Above photo: Steve Mnuchin/ New York Times.
Last week the US Treasury and the US Federal Reserve Bank engaged in a rare public disagreement. US Treasury Secretary, Mnuchin, in a letter to Jerome Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, last week directed the Fed to return $455 billion that the Fed was holding in reserve should future lending to banks and non-bank businesses become necessary if the US economy and markets further deteriorate in 2021.
Fed chair Powell initially balked at Mnuchin’s request, replying that the Fed needed the funds to ensure market stability since the US economy was entering a “difficult period” in late 2020 and early 2021. According to Powell, the $455 billion was essential “as a backstop for our ill-stressed and vulnerable economy”. Returning the funds therefore was “not appropriate”. To do so now was not the right time. Not “yet”, replied Powell. Not even “very soon.”
The Fed’s initial response to Mnuchin no doubt reflected Powell’s concern the US economy may very likely weaken in the current 4th quarter, compared to the 3rd. That means possibly more defaults and bankruptcies could be on the agenda for the 1st quarter 2021—in particular for junk bond heavy businesses and state and local governments that appear most vulnerable at the moment. The Fed therefore needs to keep the $455 billion funds in reserve to address a potentially worsening economic situation.
If the differences between Mnuchin and Powell represented a ‘rift’, as the mainstream media often reported, it was undoubtedly the shortest Treasury-Fed rift on record. It wasn’t twenty-four hours after Powell’s initial resistance statement that the Fed capitulated to the US Treasury. Powell quickly retreated publicly, saying the Fed would comply. In retracting his position of the day before, Powell declared the US Treasury had “sole authority”. The Fed would return the funds. The ‘rift’ was over in less than 24 hours.
What then were Mnuchin’s rationale for insisting the funds be returned to the US Treasury? What were his public reasons given for taking back $455 billion at a time of intensifying Covid impact on the economy; as fiscal stimulus appeared dead for months to come; and as 12 million workers were about to lose unemployment benefits in December while simultaneously hundreds of thousands were experiencing rent evictions, lines for food banks were growing throughout the country, and student loan forebearance for millions was about to end?
To deflect critics Mnuchin floated a number of obviously false narratives to justify his decision to take back the $455 billion. He said it was Congress’s intent to end all the funding by December 31, 2020. Even so, he added, he was allowing Fed programs like the Fed’s commercial paper and money market mutual fund special lending facilities to continue for an additional 90 days into 2021. Then there was the $74 billion in the Fed’s Financial Stabilization Fund (FSF) which would remain at the Fed. He puffed up the $74 billon saying the Fed “would still have $800 billion”, assuming the $74 billion represented a fractional reserve that allowed the Fed to fund up to 10X that amount. The central bank could also keep another $25 billion to cover distribution of funds in progress. He further noted that the $455 billion was needed to fund spending in what might be an eventual fiscal stimulus bill later negotiated in 2021 between the US House and the Senate.
It is perhaps interesting to note that Mnuchin’s retraction of the funds came barely a month after in October he wrote a letter indicating that all the Fed’s funds, including the $455 billion, could be retained by the Fed into 2021. The October letter, followed by his November decision to retract the $455 billion, suggests strongly that some kind of decision was made by the Trump administration, or McConnell in the Republican Senate, or perhaps both, sometime after the November 3 election in order to make it as difficult as possible for the incoming Biden administration to address the deteriorating US economic situation.
McConnell had signaled quickly after November 3 there was no chance for a new fiscal stimulus in 2020; Mnuchin then retracted the $455 billion and McConnell was among the first to publicly endorse his move. The timing of both was unlikely merely coincidental.
The Politics of $455 Billion
Despite Mnuchin’s various explanations to the contrary, his withdrawal of the funds from the Fed is clearly about denying the incoming Biden administration from perhaps convincing the Fed to expend the $455 billion to provide loans to hard pressed state and local governments in 2021 and/or for making additional loans & grants available to small businesses.
For the Biden administration, getting the Fed to provide the financial assistance in loans to local governments and small business would obviate the need for the Biden administration to have to fight a Republican Senate, led by McConnell, to pass the same amount of aid targeting local governments and small businesses as part of an eventual Biden fiscal legislative package.
Mnuchin and McConnell have long opposed fiscal support for state and local governments, which they view as heavily weighted toward Democrat ‘blue’ states and cities. They preferred these governments raise money in capital markets instead of getting financial aid via government programs. Providing loans via government programs, with terms and conditions more favorable to borrowers (and not to banks), means less profits for private banks and private lenders. The same applies to small businesses as well as local governments. Republicans want to redirect their financing needs to private markets, instead of through government programs.
