Fed confronts a shaky US economy that likely needs more help

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell testifies during a Senate Banking Committee hearing, Thursday Sept. 24, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington about the CARES Act and the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. (Drew Angerer/Pool via AP)
Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell testifies during a Senate Banking Committee hearing, Thursday Sept. 24, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington about the CARES Act and the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. (Drew Angerer/Pool via AP) (2020 Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – Federal Reserve officials are meeting this week with the economy facing growing threats from a resurgence of the coronavirus and from Congress' failure to provide any further aid for struggling individuals and businesses.

Yet the Fed will likely end its latest policy meeting Thursday by deciding to wait before determining whether or how to expand the economic support it has been supplying through ultra-low interest rates. The central bank has been buying Treasury and mortgage bonds to hold down long-term borrowing rates to encourage spending. And it has kept its key short-term rate, which influences many corporate and individual loans, near zero.

The Fed's meeting comes against the backdrop of an anxiety-ridden election week, with the results of Tuesday's voting still uncertain, and an escalation of the virus across the country. The economy and the job market have weakened again after initially strong bounce-backs from the pandemic-fueled recession that erupted in early spring. If the rise in confirmed COVID cases were to cause widespread business shutdowns or restrictions as cold weather arrives, consumers might cut back on spending and further slow the economy.

Heightening the risks, the multi-trillion-dollar stimulus aid that Congress passed in March and that helped sustain jobless Americans and ailing businesses has expired. Lawmakers have failed thus far to agree on any new rescue package, clouding the future for the unemployed, for small businesses and for the economy as a whole.

Most economists say that unlike Congress, the central bank may already have provided almost all the help it can for the economy through its low-rate policies. Fed officials themselves, including Chair Jerome Powell, have sounded a similar message.

In March, when the pandemic first struck, the Fed cut its key rate to an ultra-low range of 0% to 0.25%. In August, it announced that it planned to keep rates near zero even after inflation has exceeded the Fed's 2% annual target level. And in September, the policymakers signaled that their key rate would likely stay near zero at least through 2023 — and possibly longer.

Yet in recent weeks, various Fed officials have expressed concern that even more assistance might be needed, especially if the virus forces another round of lockdowns in the United States similar to what Europe is already experiencing.

“The Fed is going to be very worried about the risk of a double-dip recession given the lack of further support by Congress,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at auditing firm Grant Thornton.