US government aid 'essential' to weather downturn – Fed official

Government spending will be "essential" to help struggling Americans weather the downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard said on Tuesday, September 1.

With the White House and Congress still at an impasse over a new emergency relief package, Brainard warned that "the economy continues to face considerable uncertainty associated with the vagaries of the COVID-19 pandemic" and business shutdowns risk becoming permanent.

Amid the uncertainty, "fiscal support will remain essential to sustaining many families and businesses" and in fact that support is "key" to the economic outlook, she said in speech to the Brookings Institution.

The White House and Congress have been deadlocked for weeks over a successor to the $2.2-trillion CARES Act passed as the pandemic struck in March, and key provisions of the law including extra jobless payments and aid to small businesses expired at the end of July.

President Donald Trump's administration has balked at proposals from Democrats, who in May passed a $3-trillion spending package in the House of Representatives that remains in limbo in the Republican-controlled Senate.

United States Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday, August 31, said Republicans will soon unveil a new spending bill to aid the coronavirus-battered economy.

And on Tuesday, he told House lawmakers that negotiators from both parties were in agreement on where more aid could go, including to the Paycheck Protection Program that provides loans and grants to small businesses, and for the cash-strapped US Postal Service. 

How much to spend?

The key sticking point, he said, remained how much to spend in total.

"We don't all know exactly where the economy is going.... The most important thing is we give some relief quickly to the industries that are being impacted" by the downturn, Mnuchin said.

The comments from Brainard echoed those made repeatedly by Fed Chair Jerome Powell and other central bankers, who have warned that monetary policy cannot address all the problems posed by the severe economic downturn.

While the housing market is booming thanks to low interest rates, she noted that the recovery in employment – after tens of millions of jobs were lost in the early weeks of the pandemic – has stalled.

"The longer COVID-19-related uncertainty persists, the greater the risk of shuttered businesses and permanent layoffs in some sectors," she said in the event that featured the past two Fed chairs, Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke.

She said the new Fed policy that Powell unveiled last week, which shifts emphasis towards holding interest rates lower for longer and tolerating higher inflation in order to boost employment "will strengthen our support for the recovery."

The new policy is especially important for Black and Hispanic workers who tend to be the first laid off in a downturn and the last hired in a recovery, Brainard said. –