By Howard Schneider, Lindsay Dunsmuir and Ann Saphir
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Reserve and global central banks moved aggressively on Sunday to buttress a world economy unraveling rapidly amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the Fed slashing interest rates to near zero, pledging hundreds of billions of dollars in asset purchases and backstopping foreign authorities with the offer of cheap dollar financing.
The coordinated global actions were reminiscent of the sweeping steps taken just over a decade ago to fight a meltdown of the global financial system, but this time the target was an entirely unfamiliar foe – a fast-spreading health crisis with no certain end in sight that is forcing entire societies to effectively shut down.
In a news conference Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell said the epidemic was having a “profound” impact on the economy, forcing whole industries like travel and leisure offline. Yet the ultimate spread of the virus is so uncertain, Powell said, the Fed called off quarterly economic forecasts due this week as a futile exercise until it is clear how many people will get sick, and how long public gatherings will need to be discouraged in the name of public health.
“The economic outlook is evolving on a daily basis and it is depending on the spread of the virus … That is not something that is knowable,” Powell said at the end of an emergency Fed meeting held in place of the Fed’s regular meeting this week.
Given the depth and uncertainty of the risks, Powell said the Fed and other central banks were acting to ensure that financial markets keep functioning around the world, and trying to limit the chance that companies, households or financial institutions are dragged down by any slump in business.
To that end the Fed included dramatic moves to keep credit flowing to businesses and families, encouraging banks to tap trillions of dollars in equity and liquid assets built up as capital buffers since the financial crisis to support people whose lives may be upended by the virus.
“The virus is having a profound effect on people across the United States and around the world,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in a news conference after cutting short-term rates to a target range of 0% to 0.25%, and announcing at least $700 billion in Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities purchases in coming weeks.
“We really are going to use our tools to do what we need to do here,” Powell said, adding that the Fed has gone in “strong” and could increase bond-buying and use other tools to support market functioning and the flow of credit, what he called the Fed’s “most important” function.
A broader set of Fed powers, including direct lending to financial firms, remains at the Fed’s disposal, and Powell said the central bank would not hesitate to use them if needed.
“He sounded like (former ECB President Mario) Draghi saying he will do what it takes, and we believe him,” Andrew Brenner, head of international fixed income at National Alliance Securities, wrote in an email to clients. Draghi, who stepped down as head of the ECB last year, famously pledged in 2012 to “do whatever it takes” to combat a crisis then threatening to tear the monetary union apart, a bold declaration that is broadly credited with saving the euro.
As governments restrict gatherings, businesses and schools close, and families begin to hunker down in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus, Fed officials will “do what we can to ease hardship” as economic activity slows this quarter and next, he said.
Powell said he could not say how long or how big the downturn will be, but promised to keep rates where they are until Fed officials are “confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals.” The Fed will delay official economic forecasts until June, he said.
The Fed and other major foreign central banks also cut pricing on their swap lines to make it easier to provide dollars to financial institutions around the world facing stress in credit markets.
The action amounted to an implicit acknowledgement that the outbreak was bringing economic activity in the United States and abroad to a “sudden stop,” said Sebastian Galy, senior strategist for Nordea in Luxembourg.
And Julia Coronado, president of MacroPolicy Perspectives and a former Fed economist, said she thought still more help may be on the way.
“I think this is the start and not the full scope of what we’re going to see,” she said, adding that the Fed may coordinate with Treasury to launch other emergency lending tools, including one aimed to add liquidity to short-term corporate credit markets.
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In a complementary move, eight of the biggest U.S. banks, in a separate statement, said they would stop stock buybacks through the second quarter, “consistent with our collective objective to use our significant capital and liquidity to provide maximum support to individuals, small businesses, and the broader economy through lending and other important services.”
The virus’ march across America from Washington to California to New York has closed schools, sparked runs on grocery stores, shuttered retailers, and put an end to sports events big and small, and America’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci warned Sunday that the conditions would likely get worse before they get better.
Sunday’s dramatic steps show “the Fed is serious, the Fed is targeting the liquidity in the credit markets and Treasury markets and trying to make certain that they operate without dislocation,” said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial (NYSE:) in New York.
The Bank of Japan just said it will hold an emergency meeting Monday, instead of the March 18-19 scheduled one.
Despite the central banks’ support, futures were trading 4.8% down. [nL1N2B80LP] The dollar dropped. U.S. crude () fell more than $1 per barrel to a session low. And U.S. 10-year Treasury note futures prices opened more than 1 point higher.
On Sunday, the Fed took further steps to boost liquidity in the U.S. financial system.
It lowered the primary credit rate by 150 basis points to 0.25 percent in order to encourage banks to tap its emergency lending window. Depository institutions may borrow from this so-called discount window for periods as long as 90 days, pre-payable and renewable by the borrower on a daily basis, it said.
The Fed also said it would support U.S. banks that began to tap the capital and liquidity buffers they built up in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and would reduce reserve requirement ratios to 0% effective on March 26.
“This action eliminates reserve requirements for thousands of depository institutions and will help to support lending to households and businesses,” the Fed said.
President Donald Trump called the actions “good news” that “makes me very happy.”
It was the third time this month the U.S. central bank took emergency action to protect financial markets and the economy.
On March 3, it cut interest rates by a half of a percentage point and last week in the face of an accelerating market meltdown it injected cash into short-term funding markets and launched a wave of Treasury security purchases.
The Fed held Sunday’s policy meeting in lieu of its scheduled meeting Tuesday and Wednesday, Powell said.