There have been more than 31 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and at least 561,000 deaths, more than any other country in the world by a wide margin. This suffering has been compounded by the severe economic toll from the outbreak, sending the U.S. economy into recession in Feb. 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 of 2020. The U.S. unemployment rate rose as high as 14.8% in April 2020, the highest since the Great Depression. As of March 2021, the unemployment rate is 6%, still substantially above the 3.5% in pre-pandemic February from the previous year. The U.S. economy, as measured by real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP), fell by 3.5% year-over-year (YOY) in 2020, the first time the economy shrank YOY on an annual basis since 2009.
The U.S. federal 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 U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve, has also taken a series of substantial monetary stimulus measures to complement the fiscal stimulus. We divided stimulus and relief efforts into monetary policy, made by the Federal Reserve, and fiscal policy, made by Congress and the President.
U.S. Monetary Policy
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 and repurchase operations where the Fed buys assets directly, specific lines of credit that the Fed creates, and programs where the Federal Reserve sets entities called special purpose vehicles (SPVs). It then lends money to the SPVs, which use the money to purchase assets. All 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, once by 0.50% and a second time by 1.00%. This lowered the fed 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%.
Quantitative Easing and Repo Operations
One of the simplest asset purchasing programs has been the quantitative easing (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 has been open-ended, with the Fed saying it would buy "in the amounts needed to support the smooth functioning of markets."
The Fed enormously expanded its repo operations on March 12, 2020, by $1.5 trillion, then adding another $500 billion on March 16 to ensure there was 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.
Ongoing Federal Reserve Programs
Besides direct asset purchases, the Fed set up several new lending programs, both as part of the CARES Act (see U.S. Fiscal Policy section for details) using funds from the 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 to allow the Fed to lend in ways it normally doesn't. All of these programs have been discontinued except for one, the Paycheck Protection Program Lending Facility (PPPLF).
To help small businesses, in concert with the CARES Act, the Fed launched PPPLF on April 9, 2020. This program lends money to banks so that they can, in turn, lend money to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program. On April 30, 2020, the program expanded the types of lenders who can participate in the program. There is no current limit to the amount of credit that can be extended through the program, but it will stop extending credit on June 30, 2021. On June 5, 2020, the Federal Reserve said that participation in the PPPLF wouldn't affect the liquidity coverage ratio of participating banks.
Discontinued Federal Reserve Programs
Most of the Federal Reserve's special lending programs have been discontinued either due to decisions made by the Fed or an announcement on Nov. 19, 2020, by then-Treasury Secretary Mnuchin that he would not authorize extending five of them, which had been partially backed by the Treasury Department's ESF.
On March 23, 2020, the Fed created the Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility (PMCCF) to buy corporate bonds to ensure corporations can get credit. At the same time, it created the related Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility (SMCCF), which bought up corporate bonds and bond 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 this program 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, and they will continue to be funded until their holdings are sold or mature.
Also on March 23, the Fed resurrected another Great Recession program, the Term Asset-Back Securities Loan Facility (TALF). It made up to $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. The Federal Reserve expanded the types of ABS that could be purchased on April 9, 2020. The Treasury Department’s ESF made a $10 billion initial equity investment in the SPV. It stopped extending credit on Dec. 31, 2020.
On April 9, 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 has purchased a 95% stake of each loan, with the bank keeping 5%. To qualify, businesses needed to have 15,000 or fewer employees or have $5 billion or less in 2019 revenue. On July 17, 2020, the Fed extended the program to nonprofit organizations that don't have endowments larger than $3 billion, have either fewer than 15,000 employees or less than $5 billion in 2019 revenue, and meet a number of other additional requirements. The program has purchased stakes in both new loans and loan extensions. Under the CARES Act, the Treasury Department has 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. The Fed reduced the minimum size of the loans the program would purchase on Oct. 30, 2020. It continued to purchase stakes in loans until Jan. 8, 2021, and it will continue to be funded until its assets mature or are sold.
Also on April 9, the Fed announced the Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF), which purchased up to $500 billion of short-term notes issued by the 50 states and the District of Columbia, counties with at least 500,000 people, cities with at least 250,000 people, multi-state entities (defined by the Fed as an entity that was created by a compact between two or more states), and up to two revenue bond issuers per state, such as airports or utilities. In addition, smaller states could designate their largest city and/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 to the SPV. It stopped purchasing notes on Dec. 31, 2020, and the Fed will continue to fund it until its assets mature or are sold.
