Fed holds policy steady amid US election uncertainty


WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Federal Reserve kept its loose monetary policy intact on Thursday (Nov 5) and pledged again to do whatever it can in coming months to sustain a US economic recovery threatened by a spreading coronavirus pandemic and facing uncertainty over a still-undecided presidential election.

Results from Tuesday’s vote were still being tabulated in a few key states, though Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was near the minimum 270 votes in the state-by-state Electoral College needed to win the White House.

The policy statement released after the US central bank’s latest two-day meeting did not mention the election.

In a news conference after the release of the statement, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said the US economy is now recovering more slowly after being boosted earlier in the year by fiscal aid and the re-opening of some businesses.

“The overall rebound in household spending owes in part to stimulus payments and expanded unemployment benefits, which provided essential support to many families and individuals,” Powell told reporters.

He also said the recent rise in coronavirus infections in the United States and abroad was “particularly concerning,” and said social distancing and masks were needed to help contain the virus and support the economy.

“A full economic recovery is unlikely until people are confident that it’s safe to reengage in a broad range of activities,” Powell said.

In a statement virtually unchanged from the one issued at its September policy meeting, the Fed’s policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee repeated its pledge to use its “full range of tools” to support the economy, and promised not to consider raising interest rates until maximum employment had been restored and inflation was heading above its 2 per cent target.

“Economic activity and employment have continued to recover but remain well below their levels at the beginning of the year,” it said in a unanimous statement which left the central bank’s key overnight interest rate unchanged at near zero.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is causing tremendous human and economic hardship across the United States and around the world.” 

The Fed said it would for now continue buying “at least” US$120 billion (S$160 billion) a month in government bonds and use its other tools and programmes as needed depending on how the economy evolves.

Risks to recovery

The US employment report for October, due to be released by the Labour Department on Friday, will give the latest glimpse of how quickly the economy is pulling the millions unemployed by the pandemic back into jobs.

But beyond that the Fed will now be waiting to see whether Biden does indeed win the presidency or whether Republican President Donald Trump manages to remain in power, and what either scenario could mean in terms of additional government spending to help those out of work.

“The risks to the economic recovery have increased since the Fed last met in September, with rising coronavirus cases, slower job growth, a lack of new stimulus for consumers and small businesses, and now an unresolved presidential election,” Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst, said in an email. 

“The Fed has done what they can do at this point, despite saying they have a range of tools still available.”

US stocks, up sharply before the Fed’s statement was released, showed little immediate response and remained higher on the day. Yields on US Treasury debt securities were little changed, and the dollar remained softer on the day against a basket of major trading partners’ currencies.

For live updates and results, follow our US election live coverage.