Monetary Policy Report submitted to the Congress on June 12, 2020, pursuant to section 2B of the Federal Reserve Act
The COVID-19 outbreak is causing tremendous human and economic hardship across the United States and around the world. The virus and the measures taken to protect public health have induced a sharp decline in economic activity and a surge in job losses, with the unemployment rate, which had been at a 50-year low, soaring to a postwar record high. Weaker demand and significantly lower oil prices are holding down consumer price inflation. The disruptions to economic activity here and abroad significantly affected financial conditions and impaired the flow of credit to U.S. households and businesses. In response to these developments, the Federal Reserve quickly lowered its policy rate to close to zero to support economic activity and took extraordinary measures to stabilize markets and bolster the flow of credit to households, businesses, and communities. Financial conditions have improved, in part reflecting policy measures to support the economy and the flow of credit. The Federal Reserve is committed to using its full range of tools to support the U.S. economy in this challenging time, thereby promoting its maximum-employment and price-stability goals.
Economic and Financial Developments
Economic activity. In response to the public health emergency precipitated by the spread of COVID-19, many protective measures were adopted to limit the transmission of the virus. These social-distancing measures effectively closed parts of the economy, resulting in a sudden and unprecedented fall in economic activity and historic increases in joblessness. Although virus mitigation efforts in many places did not begin until the final two weeks of March, real personal consumption expenditures (PCE) plummeted 6.7 percent in March and an unprecedented 13.2 percent in April. Indicators suggest spending rose in May, but the April data and May indicators taken together point to a collapse in second-quarter real PCE. Likewise, in the housing market, residential sales and construction in April posted outsized declines that are close to some of the largest ever recorded, and heightened uncertainty and weak demand have led many businesses to put investment plans on hold or cancel them outright. These data, along with other information, suggest that real gross domestic product will contract at a rapid pace in the second quarter after tumbling at an annual rate of 5 percent in the first quarter of 2020.
The labor market. The severe economic repercussions of the pandemic have been especially visible in the labor market. Since February, employers have shed nearly 20 million jobs from payrolls, reversing almost 10 years of job gains. The unemployment rate jumped from a 50-year low of 3.5 percent in February to a post–World War II high of 14.7 percent in April and then moved down to a still very elevated 13.3 percent in May. The most severe job losses have been sustained by those with lower earnings and by the socioeconomic groups that are disproportionately represented among low-wage jobs.
Inflation. Consumer price inflation has slowed abruptly. The 12-month change in the price index for PCE was just 0.5 percent in April. The 12-month measure of PCE inflation that excludes food and energy items (so-called core inflation), which historically has been a better indicator of where overall inflation will be in the future than the total figure, fell from 1.8 percent in February to 1.0 percent in April. This slowing reflected monthly readings for March and April that were especially low because of large price declines in some categories most directly affected by social distancing. Overall inflation also has been held down by substantially lower energy prices, which more than offset the effects of surging prices for food. Despite the sharp slowing in inflation, survey-based measures of longer-run inflation expectations have generally been stable at relatively low levels. However, market-based measures of inflation compensation have moved down to some of the lowest readings ever seen.
Financial conditions. In late February and over much of March as COVID-19 spread, equity prices plunged and nominal Treasury yields dropped substantially, with yields on longer-term securities reaching all-time record lows. Spreads of yields on corporate bonds over those on comparable-maturity Treasury securities widened significantly as the credit quality of firms declined and market functioning deteriorated; in addition, loans were unavailable for most firms, particularly firms below investment grade. At the most acute phase of this period, trading conditions became extremely illiquid and some critical markets stopped functioning properly. Consumer borrowing also fell as spending slumped. Several markets supporting consumer lending experienced severe strains around this period, including the agency residential mortgage-backed securities (MBS) market as well as the auto, credit card, and student loan securitization markets. In response, the Federal Reserve took unprecedented measures to restore smooth market functioning and to support the flow of credit in the economy, including the creation of a number of emergency credit and liquidity facilities.1 These actions, along with the aggressive response of fiscal policy, stabilized financial markets and led to a notable improvement in financial conditions for both firms and households as well as state and local governments. Even so, lending standards for both households and businesses have become less accommodative, and borrowing conditions are tight for low-rated households and businesses.
