Participants noted that the coronavirus outbreak was causing tremendous human and economic hardship across the United States and around the world. The virus and the measures taken to protect public health were inducing sharp declines in economic activity and a surge in job losses. Weaker demand and significantly lower oil prices were holding down consumer price inflation. The disruptions to economic activity here and abroad had significantly affected financial conditions and had impaired the flow of credit to U.S. households and businesses.
Participants judged that the effects of the coronavirus outbreak and the ongoing public health crisis would continue to weigh heavily on economic activity, employment, and inflation in the near term and would pose considerable risks to the economic outlook over the medium term. Participants assessed that the second quarter would likely see overall economic activity decline at an unprecedented rate. Participants relayed information from their Districts that the burdens of the present crisis would fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable and financially constrained households in the economy.
Participants noted that recently enacted fiscal programs were crucial for limiting the severity of the economic downturn. In particular, the Cares Act and other legislation, which represented more than $2 trillion in federal spending in total, had provided direct help to households, businesses, and communities. For example, the PPP was providing a financial lifeline to small businesses, the expansion of unemployment benefits was helping restore lost income for laid-off workers, and the Treasury had provided a necessary financial backstop to many Federal Reserve lending facilities. Participants acknowledged that even greater fiscal support may be necessary if the economic downturn persists.
A number of participants commented on potential risks to financial stability. Participants were concerned that banks could come under greater stress, particularly if adverse scenarios for the spread of the pandemic and economic activity were realized, and so this sector should be monitored carefully. Participants saw risks to banks and some other financial institutions as exacerbated by high levels of indebtedness among nonfinancial corporations that prevailed before the pandemic; this indebtedness increased these firms’ risk of insolvency. The upcoming financial stress tests for banks were seen as important for measuring the ability of large banks to withstand future downside scenarios. A number of participants emphasized that regulators should encourage banks to prepare for possible downside scenarios by further limiting payouts to shareholders, thereby preserving loss-absorbing capital. Indeed, historical loss models might understate losses in this context. A few participants stressed that the activities of some nonbank financial institutions presented vulnerabilities to the financial system that could worsen in the event of a protracted economic downturn and that these institutions and activities should be monitored closely.
Members further concurred that the ongoing public health crisis would weigh heavily on economic activity, employment, and inflation in the near term, and posed considerable downside risks to the economic outlook over the medium term. In light of these developments, members decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent. Members noted that they expected to maintain this target range until they were confident that the economy had weathered recent events and was on track to achieve the Committee’s maximum employment and price stability goals.
From the Fed: Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee, April 28–29, 2020. A few excerpts: