The top two U.S. economic policymakers clashed over whether to preserve emergency lending programs designed to shore up the economy — a rare moment of discord as the nation confronts the risk of a renewed downturn spurred by the resurgent coronavirus.
The disagreement erupted late Thursday when outgoing Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin released a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell demanding the return of money the government provides the central bank so it can lend to certain markets in times of stress. Minutes later, the Fed issued a statement urging that "the full suite" of measures be maintained into 2021.
"This is a significant and disturbing breach at a critical time for the economy," said Tony Fratto, who worked at the Treasury and the White House during the George W. Bush administration. "We need all the arms of government working together and instead we're seeing a complete breakdown," he said, noting that Washington remains at an impasse on fiscal stimulus as well.
Investor reaction to the split was swift amid fears the decision will unsettle markets and impede the economic recovery: futures on the S&P 500 Index were down 0.5% in early Friday trading in Europe, with haven demand sending Treasuries higher and pulling down yields.
Treasury and Fed chairs typically coordinate closely at times of crisis, appearing jointly before Congress and working in lockstep to ensure funding markets run smoothly. The two agencies were tightly linked in the bailouts of the financial and auto industry more than a decade ago. And they united again in the March 2020 Cares Act economic rescue package, which appropriated cash for the government to finance Fed backstops for everything from municipal to corporate finance after markets buckled when the pandemic hit.