Millions of virus-idled American workers are now at home with little more than hand-wringing anxiety about where their next paycheck will come from. They are Jerome Powell's biggest worry, and how to ease their plight with monetary policy is the Federal Reserve chairman's largest challenge.
The Fed will probably debate using instruments including stronger forward guidance or asset purchases when officials meet next month, which would add more muscle to interest rates that have already been slashed to zero.
But those tools require officials to have a forecast they trust of where the economy is heading. The lack of clarity could be a reason to dial down expectations that they would take such steps in June, because officials will struggle to form an outlook as the nation slowly reopens.
Policy makers have already described the difficulties that forecasters face.
Fed Vice Chairman Richard Clarida warned of "enormous uncertainty" in an interview and said "we have to be appropriately humble as we're navigating this period." San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly told Bloomberg Television that forecasting "has become very tough" now because it depends on the course of the virus. Patrick Harker, Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank president, described scenarios, including one with a second infection wave and "a painful economic contraction of GDP in 2021 as shutdowns are reintroduced."
Even so, Mr. Powell has said that the Fed will do what it can to curb the human tragedy of the virus's economic harm.
He helped nurture the longest U.S. expansion on record, a period of growth that was just starting to reach the most marginalized workers, from people with criminal records to those with little schooling.
The Fed chief spent the last year on a listening tour to hear from ordinary Americans and discuss obstacles to even bigger gains.