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Laughs erupted all around when the Federal Reserve reduced its overnight lending rate by 50 basis points last week: LIKE THAT’LL CURE THE CORANAVIRUS! HAHAHA! It’s easy to see why it seemed funny to people, even those who think the threat posed by Covid-19 is overblown. But it should seem less silly with each passing day. That’s not to say I think we’re headed for disaster. My own views are aligned with this piece by Michael Fumento: it will run its course before too long, and “viruses hate warm weather“. Nevertheless, the virus is already having a variety of economic effects that made the Fed’s action prudent.

Of course, the Fed did not cut its rate to cure the virus. The rate move was intended to deal with some of the economic effects of a pandemic. The spread of the virus has been concentrated in a few countries thus far: China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea. Fairly rapid growth is expected in the number of cases in the U.S. and the rest of the world over the next few weeks, especially now with the long-awaited distribution of test kits. But already in the U.S., we see shortages of supplies hitting certain industries, as shipments from overseas have petered. And now efforts to control the spread of the virus will involve more telecommuting, cancellation of public events, less travel, less dining out, fewer shopping trips, missed work, hospitalizations, and possibly widespread quarantines.

The upshot is at least a temporary slowdown in economic activity and concomitant difficulties for many private businesses. We’ve been in the midst of a “flight to safety”, as investors incorporate these expectations into stock prices and interest rates. Firms in certain industries will need cash to pay bills during a period of moribund demand, and consumers will need cash during possible layoffs. All of this suggests a need for liquidity, but even worse, it raises the specter of a solvency crisis.

The Fed’s power can attempt to fill the shortfall in liquidity, but insolvency is a different story. That, unfortunately, might mean either business failures or bailouts. Large firms and some small ones might have solid business continuation plans to help get them through a crisis, at least one of short to moderate duration, but many businesses are at risk. President Trump is proposing certain fiscal and regulatory actions, such as a reduction in the payroll tax, wage payment assistance, and some form of mandatory paid leave for certain workers. Measures might be crafted so as to target particular industries hit hard by the virus.

I do not object to these pre-emptive measures, even as an ardent proponent of small government, because the virus is an externality abetted by multiplicative network effects, something that government has a legitimate role in addressing. There are probably other economic policy actions worth considering. Some have suggested a review of laws restricting access to retirement funds to supplement inadequate amounts of precautionary savings.

Last week’s Fed’s rate move can be viewed as pre-emptive in the sense that it was intended to assure adequate liquidity to the financial sector and payment system to facilitate adjustment to drastic changes in risk appetites. It might also provide some relief to goods suppliers who find themselves short of cash, but their ability to benefit depends on their relationships to lenders, and lenders will be extremely cautious about extending additional credit as long as conditions appear to be deteriorating.

In an even stronger sense, the Fed’s action last week was purely reactive. Scott Sumner first raised an important point about ten days before the rate cut: if the Fed fails to reduce its overnight lending target, it represents a de facto tightening of U.S. monetary policy, which would be a colossal mistake in a high-risk economic and social environment:

When there’s a disruption to manufacturing supply chains, that tends to reduce business investment, puts downward pressure on demand for credit. That will tend to reduce equilibrium interest rates. In addition, with the coronavirus, there’s also a lot of uncertainty in the global economy. And when there’s uncertainty, there’s sort of a rush for safe assets, people buy treasury bonds, that puts downward pressure on interest rates. So you have this downward pressure on global interest rates. Now while this is occurring, if the Fed holds constant its policy rate, it targets the, say fed funds rate at a little over 1.5 percent. While the equilibrium rates are falling, then essentially the Fed will be making monetary policy tighter.

… what I’m saying is, if the Fed actually wants to maintain a stable monetary policy, they may have to move their policy interest rate up and down with market conditions to keep the effective stance of monetary policy stable. So again, it’s not trying to solve the supply side problem, it’s trying to prevent it from spilling over and also impacting aggregate demand.”

The Fed must react appropriately to market rates to maintain the tenor of its policy, as it does not have the ability to control market rates. Its powers are limited, but it does have a responsibility to provide liquidity and to avoid instability in conducting monetary policy. Fiscal actions, on the other hand, might prove crucial to restoring economic confidence, but ultimately controlling the spread of the virus must be addressed at local levels and within individual institutions. While I am strongly averse to intrusions on individual liberty and I desperately hope it won’t be necessary, extraordinary measures like whole-city quarantines might ultimately be required. In that context, this post on the effectiveness of “non-pharmaceutical interventions” such as school closures, bans on public gatherings, and quarantines during the flu pandemic of 1918-19 is fascinating.