How the Fed Bailed Out the Investor Class Without Spending a Cent

Just announcing $4.5 trillion in future spending to support securities markets was enough to keep owners of capital protected from the downsides of the coronavirus.

By David Dayen and cross-posted from The American Prospect.

March 23, 2020 was a critical day in U.S. history, though at the time it felt like another 24 hours on the road to pandemic apocalypse. Over 47,000 Americans had contracted the coronavirus by official count, and hundreds of thousands more were walking around with it undiagnosed. Deaths were just starting to spike. Historic job losses had commenced, as lockdowns cascaded across America with no end in sight. The stock market closed more than 35 percent off its peak, continuing an epic slide that had started a month earlier.

But two actions on March 23 would swing investors from despair to relief, and reveal who really matters in America.

That morning, the Federal Reserve announced the deployment of additional “tools to support households, businesses, and the U.S. economy overall in this challenging time.” The measures included many actions taken during the 2008 financial crisis, with one new wrinkle: Direct purchases of corporate debt—the first nongovernment bond-buying in the Fed’s history—would now be allowed. Companies have swelled their borrowing in recent years, and experts have identified this as a source of serious economic risk. A sudden shock like the pandemic that wiped out revenues would not only cause bankruptcies, but also accelerate bond defaults, broadening stress throughout the financial system.

Backstopping corporate bond markets would support investors and capital owners. By the evening of March 23, investor confidence was lifted even further; reports announced progress on a record $2.2 trillion congressional rescue package, a large chunk of which would go to support the Fed’s interventions in corporate bond and other markets.

What would become known as the CARES Act became law on March 27, and the investor class has never looked back. While Americans struggle to file unemployment claims and extract stimulus checks from their banks, while small businesses face extinction amid a meager and under-baked federal grant program, the Fed has, at least temporarily, propped up every equity and credit market in America. And in a testament to its strength, it did so without spending a single cent.

The mere announcement of future spending heartened investors, who have relied on Fed support since the last financial crisis. This explains the shocking dissonance between collapsing economic conditions and the relative comfort on Wall Street. Between March 23 and April 30, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rocketed nearly 6,000 points, a jump of nearly 31 percent, creating over $7 trillion in capital wealth. The April gains were the biggest in one month since 1987

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