‘Just damage containment’: Cost of the coronavirus shutdown keeps rising

“The Federal Reserve and Congress are helping avert for now a massive self-feeding economic and financial decline that threatens a devastating combination of a 1930s-like depression and a 2008-like global financial crisis. That’s the good news,” said Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief economic advisor at Allianz. “There will definitely be a need for a phase four.”

The timeline for more action would be “dependent on how long it takes for health policy to get its arms around virus containment, treatment and immunity,” El-Erian said. “The quicker this happens, the more phase four will be about reactivating economic activity rather than just damage containment.”

The need for a fast and massive infusion of federal cash became starkly evident on Thursday when the government reported that 3.3 million Americans applied for jobless benefits in a single week, by far the largest number in history. The previous record was just under 700,000 in 1982.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell took the highly unusual step of appearing on television on Thursday before the claims numbers came out to calm the public and markets.

“We may well be in a recession,” Powell said on NBC’s “Today” show. But he added that it could be a sharp and short one, particularly as the central bank is taking unprecedented measures to prop up markets and funnel money to small and medium-sized businesses most at risk. “When it comes to this lending, we’re not going to run out of ammunition,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”

The extreme volatility that has gripped markets over the past month jolted stocks higher in recent days, with investors riding a wave of momentum tied to the expected passage of the economic rescue package. But stocks remain far from their records of last month and most investors expect considerable volatility in the weeks ahead.

Few analysts are suggesting the “phase three” package is anything less than massive. Many believe it will bring significant relief by jamming cash into the pockets of Americans losing work in mass numbers while propping up many small and midsize business in danger of shutting down in the coming weeks.

It also funnels money to states, hospitals and airlines as well as other hard-hit large businesses. Some governors, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, have said the aid to states is far too small to help with what are expected to be massive declines in tax revenues that will wreck many state budgets. That is expected to be on lawmakers’ plates in the coming months.

Economists and Wall Street analysts mostly suggest the package, coupled with massive stimulus efforts from the Fed, will boost the fight against the virus and cushion the massive hit to businesses and individuals.

But they mostly describe it as triage, not major surgery. How much more is needed will depend on when the country can return to something resembling normal business.

President Donald Trump is pushing hard to restart the economy by as soon as Easter Sunday, April 12. But the still-rapid spread of the virus and the need for buy-in from state and local officials as well as employers means that date could easily slide for weeks, if not months.

In that case, Washington will have to open up the cash spigots again.

“The Senate stimulus package should keep millions of Americans from very dire straits while they are away from work and keep many businesses where they work from going out of business in the interim,” said Lou Brien, economic strategist at DRW Trading Group. “But there is the dual calculation of how long the quarantine will last and how quickly will life return to normal.”

Brien added that “if the answers to both those questions are longer than expected, then there is trouble, because it is not clear how much more there is in reserve.”

To be sure, a lot of money is about to go out, though it remains to be seen how fast.

The package would send $1,200 checks to many Americans and an additional $500 per child for qualifying families. But taxpayers who don’t already have direct deposit arrangements with the IRS may have to wait a significant period of time to get their money. The payments will go down depending on income, phasing out completely at $99,000 for individuals and $198,000 for joint filers.

The bill also includes a dramatic expansion of unemployment insurance, the need for which became clear Thursday with the weekly jobless claim numbers.

The unemployment expansion includes an increase in the maximum payment by $600 per week. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that would mean “laid-off workers, on average, will receive their full pay for four months.”

The bill would also expand unemployment benefits to gig workers who do not have traditional employers. It would also extend the time people can qualify for benefits by four months.

For corporations, Treasury will be able to leverage $500 billion in loans, loan guarantees and direct investments, including $25 billion for the airline industry. Democrats managed to get tighter oversight on that pile of money including restrictions against it being used by companies controlled by Trump or other public officials. Recipients would have to do their best to retain 90 percent of their workforce and face restrictions on dividend payments and stock buybacks.

The deal also includes a $367 billion lending program for small businesses, which will have access to loans of up to $10 million and can use them to pay workers making up to $100,000.

All told it’s the biggest single intervention ever undertaken by the Congress and the executive branch. And it comes in addition to massive efforts by the Fed that could actually dwarf the size of the bill.

The central bank slashed interest rates to zero, then pledged to buy unlimited amounts of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. The Senate bill includes $454 billion to backstop possible losses in lending facilities set up by the Fed, which the central bank could leverage into $4 trillion in lending to businesses. That’s led some to describe the rescue package as potentially worth $6 trillion, or almost a third of annual gross domestic product.

That should buy many individuals and businesses that have stayed afloat more time to continue to pay bills and meet payrolls.

But even these huge numbers may not be able to fight back a recession underway and is likely to see declines in annualized growth in the second quarter of anywhere from 10 to 50 percent.

And if forecasts that we won’t have the virus controlled for months prove true, it may not prevent unemployment from rising into double digits. Some economists, such as St. Louis Federal Reserve president James Bullard, have suggested joblessness could hit 30 percent. That would eclipse the record 24.9 percent hit in 1933 during the Great Depression.

It will also take time to get many of the lending programs up and running, meaning more business failures will occur in the meantime.