The Coronavirus Policy Wave: When Will the Bill Come Due?

The onslaught of the coronavirus forced the Federal Reserve and lawmakers to take desperately needed measures. The US economy will eventually recover, but the effects of these drastic policy decisions will be felt for a long time.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, both the Federal Reserve and fiscal policymakers have rolled out unprecedented measures to support the financial system and US economy, including the $2 trillion CARES Act passed in late March and the Fed’s use of broad fiscal-like powers.

Necessary Policy Moves…but with a Cost

These moves had to happen, in our view, and so will more moves to come in the next few weeks. The swift and expansive action is helping ease the human cost of the crisis, including reinforcement of a strained healthcare system, help for people who have lost their jobs, aid for struggling companies and support to keep financial markets functioning.

All of these measures ease the pain and lay the groundwork for an eventual recovery. But the benefits of these massive programs don’t come without cost, and the bill will ultimately come due. While some of the policy responses are temporary and will be reversed in time, other components will be long-lasting, with a profound influence on the US economy and markets for years to come.

The Fed’s Balance Sheet Likely to Double by Year End

The Fed has operated through two channels in this crisis. We’ve paid the most attention to the liquidity channel—a veritable alphabet soup of programs to keep markets from freezing up. But those temporary liquidity programs have been accompanied by a massive—and long-lasting—expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet through buying Treasury and mortgage-backed securities.

This latest version of quantitative easing is open-ended and all but certain to be bigger than those before it. In fact, we expect the Fed’s balance sheet to swell to nearly $10 trillion—which is more than double its pre-crisis size—by year-end. The Fed won’t allow interest rates to climb because it would crimp the recovery.

Growing Government Debt…and Collapsing Tax Revenues

The Fed’s balance sheet isn’t the only thing growing: the US government’s debt load will expand, too. The government has to spend in order to set the table for an eventual economic recovery. And with tax revenues collapsing with the economic shutdown, the budget deficit will skyrocket. We expect higher tax rates and more progressive tax policies to play a role in financing the government over time.

Even so, the scale of the deficits will inevitably require more debt financing—a lot more. We expect the government’s debt/GDP ratio to be north of 100% in short order, and it’s likely to stay high. That means a lot more Treasury bond issuance, and, with the higher interest rates go, the higher the bill for servicing that debt will be.