Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell recognizes that he can’t prevent what increasingly looks like a sudden stop of the U.S. economy, but he’s still hoping to avoid a freezing up of financial markets that makes the pain even worse.
In a roughly 40-minute conference call with reporters on Sunday after the Fed slashed interest rates close to zero and launched a fresh quantitative easing program, Powell acknowledged the economy is set to contract in the second quarter as companies and households hunker down to hinder the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
And he said how long the downturn lasts is “unknowable” because it depends on how the contagion develops.
“We’ve hit a wall. The economy is in free-fall,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, who reckons that gross domestic product will shrink at a jaw-dropping 5% annualized rate this month as business comes to a standstill.
What the Fed is focused on first and foremost, Powell said, is providing liquidity to financial markets so they can function smoothly and supply credit to companies and consumers to tide them over during the fallout from the virus and the necessary distancing actions taken to contain it.
That’s a tacit acknowledgment that sharp rate cuts alone are insufficient to spur demand and stabilize the current economic emergency, but may help drive a rebound once the virus is under control.
“We’re really going to be looking to see that financial markets are returning to more liquid, more normal functioning,” Powell said. “We take that job very seriously. It’s probably the most important thing that we’re doing now.”
Despite the Fed’s multi-pronged approach, U.S. stock futures tumbled and Treasuries rallied on Monday as investors continue to question whether the Fed has done enough to ease a credit crunch, keep markets flowing and avoid a lengthy recession.