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Fed stresses its commitment to low rates as US economy stumbles

Commitment to low rates

Chair Jerome Powell said Wednesday that the U.S. Federal Reserve will keep pursuing its low-interest rate policies until an economic recovery is well underway, acknowledging that the economy has faltered in recent months.

The Fed said in a statement after its latest policy meeting that hiring and economic growth had slowed, particularly in industries affected by the raging pandemic, notably restaurants, bars, hotels and others involving face-to-face public contact. The officials kept their benchmark short-term rate pegged near zero and said they would keep buying Treasury and mortgage bonds to restrain longer-term borrowing rates and support the economy.

Speaking at a news conference, Powell made clear his belief that the economy will struggle in the coming weeks and months, until widespread vaccinations and government rescue aid eventually fuel a sustained rebound.

“We're a long way from full recovery,” he said. “Something like 9 million people remain unemployed as a consequence of the pandemic. That’s as many people as lost their jobs at the peak of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession.”

The Fed statement warned that the virus is posing risks to the economy. But the officials removed phrases from their previous statement in December that had said the pandemic was pressuring the economy in the “near term” and posed risks “over the medium term."

Powell said that language was removed because the Fed policymakers see the pandemic increasingly as a short-term risk that will likely fade as vaccines are distributed more widely. But he also cautioned that the threat remains a serious one, particularly because of the potential harm from new strains of the virus.

“We have not won this yet,” Powell said. “There’s nothing more important to the economy now than people getting vaccinated.”

As Powell spoke, a broad sell-off on Wall Street knocked more than 600 points off the Dow Jones Industrial Average, handing the stock market its worst day in nearly three months. The drop, which followed a recent record-setting run, came as investors focused on the uncertain outlook for the economy and corporate profits amid a still-raging coronavirus pandemic. Traders were also focused on the eye-popping surge in shares of GameStop, a money-losing video game seller that became the focus of a battle between small investors bidding it higher and big hedge funds betting it would fall.

For now, the job market is faltering, with 9.8 million jobs still lost to the pandemic, which erupted 10 months ago. Hiring has slowed for six straight months, and employers shed jobs in December for the first time since April. The job market has sputtered as the pandemic and colder weather have discouraged Americans from travelling, shopping, dining out or visiting entertainment venues. Retail sales have declined for three straight months.

Yet the Fed still envisions a sharp rebound in the second half of the year as the virus is brought under control by vaccines and government-enacted rescue money spreads through the economy. Americans fortunate enough to have kept their jobs have stockpiled massive savings that suggest pent-up demand that could be unleashed, with a big lift to the economy, once consumers increasingly feel safe about resuming their old spending patterns.



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