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U.S. Risks Repeating 2009 Mistakes as Economic Recovery Slows

Trillions of dollars in federal aid to households and businesses has allowed the U.S. economy to emerge from the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic in far better shape than many observers feared last spring.

But that spending has now largely dried up and hopes for a major new aid package ahead of the Nov. 3 election are all but dead, even as the virus persists and millions of Americans remain unemployed. Already, there are signs that the economic rebound is losing steam, as some measures of consumer spending growth decelerate and job gains slow. Applications for jobless benefits rose last week, with about 825,000 Americans filing for state unemployment benefits.

The combination of a moderating economic rebound and fading government support are an eerie echo of the weak period that followed the 2007 to 2009 recession. In the view of many analysts, a premature pullback in government support back then led to a grinding recovery that left legions of would-be employees out of work for years. In recent weeks, prominent economists have warned that both the United States and Europe, where many early responses are drawing to a close, are at risk of repeating that mistake by cutting off government aid too soon.

“The initial response was good, but we need more,” said Karen Dynan, who was chief economist at the Treasury Department in the Obama administration and now teaches at Harvard. The decision to pull back on spending a decade ago, she said, “really prolonged the period of weakness after the great recession.”

In Europe, some national governments that have spent aggressively to subsidize wages and curb layoffs are wrapping up those efforts. While large countries including Germany have indicated that they remain willing to provide more support, some economists warn that continued aid announced in France and elsewhere might fall short of what is needed in the near term.

In the United States, the situation is more immediately worrying. Leaders of both major political parties have expressed support, at least in theory, for additional aid. But the parties remain far apart on a deal, with Democrats pushing for a large package and Republicans arguing that a smaller plan will suffice.

The ability to reach a compromise in the coming weeks has been further complicated by a looming confirmation battle to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

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“That’s my great concern, that we’re going leave and not have a stimulus Covid package put together,” Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, said Thursday. “I just think the Supreme Court thing used up a lot of oxygen. We’ll see. I’d like to see us get this done.”

One factor making an agreement even less likely: The economic revival is slowing, but not as sharply as some economists predicted would happen once expanded unemployment insurance and other programs began to ebb.

Job growth slowed in July and August but remained positive. Consumer spending, which rebounded sharply once federal money started flowing in April, has likewise seen a more gradual rebound but has not fallen. Layoffs, as measured by claims for unemployment insurance, have continued to trend down, although they remain high by historical standards.

But many economists said that allowing the economy to slow at the current moment — with millions out of work or underemployed — could lead to long-term economic scarring. Employers have still hired back less than half of the 22 million workers they laid off in March and April, and the unemployment rate is higher than the peak of many past recessions. Even optimistic forecasts imply that gross domestic product will shrink more this year than in the worst year of the last recession.

“A stalling recovery when we’re stalling at near the worst point of the great recession is a terrible outcome,” said Tara Sinclair, an economist at George Washington University.

Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, made clear during congressional hearings this week that the economy, while recovering, would likely need more support.

“The power of fiscal policy is unequaled, by really anything else,” Mr. Powell said during testimony before a House subcommittee on Wednesday. “We need to stay with it, all of us,” adding, “the recovery will go faster if there’s support coming both from Congress and from the Fed.”

His colleague Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, said Wednesday that additional fiscal policy “is very much needed” but noted it “seems increasingly unlikely to materialize anytime soon.”

Some economists warn that the economy could begin to shrink again if Congress doesn’t act. Many households were able to save in the spring, thanks to federal aid and shutdown orders that kept them from spending money on restaurant meals and hotel stays. Households socked away about one-third of their disposable incomes in April, and while the savings rate has come down since, it remained sharply elevated from pre-crisis levels through July. That should create some buffer.

But those funds won’t sustain jobless families indefinitely now that extra unemployment benefits have expired and a partial supplement supported by repurposed federal funds is on the brink of running out. And businesses that were kept afloat during the summer may struggle when colder weather puts an end to outdoor dining and other activities.

There is an alarming precedent for what happens when support fades in the midst of an uncertain economic moment.

