The U.S. economy is like a semi-trailer truck. No one likes being stuck behind a semi at a stoplight because big trucks don’t go from zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds. Neither does the U.S. economy.
When the pandemic brought our economy to a near virtual standstill early in 2020, the U.S. government and Federal Reserve (Fed) took extraordinary measures to help the economy get going again:
- Congress passed the CARES Act stimulus, which gave Americans and American businesses badly-needed fuel to support economic recovery. Businesses were able to stay open and people had money to spend. That’s important because consumer spending accounts for almost 70 percent of U.S. economic growth.
- The Federal Reserve paved the road and gave it a downward slope by creating a supportive interest rate environment and implementing special lending facilities intended to support businesses, as well as state and local governments. Some programs were funded by the CARES Act.
Government and central bank stimulus helped the American economy get going again.
Is slower growth ahead?
In recent weeks, however, there have been signs economic recovery may be losing momentum and the virus may, once again, be responsible.
Recently, the United States passed a grim milestone. The number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 surpassed 250,000. For perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to the population of Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Irving, Texas; or Buffalo, New York.
Last week, some economic data came in weaker than expected and initial unemployment claims ticked higher. Lucia Mutikani of Reuters reported:
“U.S. retail sales increased less than expected in October and could slow further, restrained by spiraling new COVID-19 infections and declining household income as millions of unemployed Americans lose government financial support…‘Fed officials are saying they might have to do more and today’s data may turn that thinking into a reality.’”
The Treasury curbs the Fed
The tools available to the Fed changed last week. The U.S. Treasury announced it will let several of the Fed’s Treasury-funded special lending programs expire at the end of 2020. Alexandra Scaggs of Barron’s reported the programs include:
- The Main Street Lending Program for small-to-mid-size businesses and non-profits
- The Municipal Liquidity Facility that lends directly to state and local governments
- Corporate Credit Facilities that purchase corporate bonds
For these programs to reopen in the future, Congress will need to appropriate new funds. One economist cited by CNBC said, “U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s decision to allow key pandemic relief programs to expire is like stripping the lifeboats from the Titanic.”
Not everyone agreed. “Programs like the municipal bond program and the Main Street Lending Program have not worked, in part because the Fed is a central bank. And when you demand that it take on fiscal government tasks…it does that very carefully, and, frankly, very badly,” explained an analyst interviewed on Marketplace Morning Report.
Despite changing monetary support, U.S. stock markets remained resilient. Ben Levisohn of Barron’s attributed the stock market’s resilience to positive vaccine news, which “…might not have pushed the stock market higher, but it sure was a reason not to sell.” Major indices finished the week slightly lower.
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