The Fed is expanding its previous commitments to inject money into the financial markets to keep them from seizing up. That’s … normal-ish. At least, it has been since 2008. It’s also resurrecting a program from the financial crisis 2008 that bought securities backed by consumer loans, such as credit cards, auto lending and student loans. This should help keep some money flowing into households that need it.
But then things get weird for people who thought they understood what the Fed was, or what it did. Because the Fed is now offering to help large employers borrow new money directly, either as loans or through issuing corporate bonds.
Nor will it stop with large employers; the Fed has announced another announcement to come. Soon we’ll apparently get the details of a “Main Street Business Lending Program,” will support lending to small and medium enterprises. No one (including, I’m sure, the Fed) is quite sure how this will work. One thing is clear though: The Fed is becoming something closer to an actual bank rather than the central kind.
Obviously, in one sense, this is reassuring: Someone seems to be thinking primarily about what can be done to lessen the pain of this crisis, rather than squabbling and pointing fingers. In another sense, it is frankly terrifying, because it seems that the Fed, like many of us, has concluded that Congress and the White House may be incapable of acting fast enough to save the economy.
So the Fed has hoisted the pirate flag and sailed for uncharted waters. It will do everything it can to address the one problem our central bank might be able to fix, which is what you might call the “financialization of modern life.”
That term is normally used to describe the outsize profits that have flowed into the hands of financiers and related businesses over the past few decades. But almost all of us have made promises to pay people in the future: rent or mortgages. Credit cards, student loans and car payments. Phone contracts. Utilities. Tuition. Insurance premiums.
This sort of financialization is why we can’t easily shut down the nonessential parts of the economy for a couple of months. In theory, if we all agreed to hit “pause” at once, most people could either work from home or shelter in place. Once the virus is controlled, we could come out of our vinyl-sided shells, and use the sorts of strategies that Singapore and Hong Kong have deployed to minimize the spread of the disease without destroying their economies. And then, by collective agreement, everyone excepting a few industries, most of them travel-related, could just pick up where they left off.
In the interim, people at work could use their salaries to buy essentials, while those who have lost income would need the government to ensure they have necessities such as food and, er, Netflix. But our government is pretty good at cutting people checks.
Two facts complicate that theory. First, if firms fire everyone to minimize payroll, they’ll have trouble reassembling themselves, which is why Washington should consider simply subsidizing everyone’s payrolls for a few months, as the United Kingdom has promised to do, rather than relying on unemployment insurance to help people who can’t currently safely work. But, even if we did that, we’d have another problem: all those financial promises.
Those payments, unlike easily subsidized food needs, vary wildly from household to household and firm to firm. They are why so many people have reacted with terror to the prospect of having to cancel everything: At the end of all those cancellations, they’ll be bankrupt and possibly homeless.
What we need to do is essentially stop financial time, declaring moratoria on all payments, foreclosures and evictions. Tack the missing payments onto the end of those loans and leases, and use subsidies to tide over banks and firms that rely on those payments for their income. But, in practice, U.S. federalism complicates that sort of response — state legislatures, not Congress, control a lot of our financial rules — and so Congress isn’t contemplating anything such as a freeze on payments or obligations.
So the Fed is now doing what it can, using credit as a substitute for that broader program. The good news is that someone is thinking creatively about this crisis. The bad news is that all the Fed can buy us on credit is a little bit of time.
Unless Congress does its part, and soon, we are headed for an even deeper crisis.