts mostly suggest the package, coupled with massive stimulus efforts from the Fed, will boost the fight against the virus and cushion the massive hit to businesses and individuals.
But they mostly describe it as triage, not major surgery. How much more is needed will depend on when the country can return to something resembling normal business.
President Donald Trump is pushing hard to restart the economy by as soon as Easter Sunday, April 12. But the still-rapid spread of the virus and the need for buy-in from state and local officials as well as employers means that date could easily slide for weeks, if not months.
In that case, Washington will have to open up the cash spigots again.
“The Senate stimulus package should keep millions of Americans from very dire straits while they are away from work and keep many businesses where they work from going out of business in the interim,” said Lou Brien, economic strategist at DRW Trading Group. “But there is the dual calculation of how long the quarantine will last and how quickly will life return to normal.”
Brien added that “if the answers to both those questions are longer than expected, then there is trouble, because it is not clear how much more there is in reserve.”
To be sure, a lot of money is about to go out, though it remains to be seen how fast.
The package would send $1,200 checks to many Americans and an additional $500 per child for qualifying families. But taxpayers who don’t already have direct deposit arrangements with the IRS may have to wait a significant period of time to get their money. The payments will go down depending on income, phasing out completely at $99,000 for individuals and $198,000 for joint filers.
The bill also includes a dramatic expansion of unemployment insurance, the need for which became clear Thursday with the weekly jobless claim numbers.
The unemployment expansion includes an increase in the maximum payment by $600 per week. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that would mean “laid-off workers, on average, will receive their full pay for four months.”
The bill would also expand unemployment benefits to gig workers who do not have traditional employers. It would also extend the time people can qualify for benefits by four months.
For corporations, Treasury will be able to leverage $500 billion in loans, loan guarantees and direct investments, including $25 billion for the airline industry. Democrats managed to get tighter oversight on that pile of money including restrictions against it being used by companies controlled by Trump or other public officials. Recipients would have to do their best to retain 90 percent of their workforce and face restrictions on dividend payments and stock buybacks.
The deal also includes a $367 billion lending program for small businesses, which will have access to loans of up to $10 million and can use them to pay workers making up to $100,000.
All told it’s the biggest single intervention ever undertaken by the Congress and the executive branch. And it comes in addition to massive efforts by the Fed that could actually dwarf the size of the bill.
The central bank slashed interest rates to zero, then pledged to buy unlimited amounts of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. The Senate bill includes $454 billion to backstop possible losses in lending facilities set up by the Fed, which the central bank could leverage into $4 trillion in lending to businesses. That’s led some to describe the rescue package as potentially worth $6 trillion, or almost a third of annual gross domestic product.
That should buy many individuals and businesses that have stayed afloat more time to continue to pay bills and meet payrolls.
But even these huge numbers may not be able to fight back a recession underway and is likely to see declines in annualized growth in the second quarter of anywhere from 10 to 50 percent.
And if forecasts that we won’t have the virus controlled for months prove true, it may not prevent unemployment from rising into double digits. Some economists, such as St. Louis Federal Reserve president James Bullard, have suggested joblessness could hit 30 percent. That would eclipse the record 24.9 percent hit in 1933 during the Great Depression.
It will also take time to get many of the lending programs up and running, meaning more business failures will occur in the meantime.
“It is now a given that the world is plunging into a sharp global recession,” Barclays wrote in a research note. “While the fiscal stimulus announcements have been impressive, it is operationally harder to support the small and medium businesses that will bear much of the economic cost.”
Damage across the economy is already piling up beyond the jobless claims number. Auto sales are expected to drop at least 15 percent this year and America’s biggest automakers have shut down all production. Restaurant, hotel and airline reservations have all plunged in many cases to near zero.
JPMorgan analysts this week said they expect growth to drop an annualized 10 percent in the first quarter of this year and 25 percent in the second quarter with unemployment nearing 10 percent. Those kind of numbers will likely require Congress to act again.
“If the economic data in coming weeks is much worse than current predictions, this package could end up not being enough and Congress will find itself back at square one,” Aberdeen Standard Investments Senior Global Economist James McCann said in a note.
The phase three package may wind up being insufficient in large part because the U.S. response to the virus was so slow, lengthening the time it will take to bring down the pace of new cases and causing more mass layoffs. Congress acted relatively fast on the rescue package, but it still must clear the House on Friday, and money won’t start flowing for at least a week and in some cases much longer.
“We wasted the head start we had and we need to stand up widespread testing capacity and mask use. These will allow us to preserve lives while ending the widespread quarantines,” said labor economist Aaron Sojourner. “Only the federal government can borrow at large enough scale to match the scale of the problem.”
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