The COVID-19 pandemic, now in its third year, has tremendously impacted the U.S. and global economies. The U.S. government responded to the crisis when it enacted a number of policies to provide fiscal stimulus to the economy and relief to those affected by this global disaster. The Federal Reserve (Fed) also took a series of substantial monetary stimulus measures to complement the fiscal stimulus.
In this article, we divided stimulus and relief efforts into monetary policy, made by the Fed, and fiscal policy, made by Congress and the Trump and Biden presidential administrations. Although the pandemic persists, many of these programs have since been discontinued.
The early days of the pandemic sent the U.S. economy into a recession in February 2020. The COVID-19 crisis pushed the U.S. stock market into bear market territory in March 2020, with the S&P 500 not recovering to pre-pandemic highs until June 2020. The U.S. unemployment rate rose as high as 14.7% in April 2020—the highest since the Great Depression—and up from 3.5% in February 2022. The unemployment rate was 3.5% as of August 2022.
The national economy, as measured by real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP), fell by 3.5% year over year (YOY) in 2020. This was the first time that the economy shrank YOY on an annual basis since 2009.
Following the introduction of unprecedented stimulus measures, the U.S. economy started to rebound later in 2020. The arrival of vaccinations in 2021 helped to boost the economy further. But the pandemic persists as new, highly contagious variants of the virus continue to emerge. Its economic impact is far from over.
The Fed’s stimulus measures have fallen into three basic categories: interest rate cuts, loans and asset purchases, and regulation changes.
The loans and asset purchases come in general purchases made as part of quantitative easing (QE) and repurchase operations where the Fed buys assets directly, specific lines of credit that the Fed creates, and programs where the Fed sets entities called special purpose vehicles (SPVs).
It then lends money to these SPVs, which use the money to purchase assets. All of these efforts were combined to try to ensure that the U.S. would not suffer a liquidity crisis as it did during the Great Recession.
The Fed cut its benchmark interest rate, the federal funds rate, twice during March 2020—first by 0.50%, then by 1.00%.
This lowered the federal funds rate, which is expressed as a range, from 1.50% to 1.75% to 0.00% to 0.25%. This is notable because the Fed did not move interest rates in increments greater than 0.25% since cutting them during the Great Recession. On March 15, 2020, the Fed also cut its discount rate, another key interest rate, by 1.5%, down to 0.25%.
Fed officials made the move to increase the target rate, which remained at rock bottom levels since the start of the pandemic. The Fed made three increases to the target rate since then:
One of the simplest asset-purchasing programs has been the QE program, in which the Fed directly buys assets like U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS). The Fed, which originally created the program during the Great Recession, restarted it on March 15, 2020. The scale of the program was open-ended, with the Fed saying it would buy “in the amounts needed to support the smooth functioning of markets.”
In late 2021, the Fed started to reduce asset purchases in a process called tapering. Federal Reserve Board (FRB) Chair Jerome Powell announced on Dec. 15, 2021, that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decided to accelerate its tapering of net new purchases of bonds, in response to a strengthening economy and rising inflation. These purchases had totaled $120 billion per month.
On March 12, 2020, the Fed also enormously expanded its repo operations—by $1.5 trillion, then adding another $500 billion four days later—to ensure enough liquidity in the money markets. Repo operations have effectively allowed the Fed to loan money to banks by purchasing Treasuries from them and selling them back to the banks at a later date.
Besides direct asset purchases, the Fed set up several new lending programs, both as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (see U.S. Fiscal Policy section below for details) using funds from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF) as seed capital, and entirely on its own. A number were set up as SPVs, separate legal entities that allow the Fed to lend in ways that it normally doesn’t. All of these programs, detailed below, have been discontinued.
To help small businesses, the Fed launched the Paycheck Protection Program Liquidity Facility (PPPLF) on April 9, 2020, in concert with the CARES Act. This program lent money to banks so they could, in turn, lend money to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). On April 30, 2020, the program expanded the types of lenders that could participate in the program. The program ended on July 30, 2021.
On March 23, 2020, the Fed created the Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility (PMCCF) to buy corporate bonds to ensure that corporations could get credit. At the same time, it created the related Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility (SMCCF), which bought up corporate bonds and bond exchange-traded funds (ETFs) on the secondary market.
The SMCCF started purchasing bond ETFs on May 12, 2020, and said it would begin purchasing individual bonds to create a “broad, diversified market index” of individual U.S. corporate bonds starting on June 16, 2020.
The combined purchase limit for the programs was $750 billion, up from an initial $200 billion. The Treasury Department contributed a total of $75 billion in initial capital to these two programs from the ESF: $50 billion for the PMCCF and $25 billion for the SMCCF. The premise was that these programs made banks more willing to lend to corporations because they knew that they could sell the loans to the Fed. Both programs stopped purchasing bonds on Dec. 31, 2020.
On March 23, 2020, the Fed resurrected another Great Recession program: the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF). It made up to an initial $100 billion in loans to companies and took asset-backed securities (ABS) as collateral. This included a variety of securities, such as those based on auto loans, commercial mortgages, or student loans.
On April 9, 2020, the Fed expanded the ABS types that could be purchased. The Treasury Department’s ESF made a $10 billion initial equity investment in the SPVs. The program stopped making new loans as of Dec. 31, 2020.
On March 23, 2020, the Fed announced the Main Street Lending Program, which set up an SPV to purchase up to $600 billion in small- and medium-sized business loans. Under the plan, the Fed purchased a 95% stake of each loan, with the bank keeping 5%. To qualify, businesses needed to have either 10,000 or fewer employees or up to $2.5 billion in 2019 revenue.
On July 17, 2020, the Fed extended the program to nonprofit organizations that didn’t have endowments larger than $3 billion, had either fewer than 15,000 employees or less than $5 billion in 2019 revenue, and met a number of other additional requirements. The program purchased stakes in both new loans and loan extensions.
Under the CARES Act, the Treasury Department planned to make a $75 billion equity investment in the SPV. The terms of the loans were five years, with interest deferred for one year and principal payments deferred for two years.
On Oct. 30, 2020, the Fed reduced the minimum size of the loans that the program would purchase. The program ended on Jan. 8, 2021.
On April 9, 2020, the Fed launched the Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF), which purchased up to $500 billion of short-term notes issued by:
In addition, smaller states could designate their largest city or county (depending on the size of the state) to qualify for the facility even if it didn’t meet the population requirement.
On Aug. 11, 2020, interest rates for tax-exempt notes were lowered by 0.5 percentage points. The difference in rates between taxable and tax-exempt notes was also lowered. Under the CARES Act, the Treasury Department made an initial equity investment of $35 billion in the SPVs. It stopped purchasing notes on Dec. 31, 2020.
On March 20, 2020, the Fed relaunched a Great Recession-era program: the Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF), which has given loans to primary dealers backed by a wide variety of securities as collateral. There was no set limit to the amount of credit issued.
To add more liquidity to money markets, the Fed announced the Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility (MMLF) on March 18, 2020. This program lent money to financial institutions so that they could buy money market mutual funds. Like the PDCF, it did not have a specific lending limit, either.
The Treasury Department gave the MMLF $10 billion of debt credit protection for the program. On May 5, 2020, the central bank said that participation in the MMLF wouldn’t affect the liquidity coverage ratio of participating banks.
This program was similar to the Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Fund (AMLF) program launched in 2008 after the collapse of Lehman Brothers caused a major money market fund to fail. The AMLF ended on Feb. 1, 2010.
Both the PDCF and the MMLF expired on March 31, 2021.
On March 17, 2020, the Fed established the Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF), which purchased short-term debt known as commercial paper to ensure that those markets stay liquid.
On March 23, 2020, the Fed broadened the variety of commercial paper that it would buy to lower the pricing of the debt. This was actually a relaunch of a program that ran during the Great Recession, when many businesses were hurt as liquidity in the commercial paper markets dried up.
While it had no set limit on the amount it purchased, the CPFF stopped purchasing debt on March 31, 2021, and the SPV will continue to be funded until its assets mature. The Treasury Department made a $10 billion equity investment in the CPFF from its ESF.
The Fed made regulation changes to further add liquidity to the markets. For instance, the Fed made a number of technical changes to hold on to less capital so that it could lend more. It temporarily removed the asset restrictions placed on Wells Fargo after its fake-accounts scandal, so that Wells Fargo could lend more.
