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Toomey calls for Fed special loan programs to end, setting up clash with Democrats

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The Federal Reserve has doled out billions of dollars in emergency loans to keep the economy afloat during a crippling pandemic, garnering broad bipartisan praise.

Now, the lawmaker who is likely to head the powerful Senate Banking Committee if Republicans keep control of the Senate is signaling that the Fed should stop.

“If someone wants to make the case that we need the government to give money to people or businesses because they’re struggling, by all means you can make that case,” Sen. Pat Toomey told POLITICO. “But that’s not a Fed exercise.”

The Pennsylvania Republican believes that the central bank’s emergency programs — which he called “wildly successful” — should wind down at the end of the year, a spokesperson confirmed. He’s concerned that if the programs are extended, they will be seen as a substitute for fiscal policy, the tax and spending decisions that are the responsibility of Congress and the president.

“That would be a huge mistake,” he said.

While the Fed is an independent agency whose board makes its own policy decisions, it is overseen by the Banking Committee and is sensitive to its views.

Toomey’s stance could put him at odds with the next presidential administration, which will want to continue to prime the pump as much as possible to boost the economy as the coronavirus crisis shows little sign of abating.

It will also set up a conflict with Democrats, such as House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who have faulted the Fed for not doing enough to provide financing for state and local governments, as well as small and midsized businesses that are relying on temporary lending programs.

They have urged the central bank to make the loan terms more generous as the darkening financial outlook for many companies and municipalities heightens the risk that even more Americans will be put out of work.

But Republicans like Toomey, who have historically sought to limit the central bank’s role in the economy, say the Fed’s emergency lending programs have largely served their purpose.

The mere existence of the programs helped restore stability to the financial system after panic over the coronavirus earlier this year threatened to shut down key debt markets. That means borrowers can go to private markets to obtain funds at reasonable rates without needing to turn to the Fed, GOP lawmakers say.

The divergent opinions put the Fed, which seeks to avoid the political spotlight, in an awkward position as the parties debate how much additional money is needed to sustain the economic recovery.

“I would not want to turn what are supposed to be liquidity backstop credit programs into a fiscal, giving-away-money program,” said Toomey, who also sits on a congressional watchdog overseeing $500 billion in coronavirus relief funds.

The emergency lending facilities are already set to expire at the end of the year, though the Fed and the Treasury Department, which together have authority for designing the programs, could choose to extend that deadline. Fed Chair Jerome Powell told reporters Thursday that they were “just now turning to that question” and had not made a decision.

The central bank might want to maintain its ability to buy corporate bonds on the open market in case investors once again get spooked. It has made more than $13.4 billion in purchases so far, one of its most controversial moves during this crisis, with critics saying it’s propping up weak firms and subsidizing large ones like Apple and Amazon that don’t need help.

If Joe Biden wins the presidency, a new Treasury secretary would also have the power to nudge the Fed to take on more risk in who it lends to. The Fed, in consultation with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, has been extending credit with the expectation that most of the funds will be paid back. That means the aid won’t go to some of the borrowers that need it the most.

Neither the Fed’s municipal lending program nor its “Main Street” lending program — intended for businesses and nonprofits with fewer than 15,000 employees — have come close to doling out all of the funds that are potentially available.

Treasury has set aside as much as $75 billion of CARES Act relief money to cover potential losses from up to $600 billion in Main Street loans, although only about $4 billion in loans have been made under the program, which opened its doors this summer.

Similarly, the Fed has only lent to two entities through its municipal facility: Illinois and New York’s public transit system.

A Biden-appointed Treasury secretary could take a different tack.

“What will be the attitude of the new Treasury secretary who can get through a Republican confirmation?” said Peter Conti-Brown, a Fed expert at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Is it going to be more hands off? Is it going to be more dictating terms?”

He noted that banks have been hesitant to make loans under the Main Street program — under which the Fed will buy 95 percent of a bank loan to a qualifying company or nonprofit — because they still have to do extensive underwriting and bear the risk if a loan defaults.

“The Main Street program has been criticized for having a cumbersome procedural structure that was instigated by the Treasury, so it’s possible that gets relaxed and might see a lot more take up,” Conti-Brown said.

In the meantime, some Democrats have criticized the Fed for not doing more to make the terms attractive to key sectors of the economy that are struggling.

Last Friday, the Fed did move to make its “Main Street” program available to more small firms by lowering the minimum loan amount to $100,000 from $250,000, which could provide struggling small businesses with a low-cost lifeline as the pandemic rages on. But it’s unclear if that will push up demand for the Fed-backed loans.

Bharat Ramamurti, a former aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who now serves on the Congressional Oversight Commission with Toomey, said the Fed should ensure that state and local governments don’t needlessly lay off workers by lowering the rate they charge municipal borrowers and lengthening the terms of the loan.

“To me, it is consistent with the overall mandate of the Fed to provide this money in a way that seeks to promote employment, and I think the state and local program is the most obvious example of that,” Ramamurti said.

“The relevant section of the CARES Act says this money is supposed to be used to address liquidity problems related to Covid,” he said. “It’s a huge stretch to read the word liquidity as just ensuring that private markets provide the loans.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico at November 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Victoria Guida is a financial services reporter covering banking regulations and monetary policy for POLITICO Pro. She covers the Federal Reserve, the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, as well as Treasury, after four years on the international trade beat, most recently for Pro and previously for Inside U.S. Trade.