In the early stages of the 2008 financial crisis, Congress and the White House — first under President George W. Bush, then under President Barack Obama — pumped billions of dollars into the economy in the form of tax cuts for individuals and companies, infrastructure spending, extended unemployment benefits and other measures.

But Mr. Obama was unable to win approval for further large-scale stimulus efforts, and by 2010 Congress had effectively ceded to the Federal Reserve the job of managing the still-tenuous economic recovery.

“The lesson from the last crisis is that we had elevated unemployment for years, and it was a slow grind to work that down,” Robert S. Kaplan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said in an interview Monday, explaining that he supports extending fiscal aid. “We have a chance here, if we act quickly, to mitigate the lasting damage that we saw.”

The post-financial crisis pullback in government spending was even more dramatic in Europe, where austerity was enforced across countries with weaker economies and higher debt levels, and where the European Central Bank raised interest rates in 2011, removing monetary support years before the Fed first tiptoed higher in 2015. Another slump ensued across European economies, bringing with it years of high unemployment, low inflation and weak growth.

There are important differences between the two crisis eras, especially in the United States. The economy was far stronger before the pandemic hit than in 2007, when inflated home prices, risky lending and financial engineering left the banking system vulnerable. And policymakers responded far more quickly and aggressively this time around.

The Fed cut interest rates close to zero in March, before data showing widespread economic damage had even begun to emerge. In the last crisis, the Fed didn’t take that step until the end of 2008, a year after the recession had begun. The European Central Bank rolled out massive bond-buying programs, something monetary policymakers in the currency block resisted in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 crisis.

But central banks have less room to adjust their policies to bolster growth now than they did a decade ago. Interest rates and inflation have fallen to low levels across advanced economies, stealing potency from monetary policy tools that work by making credit cheap.

That’s where fiscal policy — elected officials’ ability to tax and spend — comes in. Economic theory suggests that fiscal policy can be effective at times when monetary policy is not.

Initially, policymakers across advanced economies seemed far more willing to spend heavily and amass huge deficits than they were during the last crisis, at least in part because the same low interest rates robbing central banks of their power have made payments on government debt cheaper.

In the early days of this crisis, Congress approved legislation that sent direct payments to most American households, established a small-business assistance program that eventually handed out more than half a trillion dollars in grants and low-interest loans, and added $600 a week to unemployment checks, while simultaneously expanding the unemployment system to cover millions more workers. Together, the programs dwarfed the response to the last recession.

The aggressive response was successful. After shedding millions of workers in March and April, companies began bringing them back in May and June. Stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment lifted personal incomes in April and May, buoying spending. A predicted wave of foreclosures and evictions largely failed to materialize. By August, the unemployment rate had fallen to 8.4 percent, defying expectations that it would remain in double digits into next year.

While Mr. Powell said that government spending so far should get “credit” for that outcome, risks loom if key programs are allowed to permanently lapse. As unemployed workers run through their savings, they might pull back on spending, evictions and foreclosures could increase, and the fallout could scar the economy, he said during testimony on Thursday.

“There’s downside risks to the economy probably coming if some form of that support does not continue,” Mr. Powell said.

While the Fed has pledged to keep rates low and is operating a variety of programs meant to keep credit flowing to households and businesses, those are not a substitute for direct federal spending.

Economists said Mr. Powell appears to have learned a lesson from the aftermath of the last recession: When the Fed is forced to try to rescue the economy on its own, the result is a painfully slow recovery that takes years to reach many of the most vulnerable households.

The consequences of another slow recovery would almost certainly fall disproportionately on low-income families, many of them Black and Hispanic. Those workers were among the last to benefit from the plodding recovery after the last recession, and have been among the hardest hit by the current crisis.

“This pandemic, and our efforts here, could very well create even greater inequality in our nation than there was even before the pandemic,” said Representative Andy Kim, Democrat of New Jersey and a former Obama administration official. “Some are going to be able to get through this much, much better than others, and those that are not? This is one of those once in a lifetime situations that could very well cripple them for a generation if we don’t take some of the necessary steps in the next few weeks and months.”

Peter S. Goodman and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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