On March 20, 2020, it 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 it issued. The program ran until March 31, 2021.
To add more liquidity to money markets, the Fed launched the Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility (MMLF) on March 18, 2020. This program lent money to financial institutions so they can buy money market mutual funds. The MMLF was similar to the AMLF program launched in 2008 after the collapse of Lehman Brothers caused a major money market fund to fail. The program did not have a specific lending limit but ended on March 31, 2021. The Treasury Department gave the MMLF $10 billion of debt credit protection for the program. On June 5, 2020, the central bank said that participation in the MMLF wouldn't affect the liquidity coverage ratio of participating banks.
On March 17, 2020, the Fed established the Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF), which purchases short-term debt known as commercial paper to ensure those markets stay liquid. On March 23, 2020, the Fed broadened the variety of commercial paper it would lower the pricing of the debt it buys. This is actually a relaunch of a program begun during the Great Recession when many businesses were hurt as liquidity in the commercial paper markets dried up. While it has 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 Exchange Stabilization fund.
Regulation Changes and Policy Updates
The Fed made regulation changes to further add liquidity to the markets. For instance, the Federal Reserve made a number of technical changes to hold on to less capital so they can lend more. It temporarily removed the asset restrictions it placed on Wells Fargo after their fake account scandal, so that Wells Fargo could lend more.
On Dec. 16, 2020, the Federal Reserve announced that its policy of quantitative easing 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 they also released that day.
On March 19, 2021, the Federal Reserve 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, 2021, temporarily allowed banks to exclude Treasurys 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 Federal Reserve announced that the temporary restrictions on dividends and buybacks it placed on banks in 2020 will end after June 30, 2021, for banks that meet capital requirements during this year's stress tests. Restrictions will be extended for banks that fail to meet capital requirements.
U.S. Fiscal Policy
Throughout March and April 2020, the U.S. government passed three main relief packages and one supplemental package, totaling nearly $2.8 trillion. 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 party proposed their own stimulus package.
The Democrat-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 the House Democrats to meet in the middle at $2 trillion, the Senate Republican majority refused to budge from their position, insisting on less stimulus. Finally, after the election of President Biden in November, a $900 billion stimulus bill was passed in December 2020, which then-President-elect Biden said was a "down payment" on additional stimulus and relief to be passed in 2021.
During this period, President Trump and now President Biden have issued a plethora of executive actions attempting to provide aid during the pandemic, as have various executive branch agencies. A fifth major stimulus package, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, was signed into law by President Biden on March 11, 2021.
Stimulus and Relief Package 1
The first relief package, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, since nicknamed Phase One, was signed into law on March 6, 2020, by President Trump. It allocated $8.3 billion to do the following:
- Fund research for a vaccine.
- Give money to state and local governments to fight the spread of the virus.
- Allocate money to help with efforts to stop the virus's spread overseas.
Stimulus and Relief Package 2
The second relief package, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) or Phase Two, was signed into law on March 18, 2020. It allocated $3.4 billion in relief and included the following provisions:
- Providing money for families who rely on free school lunches in light of widespread school closures.
- Mandating companies with fewer than 500 employees provide paid sick leave for those suffering from COVID-19, as well as providing a tax credit to help employers cover those costs.
- Providing nearly $1 billion in additional unemployment insurance money for states, as well as loans to states to fund unemployment insurance.
- Funding and cost waivers to make COVID-19 testing free for all.
Separately, on March 18, 2020, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) implemented foreclosure and eviction moratoriums for single-family homes whose mortgages are FHA insured or backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. The FHFA's moratorium has been extended to March 31, 2021, and the moratorium on FHA and other government back loans has been extended to June 30, 2021.
Stimulus and Relief Package 3: The CARES Act
The third, and by far the 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:
- One-time, direct cash payment of $1,200 per person, plus $500 per child.
- Expansion of unemployment benefits to include people furloughed, gig workers, and freelancers until Dec. 31, 2020.
- Additional $600 of unemployment per week until July 31, 2020.
- Waived early withdrawal penalties for 401(k)s for amounts of up to $100,000 until Dec. 31, 2020.
- Mortgage forbearance and a moratorium on foreclosures on federally-backed mortgages for 180 days.
- $500 billion in government lending to companies affected by the pandemic.
- $367 billion in loans and grants to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and expanded Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.
- More than $130 billion for hospitals and health care providers.
- $150 billion in grants to state and local governments.
