Fed to buy as much government debt as needed to aid economy

WASHINGTON (AP) — In its boldest effort to protect the U.S. economy from the coronavirus, the Federal Reserve says it will buy as much government debt as it deems necessary and will also begin lending to small and large businesses and local governments to help them weather the crisis.

The Fed's announcement Monday removes any dollar limits from its plans to support the flow of credit through an economy that has been ravaged by the viral outbreak. The central bank's all-out effort has now gone beyond even the extraordinary drive it made to rescue the economy from the 2008 financial crisis.

"The coronavirus pandemic is causing tremendous hardship across the United States and around the world," the Fed said in a statement. “Our nation’s first priority is to care for those afflicted and to limit the further spread of the virus. While great uncertainty remains, it has become clear that our economy will face severe disruptions. Aggressive efforts must be taken across the public and private sectors to limit the losses to jobs and incomes and to promote a swift recovery once the disruptions abate.”

Financial markets sharply reversed themselves after the announcement. Dow Jones futures swung more than 1,000 points from about 500 down to a rise of roughly 500 before falling back again after the market opened. The yield on the 10-year Treasury bond also fell, a sign that more investors are willing to purchase the securities.

In its announcement, the Fed said it will establish three new lending facilities that will provide up to $300 billion by purchasing corporate bonds, a wider range of municipal bonds and securities tied to such debt as auto and real estate loans. It will also buy an unlimited amount of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities to try to hold down borrowing rates and ensure those markets function smoothly.

The Fed's new go-for-broke approach is an acknowledgment that its previous plans to keep credit flowing smoothly, which included dollar limits, wouldn't be enough in the face of the viral outbreak, which has brought the U.S. economy to a near-standstill as workers and consumers stay home. Last week, it said it would buy $500 billion of Treasuries and $200 billion of mortgage-backed securities, then quickly ran through roughly half those amounts by week's end of the week.

And on Monday, the New York Federal Reserve said it would purchase $75 billion of Treasuries and $50 billion of mortgage-backed securities each day this week.

"They’re really setting the economy up’’ to start functioning again when the health crisis subsides, said Donald Kohn, a former Fed vice chair who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Part of this is about the other side of the valley: Make sure the credit is there.’’

Still, Kohn noted, “These things will take some time to set up. These are complicated’’ programs.

Referring to the financial crisis, he said of the Fed's policymakers, “They have our experience to draw on.’’

Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said it is clear that the Fed is now doing “whatever it takes."

“This is an all-out effort to ensure that the business sector can continue to exist even as economic activity temporarily collapses,” Shepherdson said.

In unleashing its aggressive new efforts, the Fed is trying both to stabilize the economic standstill and allay panic in financial markets. Many corporations and city and state governments are in desperate need of loans to pay bills and maintain operations as their revenue from customers or taxpayers collapses. That need has escalated demand for cash. In the meantime, large businesses have been drawing, as much as they can, on their existing borrowing relationships with banks.

The intensifying needs for cash means that banks and other investors are seeking to rapidly unload Treasuries, short-term corporate debt, municipal bonds and other securities. The Fed's move to step in and act as a buyer of last resort is intended provide that needed cash.

“The steps announced today, combined with the previous ones ... should substantially improve market functioning and should provide some important support for the economy,” said Roberto Perli, a former Fed economist who is now head of global policy research at Cornerstone Macro.

But Perli cautioned that the benefits won't be felt immediately.

"The next couple of quarters will still be probably bad,” he said.

The new programs announced Monday by the Fed include two that will buy corporate debt issued by large companies. The Fed legally can't lend directly to companies. But it can lend to separate entities, which can then make those purchases.

One program will buy newly issued corporate debt. This is an effort to revive that market, which has effectively come to a standstill. The second will buy previously issued corporate debt. Both facilities will include $10 billion provided by the Treasury to offset any losses.

A third new facility will buy securities backed by packages of auto loans, credit card loans and some small business loans. Lending in those areas hinges on the ability of banks to package those loans into securities and sell them. So the Fed's move is critical to the ability of banks to continue to provide these loans as the economy falters.

The Treasury will also provide $10 billion to that facility to offset any losses. All told, those three programs can lend up to $300 billion.

The Fed also said it will soon establish a “Main Street Business Lending Program”to support lending to small and medium-sized businesses. But it provided few details and didn't say when that program would begin.

The central bank's efforts to protect the economy could be amplified by rescue legislation moving through Congress. Senate Republicans have proposed providing roughly $500 billion to the Treasury Department that it could use to then backstop more lending by the Fed.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Sunday on Fox News that that amount could support as much as $4 trillion in lending by the Federal Reserve.


AP Economics Writer Paul Wiseman contributed to this report.