That economic motive fits nicely with the political objective of Mnuchin, McConnell, and other Republicans to deny the Biden administration access to funding already on the Fed ‘books’, i.e. funding that was already established in March 2020 as part of the Cares Act passed at the time.
The fact that $455 billion has not been spent as part of Cores Act after almost nine months is of course a related question of importance. Given the great distress of small businesses and 22 million still unemployed in the US as of late November, one might well ask why hasn’t that $455 billion been provided to businesses and their employees still in need? Why has the Trump administration not committed it, given the growing stress on small business and expiring unemployment benefits? And why have the Democrats not more insisted it be spent, as was intended in March. Congress and the Trump administration have been at stalemate for months over passing a new fiscal stimulus bill, when $455 billion in funds was, and still remains, available.
In recalling the Fed’s funds back to his Treasury, Mnuchin’s strategy is clearly to force the Democrats to confront McConnell and Republicans directly via renewed fiscal stimulus negotiations sometime in 2021, and to do so starting from scratch. Biden and the Democrats won’t have that $455 billion potentially available from the Fed. And they’ll have to in effect ‘renegotiate it all over again’.
Moreover, should the Republicans retain control of the majority of the Senate in 2021—to be determined after the Georgia state Republican Senator election runoffs—McConnell can dictate with his Senate veto the scope and magnitude of any future fiscal stimulus in 2021. The Fed and its $455 billion ‘back door’ possible funding source for state and local governments and small businesses will be denied to Biden and the Democrats.
The Mnuchin move is therefore political—i.e. to deny Biden the availability of nearly a half trillion in bailout financing especially for small businesses and state and local governments—and to force the Democrats to renegotiate it with McConnell again. A corollary gain for the Republicans is to force the same governments and small businesses to access the private capital markets for future financing needs, thus benefiting private lenders more than they would otherwise by simply playing ‘middle men’ distributing government program loans for a fee.
Banks have consistently complained since March that the Cares Act lending programs did not provide them sufficient profits. Their interest rate spreads are too narrow. Redirecting lending from Fed programs to private capital markets would prove more profitable.
The Failing Fiscal Stimulus: 2020 and Beyond
There has been much hype by politicians and media about the so-called economic recovery 3rd quarter in the USA. But the facts show the economy contracted sharply by 10.8% from March through June. It then ‘rebounded’ (not to be confused with ‘recovered’)in the 3rd quarter by 7.4%. More importantly, many key economic indicators have been flashing in the 4th quarter that the 3rd quarter recovery will weaken appreciable in the 4th. And some predict even more so in the 1st quarter 2021. Like Europe, the US Economy may be headed toward a double dip contraction over the winter months ahead. That will result in a clear ‘W-shape’ recovery (not V-shape) that is typical of all great recessions—which this writer has been predicting since last March.
The economic ‘relapse’ to a slower growth path in the 4th quarter is all but ensured by the current failure to quickly pass a sufficient fiscal stimulus bill at year’s end 2020, by the intensifying negative impact on the US economy by the Covid 3rd wave surging in America today, and for months still to come, and by the continuing political instability and gridlock in policy impacting the economy as well.
Much is made by optimists of the strength of recovery of US manufacturing and Construction sectors—i.e. the goods sectors—in the US economy. But together they constitute only 20% at best of the total US economy and GDP. Moreover, the recovery here is deceptive. Manufacturing is still 5.6% below 2019 and employment not recovered by any estimate. And Construction recovery is limited to new single family housing—with apartment and multiple housing barely improving—and commercial property construction still mired in a deep recession with no end in sight. This is not the basis for a sustained full economic recovery by any means. Especially since much of the services sector will lag in recovery for some time as well.
It is in the context of this questionable ‘recovery’ of the US economy in late 4th quarter 2020 that a fiscal stimulus package appears dead on arrival in Congress for the rest of the year; that Covid continues to surge with its expected economic impact; that the last vestiges of the Cares Act will soon expire before year end; and political instability threatens to create more business investment uncertainty.
In the midst of all this, Mnuchin and Republicans have acted to pull much needed funding from the Fed, making it even more difficult to restore economic resources needed in 2021.
Dr. Rasmus is author of the recently published book, ‘The Scourge of Neoliberalism: US Economic Policy from Reagan to Trump’, Clarity Press, January 2020. He blogs at jackrasmus.com. His website is http://kyklosproductions.com and his twitter handle @drjackrasmus.