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The Fed’s $4 Trillion Lifeline Never Materialized. Here’s Why.

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WASHINGTON — As companies furloughed millions of workers and stock prices plunged through late March, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin offered a glimmer of hope: The government was about to step in with a $4 trillion bazooka.

The scope of that promise hinged on the Federal Reserve. The relief package winding through Congress at the time included a $454 billion pot of money earmarked for the Treasury to back Fed loan programs. Every one of those dollars could, in theory, be turned into as much as $10 in loans. Emergency powers would allow the central bank to create the money for lending; it just required that the Treasury insure against losses.

It was a shock-and-awe moment when lawmakers gave the package a thumbs up. Yet in the months since, the planned punch has not materialized.

The Treasury has allocated $195 billion to back Fed lending programs, less than half of the allotted sum. The programs supported by that insurance have made just $20 billion in loans, far less than the suggested trillions.

The programs have partly fallen victim to their own success: Markets calmed as the Fed vowed to intervene, making the facilities less necessary as credit began to flow again. They have also been undercut by Mr. Mnuchin’s fear of taking credit losses, limiting the risk the government was willing to take and excluding some would-be borrowers. And they have been restrained by reticence at the central bank, which has extended its authorities into new markets, including some — like midsize business lending — that its powers are poorly designed to serve. The Fed has pushed the boundaries on its traditional role as a lender of last resort, but not far enough to hand out the sort of loans some in Congress had envisioned.

Lawmakers, President Trump and administration officials are now clamoring to repurpose the unused funds, an effort that has taken on more urgency as the economic recovery slows and the chances of another fiscal package remain unclear. The various programs are set to expire on Dec. 31 unless Mr. Mnuchin and Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, extend them.

Here’s how that $454 billion failed to turn into $4 trillion, and why the Fed and Treasury are under pressure to do more with the money.

The Fed can lend to private entities to keep markets functioning in times of stress, and in the early days of the crisis it rolled out a far-reaching set of programs meant to soothe panicked investors.

But the Fed’s vast power comes with strings attached. Treasury must approve of any lending programs it wants to set up. The programs must lend to solvent entities and be broad-based, rather than targeting one or two individual firms. If the borrowers are risky, the Fed requires insurance from either the private sector or the Treasury Department.

Early in the crisis, the Treasury used existing money to back market-focused stabilization programs. But that funding source was finite, and as Mr. Mnuchin negotiated with Congress, he pushed for money to back a broader spate of Fed lending efforts.

The central bank itself made a major announcement on March 23, as the package was being negotiated. It said it was making plans to funnel money into a wide array of desperate hands, not just into Wall Street’s plumbing. Officials would set up an effort to lend to small and medium-size businesses, the Fed said, and another that would keep corporate bonds flowing. It would go on to expand that program to include some recently downgraded bonds, so-called fallen angels, and to add a bond-buying program for state and local governments.

Congress allocated $454 billion in support of the programs as part of the economic relief package signed into law on March 27. When the Congressional Budget Office estimated the budget effects of that funding, it did not count the cost toward the federal deficit, since borrowers would repay on the Fed’s loans, and fees and earnings should offset losses.

Mr. Mnuchin and congressional leaders did not settle on that sum for a very precise economic reason, a senior Treasury official said, but they knew conditions were bad and wanted to go big.

Overdoing it would cost nothing, and the size of the pot allowed Mr. Mnuchin to say that the partners could pump “up to $4 trillion” into the economy.

It was like nuclear deterrence for financial markets: Promise that the government had enough liquidity-blasting superpower to conquer any threat, and people would stop running for safer places to put their money. Crisis averted, there would be no need to actually use the ammunition.

Still, the huge dollar figure stoked hopes among lawmakers and would-be loan recipients — ones that have been disappointed.

Key markets began to mend themselves as soon as the Fed promised to step in as a backstop. Companies and local governments have been able to raise funds by selling debt to private investors at low rates.

Corporate bond issuance had ground to a standstill before the Fed stepped in, but companies have raised $1.5 trillion since it did, Daleep Singh, an official at the New York Fed, said on Tuesday. That is double the pace last year. The companies raising money are major employers and producers, and if they lacked access to credit it would spell trouble for the economy.

While self-induced obsolescence partly explains why the programs have not been used, it’s not the whole story. The Main Street program, the one meant to make loans to midsize businesses, is expected to see muted use even if conditions deteriorate again. In the program that buys state and local debt, rates are high and payback periods are shorter than many had hoped.

Continued lobbying suggests that if the programs were shaped differently, more companies and governments might use them.

The relatively conservative design owes to risk aversion on Mr. Mnuchin’s part: He was initially hesitant to take any losses and has remained cautious. They also trace to the Fed’s identity as a lender of last resort.

Walter Bagehot, a 19th-century British journalist who wrote the closest thing the Fed has to a Bible, said central banks should lend freely at a penalty rate and against good collateral during times of crisis.

In short: Step in when you must, but don’t replace the private sector or gamble on lost causes.

That dictum is baked into the Fed’s legal authority. The law that allows it to make emergency loans instructs officials to ensure that borrowers are “unable to secure adequate credit accommodations from other banking institutions.” The Fed specified in its own regulation that loan facilities should charge more than the market does in normal conditions — it wants to be a last-ditch option, not one borrowers would tap first.

The Fed has stretched its “last resort” boundaries. The Main Street program works through banks to make loans, so it is more of a credit-providing partnership than a pure market backstop, for instance.

Yet Bagehot’s dictum still informs the Fed’s efforts, which is especially easy to see in the municipal program. State finance groups and some politicians have been pushing the central bank to offer better conditions than are available in the market — which now has very low rates — to help governments borrow money for next to nothing in times of need.

The Fed and Treasury have resisted, arguing that the program has achieved its goal by helping the market to work.

Congress is not uniformly on board with wanting a more aggressive Fed that might become a first option for credit. Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, a Republican on the committee that oversees the central bank, has repeatedly underlined that the Fed is a backstop.

And replacing private creditors during times of crisis would put central bankers — who are neither elected nor especially accountable — in the position of picking economic winners and losers, a role that worries the Fed.

Such choices are inherently political and polarizing. Already, many of the same people who criticize stringency in the state and local programs regularly argue that the programs intended to help companies should have come with more strings attached.

And it could become a slippery slope. If the Fed shoulders more responsibility for saving private and smaller public entities, Congress might punt problems toward the central bank before solving them democratically down the road.

“It’s opening Pandora’s box,” said David Beckworth, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Being too careful could also carry an economic risk if it meant that the Fed failed to provide help where needed. The midsize business segment, which employs millions of people, has had few pandemic relief options. Struggling states and cities are also huge employers.

Yet those entities may be past the point of needing debt — all the Fed can offer — and require grants instead. And it is worth noting that just because the Fed and Treasury are not rewriting their programs to support broader use now does not mean the Fed would stand back if conditions were to worsen.

If that happens, “it’s going to stop pointing to the fact that it has a fire hose,” said Peter Conti-Brown, a Fed historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s going to take it out and turn it on.”

Alan Rappeport contributed reporting.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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