Powell Warns of Pandemic Surge Tempering Vaccine’s Economic Hope
Jerome Powell, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, speaks during a virtual news conference in U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Powell Warns of Pandemic Surge Tempering Vaccine’s Economic Hope

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell cautioned lawmakers that the U.S. economy remains in a damaged and uncertain state despite progress made in the development of Covid-19 vaccines.

“Recent news on the vaccine front is very positive for the medium term,” Powell said during a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee. “For now, significant challenges and uncertainties remain, including timing, production and distribution, and efficacy across different groups.”

Powell also pointed with concern to the resurgence of the virus across the U.S. and around the world.

“The rise in new Covid-19 cases, both here and abroad, is concerning and could prove challenging in the next few months,” he said.

Powell gave no immediate indication how the central bank may respond to those worries when it conducts its next policy meeting scheduled for Dec. 15-16, though he reiterated that it would use all of its tools to help the economy recover.

Fiscal Support

Responding to a question from Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Powell said the Fed remains committed to using its tools for as long as necessary. In addition, he said more fiscal stimulus may be necessary, after the Cares Act proved key to supporting the economy through the pandemic.

In his testimony, Powell acknowledged that growth and the labor market had significantly rebounded since the second quarter of this year, but that many Americans continued to suffer.

“Although we welcome this progress, we will not lose sight of the millions of Americans who remain out of work,” he said. He also said in response to questions that many small businesses are at risk of going out of business over the winter.

Fed, Treasury Friction

The hearing was the first appearance of the Fed chair and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin together after they disagreed earlier this month over the expiration of several emergency loan programs set up after the pandemic hit in March.

Fed officials including Powell had pushed for the extension of all the central bank’s lending facilities, saying they served as critical backstops and restored market confidence. Most of the funds are scheduled to expire on Dec. 31.

But some of of the programs have been sparsely used. These include the Main Street facility, which supports bank lending to mid-sized companies, as well as facilities to aid the corporate bond market and the debt of cash-strapped municipalities.

Mnuchin announced earlier this month that those Fed programs must sunset at the end of December, and asked the central bank to return unused funding authorized for the programs by Congress.

The Fed responded -- in a rare public fracture between the two institutions -- that it “would prefer that the full suite of emergency facilities” remain as a backstop “for our still-strained and vulnerable economy.”

Even with the disagreement, Mnuchin praised Powell during the hearing and said the two had been speaking “constantly.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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