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Jobless Americans face debt crunch without more federal aid as bills come due

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A new phase of the economic crisis is looming for the winner of Tuesday’s presidential election: potentially massive defaults by jobless Americans on consumer loans as the chances for more federal relief this year diminish.

Both President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden have called for robust new rescue packages for an economy still suffering from the pandemic, but Congress’s inability to agree on key issues such as the size of unemployment benefits has kept the talks at an impasse for months. Now, millions of Americans are running out of money and will face hard choices between food purchases and payments on rent, credit cards and student loans.

Generous unemployment benefits and stimulus checks given out earlier this year helped many people weather the early months of the crisis — with some even managing to increase their savings. But that support has faded and some of it will run dry by the end of the year. JPMorgan Chase Institute found that in August alone, typical unemployed families spent two-thirds of the additional rainy day funds that they’d built up over the previous four months.

“I fear jobless workers are going to have to make tough choices,” said Fiona Greig, director of consumer research at the institute.

The “Lost Wages Assistance” aid program that Trump ordered after the expiration of more generous federal benefits — including a $600-a-week boost in jobless payments that ended on July 31 — helped bolster some families in September. But by early this month, much of that small pot of money had already been depleted. As a result, the largest U.S. banks warned investors this month that they expect credit card delinquencies to start mounting early next year.

And with coronavirus cases spiking in places like the Midwest, pressure could increase on already struggling small businesses, pushing jobless numbers back up.In a Census Bureau survey this month, roughly a third of small businesses reported only having enough cash to get them through a month or less.

The Labor Department said Thursday that more than 22 million people were claiming benefits in all federal programs as of the week ending Oct. 10.

Other government data released at the same time showed that the economy in the third quarter regained roughly 60 percent of the economic activity it lost, as many businesses have reopened. But Greig said without additional government support, the results could still be severe for many families, particularly if there is not more improvement in the job market.

“The GDP growth recovery looks much better than the job market numbers” because people are buying goods, but there’s still a severe drought in using many services, which is where most people are employed, said Greig, whose think tank has access to proprietary data from Chase Bank.

The burdens of the pandemic are falling disproportionately on lower-income workers; people making less than $27,000 have seen a nearly 20 percent drop in employment since January, while the job market is almost fully recovered among workers making more than $60,000, according to private-sector data compiled by Opportunity Insights.

Some relief measures are still in place; there’s a nationwide ban on evictions until the end of the year, and many borrowers have had the chance to put off credit card, student loan and mortgage payments. Roughly 7 percent of households with mortgages and 41 percent with student loans were skipping or making reduced payments as of the beginning of October, according to Goldman Sachs researchers.

But those debts are still piling up in the background, which could leave consumers with a crushing burden once those protections expire without something to keep them afloat.

“There will be a massive balloon payment on what people are supposed to pay,” said Megan Greene, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Lots of people won’t be able to afford that.”

“It’s been surprising to me how long consumers have been able to hold on,” she added. “We’re tempting fate by waiting until next year to re-up some of the stimulus measures.”

Thanks to government aid, aggregate personal income is still up from before the coronavirus crisis, even though wages and salaries are still below pre-pandemic levels, according to economic data released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Personal income decreased $540.6 billion in the third quarter, after rising $1.45 trillion in the second quarter, a drop the agency attributed to a decrease in pandemic-related relief programs.

Part of the danger is that complete information isn’t available, so some areas may be suffering more than we know.

“A lot of the work I do focuses on rural communities, and there’s just not a lot of good data there,” said Gbenga Ajilore, senior economist at the Center for American Progress. “There are canaries in the coal mine, but … we don’t see the areas that are getting hurt because we don’t measure those areas.”

Researchers at Columbia University found that the monthly poverty rate increased to 16.7 percent in September from 15 percent in February, with about 8 million people falling into poverty since May.

Life has gotten harder for the poorest Americans. “We find that at the peak of the crisis (April 2020), the CARES Act successfully blunted a rise in poverty; however, it was not able to stop an increase in deep poverty, defined as resources less than half the poverty line,” that report said.

Maurice Jones heads up the Local Initiatives Support Corp., one of the largest community development financial institutions in the country, and said this has been the biggest year ever for the nonprofit — both in terms of donations and in relief they’re paying out.

“We have something called financial opportunity centers, and the focus of them historically has been on getting people prepared to compete successfully for living wage jobs — thinking more long term, if you will,” he said. “We have had to really adjust and focus on immediate relief. … People are literally having to choose between paying rent and buying groceries.”

Jones said his firm gave out $225 million in grants or forgivable loans between March and the end of September. “We’ve never had a six-month period like that in our history with that kind of deployment of those kinds of dollars,” he said.

He said it could be “a decade’s work” to get poor people back to where they were before the pandemic.

Also, many people don’t have ready access to aid from institutions like Jones’s, which focus on underserved markets, and banks have been tightening lending standards as the financial picture darkens for many borrowers. That means low-income Americans will turn to high-cost payday loans and check cashers to pay their bills, which can mean getting caught in a cycle of debt.

“These are not folks who are in a position to absorb loans at this stage of the game,” Jones said. “We’re not talking about a small chunk of the population. We’re talking tens of millions of people.”

“We gotta get this election behind us and get back to the federal government’s next chapter in helping folks weather the storm.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico at October 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Victoria Guida is a financial services reporter covering banking regulations and monetary policy for POLITICO Pro. She covers the Federal Reserve, the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, as well as Treasury, after four years on the international trade beat, most recently for Pro and previously for Inside U.S. Trade.


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