In the wake of COVID-19, reports from the front lines of American cities are grim. The US Conference of Mayors “fiscal pain tracker” reports hiring freezes, employee furloughs and layoffs, reduced or stopped capital spending, and some tax increases as state revenues fall. The news ranges from bad (4% revenue decline in Arkansas) to worse (35% revenue decline in New Mexico).
In a dire situation like this one, the Fed could help plug budget gaps, and a new $500 billion Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF), established earlier this year, was a historic step in that direction. The MLF will allow the central bank to purchase state and local debt directly, a role they previously avoided for fears of being involved with local politics, explains McGahey.
Unfortunately, the MLF has thus far been limited. High interest rates, like the estimated 3.83% rate the Fed will charge Illinois, is leading cities and states to avoid MLF in favor of the regular market. Instead of offering a viable solution to local governments, the Fed has just created a “lender of last resort” program. Meanwhile, the Fed has already used its authority to help corporations and “vulture funds” without the same penalties.
Critics like David Dayen have called on the Fed to make changes to the MLF’s structure to make it more practical and attractive, while others have called for the Fed to use its authority in other ways to ease the burden on local governments. But so far, the Fed has been unresponsive to these calls. Despite the potentially valuable role the Fed could play in helping states and cities to get through the economic downturn, fighting for direct federal aid remains the only viable option.