Mar 5, 2020 - Economy & Business

What the Fed has learned about the coronavirus outbreak

Illustration of a virus cell cuffed to a briefcase
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The COVID-19 outbreak began weighing on U.S. businesses even before the virus had really begun its spread in the U.S., the Fed's latest beige book shows.

Why it matters: The extent of the outbreak can't yet be quantified, but the report, a collection of anecdotes from the central bank’s business contacts around the country, suggests U.S. firms could be in for a significant slowdown in March.

  • The reporting period for the beige book ended on Feb. 24, two days before the first U.S. case of unknown origin, in which an American was affected without visiting the virus' epicenter or being in contact with a person who had.

What happened: The Fed's report contained 48 mentions of the term "coronavirus," and while the report characterized the U.S. economy as growing at a "modest to moderate pace," it also noted the St. Louis and Kansas City districts, which include 12 Midwestern and Southern states, reported no growth during this period.

What it said: "Consumer spending generally picked up, but growth was uneven across the nation."

  • "Overall, growth in tourism was flat to modest."
  • "There were indications that the coronavirus was negatively impacting travel and tourism in the U.S."
  • "Manufacturing activity expanded in most parts of the country; however, some supply chain delays were reported as a result of the coronavirus and several Districts said that producers feared further disruptions in the coming weeks."

The big picture: The Fed took the highly unusual step of cutting U.S. interest rates by 50 basis points Tuesday in order to soothe markets, but many economists fear the virus could send the country (and potentially the world) into a recession this year.

The bottom line: If quickly contained, the virus' economic impact would be minimal. Fiscal and monetary authorities around the globe are joining together to reduce the virus's impact, but if its spread continues there is limited action policymakers can take.

Go deeper:

Go deeper