On Dec. 16, 2020, the Fed announced that its QE policy would continue “until substantial further progress has been made” toward inflation and employment goals. The Fed expects this progress to take years, based on projections it also released that day.
On March 19, 2021, the Fed announced that it was letting its policy of relaxing bank reserve requirements expire on March 31, 2021, as scheduled. The policy, originally announced on May 15, 2020, temporarily allowed banks to exclude Treasuries and deposits with Fed banks from their balance sheets for the purpose of calculating reserve requirements, allowing them to lend more.
On March 25, 2021, the Fed announced that the temporary restrictions on dividends and buybacks that it placed on banks in 2020 would end after June 30, 2021, for banks that meet capital requirements during the 2021 stress tests. Restrictions were extended for banks that fail to meet capital requirements.
Throughout March and April of 2020, the U.S. government passed three main relief packages and one supplemental package. After the passage of the supplementary package in April, nicknamed “stimulus phase 3.5,” there was no substantial action on COVID-19 stimulus or relief from Congress for several months, as each political party proposed its own stimulus package.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act in May 2020, and the Republican Senate majority proposed—but did not pass—the $1 trillion HEALS Act in July 2020. Despite offers from House Democrats to meet in the middle at $2 trillion, the Senate Republican majority refused to budge from their position, insisting on less stimulus.
In December 2020, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA), which included a $900 billion stimulus bill, providing additional support during the pandemic.
During this period, then-President Donald Trump and now-President Joseph Biden have issued a plethora of executive actions in attempts to provide aid during the pandemic, as have various executive branch agencies. A fifth major stimulus package, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, was signed into law by President Biden on March 11, 2021.
The total number of COVID-19 infections in the United States, as of August 26, 2022. There have been 1,037,953 deaths.
The first relief package, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, nicknamed Phase One, was signed into law on March 6, 2020, by then-President Trump. It allocated $8.3 billion to do the following:
The second relief package, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), or Phase Two, was signed into law on March 18, 2020. The law allocated a budget for relief that included the following:
Separately, on March 18, 2020, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) implemented foreclosure and eviction moratoriums for single-family homeowners whose mortgages were FHA-insured or backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. The eviction moratorium on FHA and other government-backed loans was extended to Sept. 30, 2021. Additionally, the FHFA announced on Sept. 24, 2021, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would continue to offer COVID-19 forbearance to multifamily property owners who were experiencing a financial hardship due to the COVID-19 emergency.
The third—and largest—relief package was signed into law on March 27, 2020. By nominal dollar amount, it is the largest single relief package in U.S. history. This law, called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and nicknamed the CARES Act or Phase Three, appropriated $2.3 trillion for many different efforts:
A supplementary stimulus package, nicknamed Phase 3.5, was signed into law on April 24, 2020. It appropriated $484 billion, mostly to replenish the PPP and the EIDL, and contained additional funding for hospitals and COVID-19 testing.
Another supplementary measure, the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act of 2020, which modified the PPP, was signed into law on June 5, 2020. It made the following changes to the program:
The third piece of supplementary legislation was passed on July 4, 2020, which extended the deadline for small businesses to apply for the PPP from June 30, 2020, to Aug. 8, 2020. When the bill was signed into law, $130 billion of PPP funding remained unallocated.
On March 17, 2020, then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin extended the deadline for paying both individual and business taxes for tax year 2019 to July 15, 2020.
On March 20, 2020, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suspended student loan payments and interest accrual for federally held student debt. This suspension of payments and interest has been through Aug. 31, 2022.
On April 19, 2020, the Trump administration said businesses could delay payment of tariffs for 90 days if they suspended operations during March and April of 2020 and if they “demonstrate(d) a significant financial hardship.”
On Aug. 10, 2020, Trump signed four executive actions to provide additional COVID-19 relief.
The first action created the Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) program, which would roll out a $400-per-week payment to those receiving more than $100 a week in unemployment benefits. The plan called for $300 to be paid by the federal government and $100 by state governments. The program was retroactive to Aug. 1, 2020, after the $600 unemployment benefits expansion ended.
