The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Powell and Mnuchin credit stimulus with boosting recovery, but calls for more aid go unanswered

The heads of the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department appeared before Congress as negotiations for a new coronavirus relief bill make little progress.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, greets Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell with an elbow bump before the start of a House Financial Services Committee hearing about the government’s emergency aid to the economy in response to the coronavirus on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. (Joshua Roberts/Pool/AP)

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin credit the Cares Act with helping to build the recovery — yet their call on Congress to fill the economy’s remaining holes is not triggering action on Capitol Hill.

Of increasing concern is whether hundreds of billions of dollars in unused Cares Act money should be reallocated, or if existing programs can be expanded to reach more businesses and municipalities on the brink. At a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, Powell and Mnuchin said the lending programs run by the Fed and Treasury could only go so far and cannot replace targeted aid from Congress.

Negotiations between Congress and the White House on a second round of stimulus have been stalled for weeks.

Asked by committee chairwoman Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) whether Treasury could further enhance the existing programs, Mnuchin said, “I unfortunately think there’s not more we can do."

“Almost every single one of the facilities has extra capacity,” Mnuchin said, adding that the money could be reallocated “to better use.”

The Federal Reserve projects the economy to improve next year, with unemployment falling to 5.5 percent by the end of 2021

The House and Senate are at odds over government funding before it runs out at the end of September and triggers a shutdown. Since the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week, much of Capitol Hill has been focused on the coming nomination battle.

Still, Mnuchin said he believes that “a targeted package is still needed” and that the White House was ready to reach a bipartisan deal.

Unlike the sweeping rescue bill passed by Congress in March, Mnuchin said another relief package would focus specifically on helping kids — perhaps through money to schools — and protecting jobs in hard-hit industries like travel and restaurants. Mnuchin added that there is “broad bipartisan support for extending the PPP,” especially to help small businesses.

Lawmakers also talked about the $600 billion Main Street lending program, which has roughly $2 billion in loans that are either funded or in the pipeline. Businesses, banks and lawmakers say the program’s onerous terms drastically narrow the number of loans that can be made. It is also unclear how willing Congress is to allow for riskier loans.

Powell and Mnuchin both said that for many small businesses, grants similar to those from the Paycheck Protection Program may be a better fit. For example, Powell said that the Main Street program is seeing little demand for loans under $1 million, and that even smaller loans often require borrowers to put up some sort of personal guarantee to make the loan.

Powell said a program geared toward smaller loans “would have to be a different kind of facility."

“Trying to underwrite the credit of hundreds of thousands of small businesses would be very difficult,” Powell said. “I think PPP is a better way to address that space in the market.”

Lawmakers also raised concerns about the fate of small indebted hotels and the larger commercial real estate market. Mnuchin said that in many cases, more PPP funding would be needed to help cover commercial rent and mortgage payments, since taking on more debt may not be the answer.

Another program, the Fed’s $500 billion fund to support cash-strapped local governments, was also in the spotlight. There is disagreement over how to judge the program’s effectiveness, as it has issued only two loans — one to the state of Illinois and another to New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority — for a total of $1.6 billion.

Powell said the mere announcement of the program back in the spring caused the municipal bond market to perk up, making it easier for local governments to borrow. Yet some lawmakers argue that the program should be judged not just on how the markets respond and that such a massive allocation of money was not being utilized even as local governments stare down massive budget shortfalls.

In ongoing debate over Fed’s Main Street program, lawmakers reach little consensus

As Powell and Mnuchin made their latest appearance on Capitol Hill, Wall Street is becoming increasingly convinced that no more stimulus is coming. Markets have been down the past three weeks, in part on pessimism about a deal on more stimulus. Meanwhile, a little more than half of the 22 million payroll jobs lost in March and April have not returned, and state and local governments are facing huge fiscal shortfalls. Health officials and economists fear the coming flu season could slow the pace of the recovery.

“The recovery will go faster if we have both tools [from the Fed and Congress] continuing to work together,” Powell said.

Yet in other slices of the economy, the rebound is happening faster than expected. Household spending looks to have recovered about 75 percent of its earlier decline, Powell noted, aided by federal stimulus payments and expanded unemployment benefits. The housing market has rebounded, and Fed leaders are growing more optimistic about where the unemployment rate will fall in the years to come.

Mnuchin said he expects “tremendous third-quarter growth, fueled by strong retail sales, housing starts and existing-home sales, manufacturing growth and increased business activity.”

The economy has “proven resilient” since many Cares Act benefits expired over the summer, Powell said, but there are plenty of unknowns about where the economy is headed. For example, Powell said that savings are very high, raising the long-term risk that people will go through money stored away before they are able to go back to work.

“So their spending will decline, their ability to stay in their homes will decline and so the economy will begin to feel those effects at some time,” Powell said.

Powell and Mnuchin will also testify on the Cares Act on Thursday morning before the Senate Banking Committee.