Fed Chair Powell Warns Coronavirus Pandemic Could Widen Inequalities

WASHINGTON — Jerome H. Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the path to economic recovery remains uncertain and warned that a prolonged downturn could widen existing inequalities.

While some parts of the economy are seeing a modest rebound, “levels of output and employment remain far below their pre-pandemic levels, and significant uncertainty remains about the timing and strength of the recovery,” Mr. Powell told the Senate Banking Committee.

Mr. Powell stressed that the damage could be long-lasting if the pandemic drags on, particularly for lower-income workers, eroding skills and turning temporary job losses into permanent ones.

“Low-income households have experienced, by far, the sharpest drop in employment, while job losses of African-Americans, Hispanics, and women have been greater than that of other groups,” Mr. Powell said. “If not contained and reversed, the downturn could further widen gaps in economic well-being that the long expansion had made some progress in closing.”

Mr. Powell’s remarks, part of his two-day semiannual testimony before Senate and House lawmakers, come as communities across the United States continue to protest systemic racial inequality after a black man’s death at the hands of the police in Minneapolis in late May. Black Americans are often at a stark disadvantage in the labor market, and along with other minority groups, they have been hard-hit by pandemic-era job losses.

The Fed chair told lawmakers that a full economic recovery is unlikely until the public is confident that the disease is contained, and he warned that an extended period of weakness could be damaging for some sectors of the economy.

“The pandemic is presenting acute risks to small businesses,” he said. “These businesses are the heart of our economy and often embody the work of generations.”

The Fed has already cut rates to near-zero, is buying large quantities of government-backed debt, and has unveiled a series of emergency lending programs to keep the economy and credit markets functioning. But even with its crisis powers, the central bank only has the ability to lend, not spend. That means that direct support for households and businesses in the form of grants falls to Congress.

Lawmakers have enacted substantial fiscal stimulus, with Congress approving direct payments to individuals and funding for small business loans. While the central bank noted in its Monetary Policy Report to Congress, released last week, that the fiscal policy response so far “constitutes the fastest and largest fiscal response to any postwar economic downturn,” it signaled that the path to recovery remains “extraordinarily uncertain,” and highlighted that state governments in particular are coming under stress.

Mr. Powell reiterated that while the Fed is “committed to using our full range of tools to support the economy in this challenging time,” its response to the crisis is only part of what’s needed.

Legislation can “provide direct help to people, businesses, and communities,” he said. “This direct support can make a critical difference not just in helping families and businesses in a time of need, but also in limiting long-lasting damage to our economy.”

His testimony stopped short of explicitly recommending that Congress do more, but the Fed chair has previously said that more steps might be necessary. Lawmakers have shown varying degrees of enthusiasm for further action.

While House Democrats approved a $3 trillion stimulus law in May to further address the economic toll, Senate Republicans remain divided over what another coronavirus relief package should look like, with some voicing skepticism about whether another sweeping round of federal aid is needed as the economy slowly starts to reopen.

“As I’ve already said, we’ll be looking at July to make a decision about whether to go forward with a rescue package,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Monday.

  • Updated June 12, 2020

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

President Trump and his economic advisers have been deliberating over the scope of the next economic stimulus package, with Mr. Trump advocating tax cuts and infrastructure spending.

Last week, Peter Navarro, a White House trade adviser, said that Mr. Trump wants the next bill to be at least $2 trillion and include a payroll tax holiday and incentives for businesses to bring overseas manufacturing back to the United States.

Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, has been a proponent of a capital gains tax holiday and has echoed Mr. Trump’s calls for reviving tax deductions for dining out and entertainment. However, in a television interview on Sunday, Mr. Kudlow said that the enhanced unemployment insurance benefits that amount to an extra $600 per week should expire at the end of July and be replaced with incentives to spur rehiring.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters in a briefing last week that he wanted to see how the existing stimulus measures were working before pumping more money into the economy and that additional measures should be targeted to help industries that are continuing to suffer. However, he made clear that more money would be needed to support the economy.

Alan Rappeport and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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