Powell: Fed to soon begin 'challenging' Main Street lending

FILE - In this March 3, 2020 file photo, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference to discuss an announcement from the Federal Open Market Committee, in Washington. The Federal Reserve will issue the first loans under its groundbreaking Main Street Lending program in a few days,  Powell said Friday, May 29.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
FILE - In this March 3, 2020 file photo, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference to discuss an announcement from the Federal Open Market Committee, in Washington. The Federal Reserve will issue the first loans under its groundbreaking Main Street Lending program in a few days, Powell said Friday, May 29. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell acknowledged Friday that the Fed faces a major challenge with the launch in the coming days of a program that will lend to companies other than banks for the first time since the Great Depression.

The Fed's Main Street Lending is geared toward medium-sized companies that are too large for the government's small business lending program and too small to sell bonds or stock to the public. The individual loans, which could reach $600 billion, will technically be made by banks. But the Fed will buy 85% to 95% of each loan, thereby reducing the risk to banks and freeing them to do more lending.

Powell said that Main Street will make its first loans in a “few days.” He has previously set June 1 as the target, or soon after.

He noted that the complexity of the program goes far beyond the Fed's usual lending efforts, which typically involve buying bonds. The Main Street program will consist of unique loans to individual businesses.

“It is far and away the biggest challenge of the 11 facilities we have set up,” Powell said.

Speaking in an online question-and-answer session with Alan Blinder, a Princeton economist and former vice chairman of the Fed, Powell also said he worries that a second wave of the coronavirus, perhaps in the fall, would damage consumer confidence and weaken any economic recovery.

For the economy to fully recover, Powell said, Americans must be confident that they can shop, eat at restaurants or visit public places without risking infection. For that reason, he said, tracking the spread of the virus is, if anything, more important than economic data in gauging any recovery.

“A second wave would really undermine public confidence and might make for a significantly longer and weaker recovery,” the chairman said.