Financial stability. The COVID-19 pandemic has abruptly halted large swaths of economic activity and led to swift financial repercussions. Despite increased resilience from the financial and regulatory reforms adopted since 2008, financial system vulnerabilities—most notably those associated with liquidity and maturity transformation in the nonbank financial sector—have amplified some of the economic effects of the pandemic. Accordingly, financial-sector vulnerabilities are expected to be significant in the near term. The strains on household and business balance sheets from the economic and financial shocks since March will likely create persistent fragilities. Financial institutions may experience strains as a result. The Federal Reserve, with approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, established new credit and liquidity facilities under section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act to alleviate severe dislocations that arose in a number of financial markets and to support the flow of credit to households, businesses, and state and local governments. Furthermore, as financial stresses abroad risked spilling over into U.S. credit markets, the Federal Reserve and several other central banks announced the expansion and enhancement of dollar liquidity swap lines. In addition, the Federal Reserve introduced a new temporary repurchase agreement facility for foreign monetary authorities. The Federal Reserve has also made a number of adjustments to its regulatory and supervisory regime to facilitate market functioning and reduce regulatory impediments to banks supporting households, businesses, and municipal customers affected by COVID-19. (See the box "Developments Related to Financial Stability" in Part 1.)
International developments. The spread of COVID-19 throughout the world and the measures taken to contain it have produced devastating effects on the global economy. Amid widespread and stringent shutdowns, recent data suggest that global economic activity in the first half of the year has experienced a sharp and synchronized contraction greater than that in the Global Financial Crisis. The many mandated closures of nonessential businesses abroad and the collapse in consumer demand contributed to a significant deterioration in labor markets and subdued inflation. Unlike past recessions, services activity in the foreign economies has dropped more sharply than manufacturing, with restrictions on movement having severely curtailed spending on travel, tourism, restaurants, and recreation. Against this backdrop, foreign governments and central banks have responded strongly and swiftly to support incomes and to improve market liquidity and the provision of credit. More recently, economic activity has begun to revive in some foreign economies as authorities eased social-distancing restraints.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 weighed heavily on global risk sentiment, with financial stresses intensifying and liquidity conditions deteriorating in many foreign financial markets. Aggressive fiscal and monetary policy responses in the United States and abroad, however, helped boost sentiment and improve market functioning. On balance, financial conditions abroad remain tighter than at the beginning of the year, especially in some emerging market economies. Since February, global equity prices moved lower, sovereign interest rates in the European periphery increased somewhat, and measures of sovereign spreads in emerging market economies widened significantly. In many advanced economies, long-term interest rates reached historically low levels.
Easing monetary policy. In light of the effects of COVID-19 on economic activity and on risks to the outlook, the FOMC rapidly lowered the target range for the federal funds rate. Specifically, at two meetings in March, the FOMC lowered the target range for the federal funds rate by a total of 1-1/2 percentage points, bringing it to the current range of 0 to 1/4 percent. The Committee expects to maintain this target range until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum-employment and price-stability goals. The Committee noted that it would continue to monitor the implications of incoming information for the economic outlook, including information related to public health, as well as global developments and muted inflation pressures, and that it would use its tools and act as appropriate to support the economy.
Safeguarding market functioning. Market functioning deteriorated in many markets in late February and much of March, including the critical Treasury and agency MBS markets. The Federal Reserve swiftly took a series of policy actions to address these developments. The FOMC announced it would purchase Treasury securities and agency MBS in the amounts needed to ensure smooth market functioning and the effective transmission of monetary policy to broader financial conditions. The Open Market Desk began offering large-scale overnight and term repurchase agreement operations. The Federal Reserve coordinated with other central banks to enhance the provision of liquidity via the standing U.S. dollar liquidity swap line arrangements and announced the establishment of temporary U.S. dollar liquidity arrangements (swap lines) with additional central banks. The Federal Reserve also established a temporary repurchase agreement facility for foreign and international monetary authorities. (Separately, the Board introduced several facilities with the backing of the U.S. Treasury to more directly support the flow of credit to the economy.) Since these policy actions were announced, the functioning of Treasury and MBS markets has gradually improved. (See the box "Federal Reserve Actions to Ensure Smooth Functioning of Treasury and MBS Markets" in Part 2.) Reflecting these policy responses, the size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet increased significantly. (See the box "Developments on the Federal Reserve's Balance Sheet" in Part 2.)
Fed Listens. The Federal Reserve has released a report on its Fed Listens initiative. This initiative is part of a broad review of the monetary policy strategy, tools, and communication practices the Federal Reserve uses to pursue its statutory dual-mandate goals of maximum employment and price stability. A key component of the review was a series of public Fed Listens events aimed at consulting with a broad range of stakeholders in the U.S. economy on issues pertaining to the dual-mandate objectives.
Disparities in job loss during the pandemic. The deterioration in labor market conditions since February has been sudden, severe, and widespread. At the same time, workers in some industries, occupations, demographic groups, and locations have experienced more significant employment declines than others. Although disparities in labor market outcomes often arise during recessions, factors unique to this episode have also contributed to the recent divergence. Job losses have been especially severe for those with lower earnings and for the socioeconomic groups that are disproportionately represented among low-wage jobs. (See the box "Disparities in Job Loss during the Pandemic" in Part 1.)