The program was to be funded by up to $44 billion in money taken from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster relief fund. The president said the states should use the remaining aid given to them under the federal CARES Act to fund these payments, even though many states already had allocated those funds and state budgets were under intense strain.
Because the president cannot expand unemployment insurance without congressional approval, states had to scramble to build new systems to handle these program benefits. This caused delays and meant that actual payment of the benefits was not rolled out for weeks or months in many states.
Alaska and New Jersey became the last states to begin paying out LWA benefits in October 2020. Meanwhile, the benefits in some states that began paying out quickly had already begun to run out in September 2020. The program ultimately had enough money for each state to pay out for six weeks, although the end date of the program varied depending on when the state began making payments.
A second executive action extended the moratorium on payments and interest accrual on student loans held by the government until the end of 2020. The moratorium was previously set to expire on Sept. 30, 2020.
A third executive action instructed the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help provide temporary assistance to homeowners and renters. The action directed HUD to “promote the ability of renters and homeowners to avoid eviction or foreclosure.” The executive action also instructed the FHFA, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to “review all existing authorities and resources that may be used to prevent evictions and foreclosures for renters and homeowners.”
Notably, the order did not extend the CARES Act’s federal eviction moratorium, which expired on July 24, 2020.
A fourth executive action deferred payroll taxes for Americans earning less than $100,000 per year for the period from Sept. 1, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2020. The taxes still needed to be paid back in 2021.
As part of a series of executive actions announced on his first day of office, Jan. 20, 2021, President Biden’s Department of Education announced it would extend federally held student loan forbearance, which was set to expire on Jan. 31, 2021. Forbearance was extended through Dec. 31, 2022.
Shortly after the passage of the American Rescue Plan, on March 30, 2021, the Department of Education announced the expansion of its student loan relief to include defaulted privately held loans as well, through Sept. 30, 2021. A 0% interest rate and a pause of collections would affect 1.14 million borrowers who defaulted on a privately held loan under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program since March 13, 2020.
The CARES Act created a moratorium on evictions that was initially set to expire on July 24, 2020. The moratorium was extended several times since then, and, on June 24, 2021, the government announced that it would be extended a final time, to July 31, 2021.
On Aug. 3, 2021, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a temporary halt on evictions in counties experiencing substantial or high levels of community transmission of COVID-19. This mandate was set to expire on Oct. 3, 2021. However, on Aug. 26, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the CDC order, effectively ending the eviction moratorium. The conditions for the moratorium included:
People who met these conditions were to write a signed declaration that this was the case and give it to their landlord. If you met the conditions, then it applied to all landlords and residential renters in the country—except for jurisdictions that had local moratoriums with the same or better protection for renters, as well as American Samoa, unless that territory reported COVID-19 cases, in which case it would then apply there. It also did not apply to hotels, motels, and Airbnb rentals.
On Dec. 21, 2020, Congress passed the CAA, a 900 billion stimulus and relief bill, attached to the main omnibus budget bill. Then-President Trump signed the bill on Dec. 27, 2020, but urged Congress to increase the direct stimulus payments from $600 to $2,000. Its contents, as of Dec. 28, 2020, included:
If you were eligible for stimulus payments and missed out on getting them, you can file for a Recovery Rebate Credit. You can claim this refundable tax credit when you file your 2021 tax return, and 2020 as well—if you haven’t yet filed for that year.
On March 11, 2021, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, implementing a $1.9 trillion package of stimulus and relief proposals. Some facets of the plan, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, were excluded to pass the plan using budget reconciliation, a Senate procedure that allows bills to be passed using a simple majority.
Roughly $350 billion of the total funding was allocated to state and local governments. The key points of the plan as it was passed are the following:
Among the assistance still available are rent assistance and tax breaks on student loans that were forgiven. Check with your state to see what local programs are available. For example, while the federal eviction moratorium has ended, a few states still have eviction bans in place. Others have allocated funds to help small businesses.
If you didn’t receive a stimulus check and should have, then you are eligible for a Recovery Rebate Credit. You can claim this refundable tax credit when filing your 2021 and/or 2020 tax returns.
The federal moratorium on evictions has ended. Check with your state to see if it has a moratorium in place.
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