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Mnuchin defends U.S. fiscal response to pandemic, seeks payroll loan extension

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday defended the Trump administration’s fiscal response to the coronavirus pandemic and told senators he was willing to consider extending and modifying a payroll loan program for small businesses.

In a sometimes testy hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said the nearly $3 trillion in federal rescue programs rolled out over the past two months were working to support an economy devastated by the novel coronavirus.

The Treasury and Fed chiefs faced tough questions over whether the administration’s plans to quickly reopen the economy in the wake of lockdowns imposed in March and April would leave low-wage workers without adequate protections from the virus.

Congress is considering legislation to free up trillions of dollars of additional aid to further bolster the economy, help states and increase pay for essential workers doing dangerous jobs.

President Donald Trump has been criticized for initially downplaying the pandemic, which has now killed more than 90,000 Americans, and not ensuring enough medical supplies were in place to battle the virus.

Mnuchin warned prolonged lockdowns would pose a “risk of permanent damage” to the economy.

“How many workers should give their lives to increase the GDP or the Dow Jones by 1,000 points?” Senator Sherrod Brown, the committee’s top Democrat, asked Mnuchin.

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“No workers should give their lives to do that, senator, and I think your characterization is unfair. We have provided enormous amounts of equipment,” Mnuchin replied.

Mnuchin said he wanted to thank “all the essential workers.” Brown interrupted him, adding, “Thanking is great, but is it fair our economy pays the essential workers so little in such work conditions?”

FED LENDING BY JUNE

Powell said new Treasury-backed Fed lending programs aimed at mid-size companies and municipal bond markets would be up and running by the beginning of June. Only a “fairly modest” amount of money has gone out through the Fed credit programs so far.

Powell added that the Fed was looking at extending access to the credit facilities to additional borrowers, including states with smaller populations.

The U.S. central bank has slashed interest rates to near zero and set up a network of programs to keep financial markets functioning during the pandemic. It has also established precedent-setting lending facilities for companies and its first-ever corporate bond purchases.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin answers questions during the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 21, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Initial recipients of the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to small businesses, are nearing the end of their eight-week loan terms, and calls by senators for extensions increased during Tuesday’s hearing.

Mnuchin said he hoped to reach a bipartisan agreement “technical fix” to extend the loans.

“Companies are really having issues with not necessarily being able to use it within those 8 weeks. They don’t want more money, they want flexibility that they can use it in longer than an 8-week period,” Mnuchin said.

LOAN CONDITIONS

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, pressed Mnuchin on why there are no specific requirements to retain employees for participants in the “half-a-trillion-dollar slush fund” supporting the “Main Street” lending program and Fed credit facilities aimed at larger borrowers.

Mnuchin said such terms were “discussed with people on both sides of the aisle” as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was being negotiated in March.

Mnuchin said he expects to allocate the remaining $259 billion in CARES Act capital to Fed-run credit programs once he determines where the greatest needs are. (See graphic here showing CARES Act money flows.)

Mnuchin said Treasury’s base-case analysis showed at least some capital losses on the Fed loan programs were expected, but there could be instances where the Treasury earned a return on its capital. Under the most optimistic scenario, markets would fully recover and the Fed facilities would not be needed, he added.

While more than 30 million unemployment claims have been processed since March, workers are reporting delays of weeks or months in getting checks, with others saying they are locked out here of claiming benefits.

Mnuchin also said he sees more job losses in the next month before the economy starts to improve in the third and fourth quarters.

Although the hearing was held by videoconference, Mnuchin met with Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the U.S. Capitol, according to the White House.

Reporting by David Lawder and Heather Timmons; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Peter Cooney, Chizu Nomiyama, Paul Simao and David Gregorio

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