Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell testifies during the Senate's Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs hearing examining the quarterly CARES Act report to Congress on Sept. 24, 2020, in Washington. Drew Angerer/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Top central bankers: Economy needs help despite vaccine news

Associated Press Nov 13, 2020
Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell testifies during the Senate's Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs hearing examining the quarterly CARES Act report to Congress on Sept. 24, 2020, in Washington. Drew Angerer/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Three of the globe’s top central bankers said their economies continue to need help despite progress toward a COVID-19 vaccine, with U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell saying that the U.S. Congress “may need to do more” to cushion the blow from the pandemic.

Speaking at an online conference held by the European Central Bank, Powell, Bank of England Gov. Andrew Bailey and ECB head Christine Lagarde emphasized the longer-term threat to the economy from the pandemic while welcoming the preliminary results showing a vaccine by BioNTech and Pfizer was highly effective.

Powell said the main risk to the economy “is the further spread of disease here in the United States” and that people may lose confidence that it is safe to go out: “We have said from the beginning that the economy will not fully recover until people are confident it is safe to resume activities involving crowds of people.”

He said news about the vaccine was “certainly good for the medium term” but that it was “too soon to assess the implications for the path of the economy, especially in the near term. And I would say that with the virus spreading, the next few months could be challenging.”

Powell said that though stimulus efforts from Congress and the Fed in the U.S. had been “quite strong” thus far, “my sense is that we will need to do more, and Congress may need to do more as well in fiscal policy.”

The three spoke as virus numbers climb and raise pressure for governments and central banks to do more to help. Germany, France, the U.K. and others have added new measures such as closing bars and restaurants while states and cities around the U.S. are imposing new restrictions. All three central banks have deployed large-scale stimulus such as interest rate cuts and bond purchases that aim to keep borrowing costs affordable for businesses.

A multitrillion-dollar stimulus, enacted in the spring, had helped sustain jobless Americans and ailing businesses but has since expired. The failure of lawmakers to agree on any new aid has clouded the future for the unemployed, for small businesses and for the economy as a whole. There is some hope, though, that a logjam can be broken and more economic relief can be enacted during a post-election “lame-duck” session of Congress between now and early January.

Bailey said that the vaccine news “is encouraging and we need encouraging signs” at the moment but pointed out that the vaccine “is not here yet.”

Lagarde said central banks and governments would need to continue to provide support to “help bridge over to the other side of the river” to avoid long-lasting damage to the economy. “I don’t want to be exuberant about this vaccination,” she said.

Powell said that technological change accelerated by the pandemic would leave some workers struggling to adapt. “We’re recovering to a different economy,” he said, and there will be a substantial number of workers who will need support as the economy is changed by the pandemic.

Lagarde has said there is “little doubt” the central bank for the 19 countries that use the euro would add more stimulus at its Dec. 10 meeting, while Powell has said that policymakers discussed last week whether and how their bond buying program might be altered to provide more economic support. The Fed is buying $120 billion a month in bonds — $80 billion in Treasurys and $40 billion in mortgage bonds — to try to keep long-term borrowing costs low.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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