WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin broke sharply with the Federal Reserve this week, choosing to end a variety of programs aimed at helping markets, businesses and municipalities weather the pandemic and asking the central bank to return the funds earmarked to support those efforts.
Mr. Mnuchin said his decision was driven by a deference to what he believed was Congress’s intent when it allocated the funding, a desire to repurpose the money toward better uses and a belief that markets no longer needed them. But his actions, which will limit the incoming Biden administration’s ability to use those programs at scale, seem driven by politics.
“The law is very clear,” Mr. Mnuchin said in an interview on CNBC Friday. He defended his decision and suggested that the programs were no longer needed, because market conditions “are in great shape.”
But that view is not shared by the Fed, which quickly issued a statement expressing disappointment with the decision, calling the economy “still-strained and vulnerable.” It is worth noting that Mr. Mnuchin only publicly took the position that Congress meant for the programs to end after Dec. 31 once it became clear that President Trump had lost the election to Joseph R. Biden Jr.
By ending the programs — which have been funneling loans to medium-sized businesses and backstopping municipal and corporate bond markets — Mr. Mnuchin is taking away a source of economic support just as the new administration comes into office and as rising virus cases dog the recovery. By asking the Fed to return the money that enables the emergency efforts, he could make it harder for Democrats to restart them at a large scale and on more generous terms.
Chair Jerome H. Powell indicated the Fed would return the funds, in a letter to Mr. Mnuchin on Friday afternoon.
“It’s not just closing the store down for Biden,” said Ernie Tedeschi, a policy economist at Evercore ISI. “It’s burning the store down.”
Mr. Biden’s transition team criticized the move as trying to hamstring his ability to help the economy.
“The Treasury Department’s attempt to prematurely end support that could be used for small businesses across the country when they are facing the prospect of new shutdowns is deeply irresponsible,” Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the transition, said in a statement.
Mr. Mnuchin’s decision came as a surprise to Mr. Trump, who was alerted to the decision shortly before Mr. Mnuchin’s letter was released on Thursday and who, on Friday morning, expressed some concern that the move could have a negative impact on the stock market, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly. Asked if Mr. Trump had instructed Mr. Mnuchin to end the programs, Mr. Mnuchin’s spokeswoman said that it was “solely a Treasury decision based on what the law and congressional intent required.”
Here is a rundown of how these programs work, why Mr. Mnuchin says he is killing them, and why his arguments leave unanswered questions.
The programs are a collaboration.
Mr. Mnuchin is pulling the plug on a set of Fed emergency lending programs, which the central bank can use to keep credit flowing in times of crisis. After the 2008 recession, Congress insisted that the Treasury secretary sign off on such efforts.
The Fed is loath to take credit losses, so Treasury has been providing a layer of money to cover any loans or purchases that go bad. It initially used the Exchange Stabilization Fund, a pot of unused money. But in March, Congress beefed up the Treasury’s capacity.
Mr. Mnuchin and lawmakers earmarked $454 billion to support Fed lending when they cut a deal on a government pandemic response package. The Fed can make money out of thin air, and it only needs a little bit of backing — $1 of insurance can be turned into as much as $10 in bond buying or business loans. The programs offered a big potential bang for the government’s buck.
Mr. Mnuchin ultimately earmarked $195 billion for specific loan programs. Not much of that capacity has been used. Some programs calmed market conditions merely by reassuring investors. The small and medium-sized business loan program had restrictive terms.
When Mr. Mnuchin said Thursday that he would end the five appropriation-backed programs at the end of 2020, he asked the Fed to give back all but $25 billion, which he is leaving to support already-made loans and bond purchases.
The law is not ‘clear,’ as Mr. Mnuchin said.
Mr. Mnuchin has said “it is very clear in the law” that the allocation-backed programs must end Dec. 31. That is not true.
The law states that the Treasury should not hand out money from its $454 billion pot after the end of 2020 — but it allows already-dedicated funds to remain available. Because the Treasury had handed hundreds of billions of dollars in insurance money to the Fed, the central bank theoretically has lots of capacity left to make loans and buy bonds.
The Fed’s lawyers have interpreted the law to mean that they can keep the programs running into 2021, supported by the existing Treasury backstop, as the central bank’s statement on Thursday indicated.
Mr. Mnuchin himself had previously suggested that the programs could be extended past the end of the year, writing in an October letter that the decision would hinge on market conditions.
A Treasury spokeswoman said on Friday that Mr. Mnuchin had always believed Congress meant for the funding to sunset, and had planned to use Exchange Stabilization Fund money — plus the $25 billion that he is leaving with the Fed to cover existing loans — to extend the programs if needed.
That logic is hard to follow given Mr. Mnuchin’s belief that the law prevents new Fed lending backed by Congress’s money after Dec. 31. If that’s the case, it should also prevent new lending against the $25 billion, which comes from the same congressional pot, said Peter Conti-Brown, a lawyer and Fed historian at the University of Pennsylvania.
Congress can’t repurpose the money for free.
Mr. Mnuchin also suggested that taking back the earmarked money would allow Congress to reroute it to other purposes in ways that “won’t cost taxpayers any more money.”
But the Congressional Budget Office, in assessing the budget impact of the money dedicated to Fed programs, found it to be nearly free of cost. The idea was that the loans the money backed would eventually be returned, and fees and interest earnings would cover any expenses. So if the money is clawed back and repurposed for spending — not lending — it would add toward the deficit for accounting purposes.
Market distortions have always been a concern.
Top Republicans have suggested that leaving the programs operational for too long could distort markets, which is a genuine concern with such backstops. In his letter announcing his intent to close the programs, Mr. Mnuchin noted that normal market conditions prevail.
It’s true that corporate bond issuance has been rapid and states and localities are able to fund themselves at low rates. But virus cases are also spiking, suggesting that conditions could worsen and Fed backstops might again be needed.
Over the summer, Mr. Mnuchin agreed to extend the programs until Dec. 31 at a time when coronavirus infections were much lower than they are today, markets were functioning well, and companies were issuing bonds at breakneck speed.
Democrats say the move was political. Republicans applaud it.
Treasury’s move to claw back the funding limits Mr. Biden. The Fed and the next Treasury secretary can use the Exchange Stabilization Fund to back up bond purchases and business lending.
But it contains much less money than the government would have had with the congressional appropriation. That could hamper a goal that had been percolating among Democrats: to restart the programs, make them more generous and use them as a backup option if additional stimulus was tough to get through Congress.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said the request to end the programs and return the money was “fully aligned with the letter of the law and the intent of the Congress.”
Democrats reacted with outrage.
“It is clear that Trump and Mnuchin are willing to spitefully destroy the economy and make it as difficult as possible for the incoming Biden Administration to turn this crisis around and lead the nation to a recovery,” Representative Maxine Waters of California said in a letter.
Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.