Small businesses during the COVID-19 crisis. Small businesses make up nearly half of U.S. private-sector employment and play key roles in local communities. The pandemic poses acute risks to the survival of many small businesses. Their widespread failure would adversely alter the economic landscape of local communities and potentially slow the economic recovery and future labor productivity growth. The Congress, the Federal Reserve, and other federal agencies are making aggressive efforts to support small businesses. (See the box "Small Businesses during the COVID-19 Crisis" in Part 1.)
Federal fiscal policy response to COVID-19. While the economic consequences resulting from the pandemic have been historically large, the amount of fiscal support that has been enacted constitutes the fastest and largest fiscal response to any postwar economic downturn. The pieces of legislation enacted since the arrival of the pandemic that have composed this response are expected to raise government outlays and reduce tax revenues by nearly $2 trillion in the current fiscal year. (See the box "Federal Fiscal Policy Response to COVID-19" in Part 1.)
Policy response to COVID-19 in foreign economies. Authorities in many foreign economies have implemented fiscal, monetary, and regulatory measures to mitigate disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sizable fiscal packages targeted the sudden loss of income by firms and households. Actions by central banks, including purchases of sovereign and private bonds, have aimed to restore market functioning, sustain the provision of credit to businesses and households during the pandemic, and support the economic recovery. Regulatory changes have focused on ensuring that banks sustain their capacity to absorb pandemic-related losses while continuing to lend to households and firms. (See the box "Policy Response to COVID-19 in Foreign Economies" in Part 1.)
Statement on Longer-Run Goals and Monetary Policy Strategy
Adopted effective January 24, 2012; as amended effective January 29, 2019
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) is firmly committed to fulfilling its statutory mandate from the Congress of promoting maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates. The Committee seeks to explain its monetary policy decisions to the public as clearly as possible. Such clarity facilitates well-informed decisionmaking by households and businesses, reduces economic and financial uncertainty, increases the effectiveness of monetary policy, and enhances transparency and accountability, which are essential in a democratic society.
Inflation, employment, and long-term interest rates fluctuate over time in response to economic and financial disturbances. Moreover, monetary policy actions tend to influence economic activity and prices with a lag. Therefore, the Committee's policy decisions reflect its longer-run goals, its medium-term outlook, and its assessments of the balance of risks, including risks to the financial system that could impede the attainment of the Committee's goals.
The inflation rate over the longer run is primarily determined by monetary policy, and hence the Committee has the ability to specify a longer-run goal for inflation. The Committee reaffirms its judgment that inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve's statutory mandate. The Committee would be concerned if inflation were running persistently above or below this objective. Communicating this symmetric inflation goal clearly to the public helps keep longer-term inflation expectations firmly anchored, thereby fostering price stability and moderate long-term interest rates and enhancing the Committee's ability to promote maximum employment in the face of significant economic disturbances. The maximum level of employment is largely determined by nonmonetary factors that affect the structure and dynamics of the labor market. These factors may change over time and may not be directly measurable. Consequently, it would not be appropriate to specify a fixed goal for employment; rather, the Committee's policy decisions must be informed by assessments of the maximum level of employment, recognizing that such assessments are necessarily uncertain and subject to revision. The Committee considers a wide range of indicators in making these assessments. Information about Committee participants' estimates of the longer-run normal rates of output growth and unemployment is published four times per year in the FOMC's Summary of Economic Projections. For example, in the most recent projections, the median of FOMC participants' estimates of the longer-run normal rate of unemployment was 4.4 percent.
In setting monetary policy, the Committee seeks to mitigate deviations of inflation from its longer-run goal and deviations of employment from the Committee's assessments of its maximum level. These objectives are generally complementary. However, under circumstances in which the Committee judges that the objectives are not complementary, it follows a balanced approach in promoting them, taking into account the magnitude of the deviations and the potentially different time horizons over which employment and inflation are projected to return to levels judged consistent with its mandate.
The Committee intends to reaffirm these principles and to make adjustments as appropriate at its annual organizational meeting each January.
Note: The Committee did not reaffirm this statement in January 2020 in light of its ongoing review of its monetary policy strategy, tools, and communications practices. This statement is a reprint of the statement affirmed in January 2019.
1. A list of funding, credit, liquidity, and loan facilities established by the Federal Reserve in response to COVID-19 is available on the Board's website at https://www.federalreserve.gov/funding-credit-liquidity-and-loan-facilities.htm. Return to text