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Powell: Federal Reserve will not 'run out of ammunition' to protect economy

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said early Thursday the central bank will lend as much as it can across the U.S. economy to protect businesses and households facing financial peril during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a rare TV interview, Powell told NBC’s “Today” show that the Fed will “aggressively” use its emergency lending authority to keep credit flowing through the economy and maintain zero-percent interest rates to help the U.S. rebound when the pandemic subsides.

“When it comes to this lending, we're not going to run out of ammunition. That doesn't happen,” Powell said. 

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Powell added that while the most direct relief for U.S. households and businesses will come from a $2 trillion stimulus bill passed by the Senate late Wednesday, “the Federal Reserve is working hard to support you now and our policies will be very important when the recovery does come to make that recovery as strong as possible.”

Powell's comments come hours after the Senate approved a massive economic rescue package after weeks of bipartisan negotiations and several last-minute threats.

The bill includes provisions for direct payments to Americans making up to $99,000, forgivable loans for small businesses intended to prevent layoffs and bankruptcies, aid for industries devastated by the outbreak, and more than $400 billion to backstop Fed lending facilities opened over the past month to stabilize financial markets.

The Fed since March 3 has slashed its baseline interest rate range to zero to 0.25 percent, begun purchasing more than $700 billion in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, and established programs where financial firms can receive loans in exchange for corporate bonds, commercial debt and short-term municipal bonds.

While the Fed took similar measures to keep cash and securities flowing through the financial system during the 2008 crisis, the bank under Powell has gone even further to bolster the economy through an unprecedented downturn driven by the coronavirus pandemic.

Businesses across the U.S. have been forced to close and lay off millions of workers in a desperate bid to slow the progress of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

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There are more than 69,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University as of Thursday morning, resulting in at least 1,000 deaths.

Powell said on NBC that while the downturn caused by the coronavirus “may well” be a recession, the downturn does not reflect fundamental weaknesses in the U.S. economy akin to the 2007-08 Great Recession.

“This is a situation where people are being asked to step back from economic activity, close their businesses, stay home from work,” Powell said.

“So, in principle, if we get the virus spread under control fairly quickly, then economic activity can resume and we want to make that rebound as vigorous as possible.”

Powell also demurred when asked if the U.S. could achieve President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE’s goal of reopening parts of the country to normal economic activity by Easter Sunday, April 12.

Trump’s target to loosen economically restrictive social distancing measures by Easter has provoked intense debate among the president's economic and health advisers, along with backlash from lawmakers and governors in both parties. 

Critics warn that the costs of prematurely easing up on virus mitigation efforts to save the economy will actually cause deeper turmoil down the road.

“We know that economic activity will decline, probably substantially in the second quarter. But I think many expect, and I would expect economic activity to resume and move back up in the second half of the year, Powell said.

“It’s very hard to say precisely when that will be, and it will really depend on the spread of the virus. The virus is going to dictate the timetable here."