- Almost $60 billion for schools and universities.
Stimulus and Relief Package 3.5
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 contains additional funding for hospitals and COVID-19 testing.
Another supplementary measure, the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act of 2020, which modifies the PPP, was signed into law on June 5, 2020. It made the following changes to the program:
- It allowed businesses 24 weeks to spend the money, up from the initial eight-week period.
- It lowered the requirements for loan forgiveness: businesses now need to spend only 60% of their PPP funds on payroll instead of 75% previously.
- The payment deferment period was extended from six months, to when the borrower finds out the amount of their loan forgiveness.
- It allowed businesses that received PPP loans to delay paying payroll taxes.
- It allowed businesses loan forgiveness if they don't rehire workers who refused good-faith offers of re-employment or are unable to restore operations to levels before the COVID-19 pandemic.
- It gave businesses until the end of 2020 to restore their payrolls to pre-crisis levels.
- It increased the loan maturity of PPP loans taken out after June 5 to five years.
- It extended the time borrowers have to pay back unforgiven parts of the loan.
Supplementary Measures and Trump Executive Orders
A 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. At the time the bill was signed into law, $130 billion of PPP funding remained unallocated.
The Trump administration enacted a number of other measures to provide fiscal stimulus. On March 13, 2020, Trump announced a state of emergency that freed up $50 billion in emergency aid for states, cities, and territories.
On March 17, 2020, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin extended the deadline for paying both individual and business taxes to July 15, an effort which he claimed would free up $300 billion in liquidity. On March 20, 2020, Mnuchin also extended the date to file taxes to July 15.
On March 20, 2020, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos suspended student loan payments and interest accrual for federally-held student debt. This suspension of payments and interest was extended through Sept. 30, 2020, as part of the CARES Act. On Jan. 20, 2021, the Department of Education announced it would extend federally-held student loan forbearance again through Sept. 30, 2021.
On April 19, 2020, the Trump administration said businesses could delay payment of tariffs for 90 days if they have suspended operations during March and April and if they "demonstrate significant financial hardship."
On Aug. 10, 2020, President Trump signed four executive actions to provide additional COVID-19 relief. The first action created the Lost Wages Assistance Program (LWA), which would roll out a $400-per-week payment to those currently 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 through Aug. 1, when the $600 unemployment benefits expansion ended. The program was set to last through Dec. 6, or until the funds are exhausted, and the benefits were meant to be available immediately, according to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin.
The program was to be funded by up to $44 billion in money taken from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) disaster relief fund. President Trump said the states should use the remaining aid given to them under the federal CARES Act to fund these payments, even though many states had already allocated these funds and state budgets are under intense strain.
Because the president cannot expand unemployment insurance without congressional approval, states had to scramble to build new systems to handle the LWA 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. Meanwhile, the benefits in some states that began paying out quickly had already begun to run out in September. The program ultimately had enough money for each state to pay out for six weeks, although the end date of the program varies 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 September 30. It was once again extended to Sept. 31, 2021, by the Department of Education.
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.” Notably, the order did not extend the CARES Act's federal eviction moratorium, which expired July 24. The executive action also instructed the Federal Housing Financing Agency (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."
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 will still need to be paid back in 2021.
CDC Eviction Moratorium
On Sept. 1, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced an emergency eviction moratorium through Dec. 31, 2020. The moratorium was extended through March 31, 2021, and then again through June 30, 2021. The goal was to keep millions of Americans sheltering in their current homes instead of moving, thus helping to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. It applied to people who met five conditions:
- You had to have made your "best efforts" to obtain government rental assistance.
- You couldn't expect to make more than $99,000 in 2020 as an individual, or $198,000 if married.
- You had to have been laid off, had "extraordinary" out-of-pocket medical expenses (more than 7.5% of adjusted gross income), or had a "substantial" loss of household income.
- You needed to do everything you could to make "timely" partial payments as close to the rent you owe as "circumstances may permit."
- Eviction would "likely" lead you to be homeless, or have to move to a place where you'd be crowded close with other people.
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, 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 reports COVID-19 cases, in which case it would then apply there. It also did not apply to hotels, motels, and Airbnb rentals.
Renters could still be evicted for other reasons, such as criminal behavior or destruction of property. Notably, the order only delayed rent payments and did not compensate landlords for delayed rent. It also did not prevent landlords from applying penalties or interest of any amount due in January, nor did it state limits on what those could be. It's possible some tenants may be required to pay all rent plus interest and penalties in January. The law included significant penalties for landlords who ignore the order, which took effect on Sept. 4, 2020.
