It is not yet clear that coronavirus will create a prolonged shock. But if infections continue to spread, it could keep workers at home and production at bay, causing a more extended drag on growth. Market indicators suggest about a 40 percent chance that a U.S. recession could start in the next year, based on JPMorgan Chase models.
As Wall Street recognizes the Fed’s limited ammunition and the growing risks, investors are increasingly pessimistic. Stocks were down 1.7 percent on Friday, though the S&P 500 was up for the week.
If the bad economic outcome that investors are penciling in materializes, and the Fed’s depleted options aren’t supplemented by a big fiscal push, that would pave the way for a more painful downturn — one that costs jobs and subdues business for a longer period.
“The question here is: Can we design a new monetary system here?” Andrew Levin, an economics professor at Dartmouth, said on a panel in New York on Friday. “We can’t just say, ‘None of these things are very good, so we’ll just throw up our hands and hope that fiscal policy comes to the rescue.’”
He added, “We’ve got to be prepared, hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
Also in New York on Friday, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Eric Rosengren, suggested a potential recourse — one likely to spark a conversation among his colleagues. Officials may need to buy assets other than government bonds to counter the next downturn, he said during a speech.
Bond-buying by the central bank bolsters the economy by lowering rates on long-term debt, making borrowing cheaper and encouraging spending. Because the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds dropped well below 1 percent on Friday, hitting lows never before seen in the United States, snapping up government-backed bonds could have far less impact in the future.
If the Fed cuts its policy interest rate to near zero, Mr. Rosengren said, it is possible that the 10-year Treasury rate will also fall to rock bottom.