Fed’s Bullard urges U.S. reopening to avoid risk of depression

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Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said policymakers need to mitigate the ongoing risks from the coronavirus in the second half of the year and gradually reopen the U.S. economy to avoid deeper harm.

“The shutdown can’t go on forever because if it does, deep into the second half, then I think you risk getting into a financial crisis or even a depression scenario,” Bullard told CNBC television in an interview on Wednesday. “And if you get into that I think even health outcomes would be way worse.”

The U.S. central bank last week left interest rates unchanged just above zero and has continued to expand its already-historic response to the crisis by broadening some of the nine emergency lending programs the Fed has unveiled since March to keep credit flowing as Americans hunker down to limit contagion.

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard

The St. Louis Fed president said he wasn’t surprised by Wednesday’s ADP Research Institute report that U.S. companies cut payrolls by more than 20 million jobs in April, which he characterized as stemming from a partial shutdown of the economy as a way to ensure public health.

Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect U.S. government data due on Friday to show the unemployment rate surged last month to 16% from 4.4% in March.

“The jobs report will be one of the worst ever,” said Bullard, who is not a voter this year on the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee. The St. Louis Fed president predicted the unemployment rate will be “extremely high,” possibly climbing to 20% or above during the shutdown. “I think it can come down under double digits by the end of the year,” he said.

Policy makers need to mitigate the risks of the virus just as they live with other risks, Bullard said, even if scientists are unable to create a vaccine anytime soon.

Gradually reopening the economy can be done “in a healthy way so we can keep the disease under control,” Bullard said. “Our main goals here, and I think we are succeeding so far anyway, stay out of financial crisis, and stay out of depression while you are trying to deal with this pandemic.”

Bullard said Fed programs intending to ensure liquidity have been successful “but we could do more if necessary.” The Fed’s policy rate is near zero and expected to stay there for an extended period, but the economy is not particularly sensitive to rates during a partial shutdown, he said.

“So far so good,” he said. “I think our liquidity measures are looking good.”

Bloomberg News