Stimulus and Relief Package 4
On Dec. 21, 2020, the U.S. Congress passed a $900 billion stimulus and relief bill attached to the main omnibus budget bill. President Trump signed the bill on Dec. 27, 2020, but he urged Congress to increase the direct stimulus payments from $600 to $2,000. Its contents, as of Dec. 28, included:
- Direct payments of $600 per person including for dependents 16 and under. The payments will be available to individuals making up to $75,000 per year.
- Eleven weeks of expanded unemployment benefits starting on Dec. 27, 2020. The benefits would be expanded by $300 a week. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for self-employed and contract workers and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) for people who have exhausted their unemployment have also been extended.
- $325 billion in help for small business loans including $284 billion in forgivable PPP loans, $20 billion for EIDL grant for businesses operating in low-income areas, and $15 billion for live cultural venues.
- An extension of the CDC eviction moratorium through Jan. 31, 2021, now extended through June 30, 2021.
- $45 billion for transportation funding including $15 billion in airline payroll support, $14 billion for transit, and $10 billion for state highways.
- $69 billion to public health measures including $22 billion in aid to states for testing and tracing, $20 billion to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), $9 billion to the CDC and state governments for vaccine distribution, and $9 billion to support healthcare providers.
- $82 billion in education funding including a $54.3 billion K-12 Emergency Relief Fund and a $22.7 billion Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.
- $25 billion in emergency rent assistance.
- $26 billion in nutrition and agriculture funding including a 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and food bank funding.
Biden Executive Orders
On Jan. 20, 2021, President Biden signed a number of executive orders including the following relating to stimulus and relief measures:
- The nationwide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures was extended until March 31, 2021.
- The deferral of federal student loan payments and interest was extended until Sept. 30, 2021.
On Feb. 16, 2021, President Biden extended the moratorium on foreclosures and evictions on homeowners with government-backed loans. He also extended the enrollment period for mortgage payment forbearance for government-backed loans until June 30, 2021, and extended the period of mortgage payment forbearance available to borrowers who entered forbearance before June 30, 2021, by up to six months.
Stimulus and Relief Package 5: The American Rescue Plan
On March 11, 2021, President Joe Biden signed 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, had to be excluded in order 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 will go to state and local governments. The key points of the plan as it was passed are the following:
- Direct cash payments of up to $1,400 for individuals earning less than $75,000 a year plus $1,400 per dependent. The amount of the payment decreases for people with income over $75,000, phasing out completely for individuals with an income of $100,000 a year.
- Increasing the maximum annual Child Tax Credit from $2,000 a child to $3,000 per child between the ages of 6 and 17, and $3,600 for each child under the age of 6. The increase will last for the next year and payments are phased out for couples making over $150,000 a year and individuals who are heads of households making over $112,500 a year.
- $300 a week in expanded unemployment insurance lasting through Sept. 6.
- $10,200 in unemployment benefits are free from federal taxes for households with incomes under $150,000 a year. That figure is doubled for married couples filing jointly. If you filed your taxes before March 31, 2021, the IRS announced it will adjust your tax return automatically in the spring and summer of 2021 if you didn't claim this exemption. States can choose to either follow suit and also withhold state taxes on these amounts or continue to require that all taxes be paid. To see the rules in your state, click here.
- $130 billion in funding for K-12 schools.
- $55.5 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to administer and distribute vaccines, diagnose and track COVID-19 infections, and purchase testing and PPE supplies.
- $39 billion in funding for higher education.
- $30 billion in funding for public transit.
- $25 billion in emergency rental assistance.
- $25 billion for the Small Business Administration to make grants for "restaurants and other food and drinking establishments."
- $40 billion in funds for child care, including $15 billion in child care assistance and $25 billion to help child care providers continue to operate and meet payroll.
- $15 billion to support airline industry workers.
- $7.25 billion in additional PPP funding, in addition to expanding which nonprofits can benefit from the program.
- A provision treating any student loan forgiveness passed between Dec. 31, 2020, and Jan. 1, 2026, as non-taxable income.
Expansion of Student Loan Relief
Shortly after the passing 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. Just like federal student loans, there will be a 0% interest rate and a pause of collections that will affect 1.14 million borrowers who defaulted on a privately-held loan under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program since March 13, 2020.