Pace of U.S. economic recovery accelerates, Fed says

By Jonnelle Marte, Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider

(Reuters) – The U.S. economic recovery accelerated to a moderate pace from late February to early April as consumers, buoyed by increased COVID-19 vaccinations and strong fiscal support, opened their wallets to spend more on travel and other items, the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday.

The labor market, which was decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, also improved as more people returned to work, with the pace of hiring picking up the most in the manufacturing, construction, and leisure and hospitality sectors.

“Reports on tourism were more upbeat, bolstered by a pickup in demand for leisure activities and travel which contacts attributed to spring break, an easing of pandemic-related restrictions, increased vaccinations, and recent stimulus payments among other factors,” the U.S. central bank said in its latest “Beige Book,” a collection of anecdotes about the economy from its 12 regional districts.

Hospitality contacts told the Atlanta Fed they had “solid bookings for the remainder of spring and through the summer months and beyond,” according to the report, which was compiled by the Dallas Fed using surveys conducted before April 5.

While most districts said the pace of growth in their regional economies was moderate, the New York Fed said its economy “grew at a strong pace for the first time during the pandemic, with growth broad-based across industries.”

The improvement occurred despite an increase in COVID-19 cases in the region, the New York Fed said. “Moreover, business contacts have grown increasingly optimistic about the near-term outlook.”

FOCUS ON WAGES

Fed Chair Jerome Powell said this week that the U.S. economy is at an “inflection point” where growth and hiring could pick up speed over the coming months thanks to increased COVID-19 vaccinations and strong fiscal stimulus.

The United States added 916,000 jobs in March, the largest gain in seven months, according to Labor Department data. And U.S. consumer prices rose at the fastest clip in more than 8-1/2 years in March as vaccinations and stimulus boosted economic activity, according to Labor Department data released on Tuesday.

However, Powell and other Fed officials say the brighter economic forecasts and brief period of higher inflation will not affect monetary policy, and the central bank will keep its support in place until the crisis is over. The U.S. economy is still 8.4 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic levels.

Policymakers agreed last month to leave interest rates near zero and to keep purchasing $120 billion a month in bonds until there was “substantial further progress” toward the Fed’s goals for maximum employment and inflation. Fed officials will gather again in two weeks for their next policy-setting meeting.

The report highlighted the strategies some businesses are considering as they reopen, increase capacity and attempt to recruit workers. One staffing services firm told the Cleveland Fed that pay had for the first time become the top priority of job seekers, surpassing the type of work.

Several workforce contacts suggested that employers might be delaying wage hikes in hopes of a surge of newly vaccinated job seekers, the Minneapolis Fed reported: “Why start raising wages when a lot of labor might be coming back?”

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Paul Simao)

Coronavirus pandemic ‘a long way from over’, WHO’s Tedros says

GENEVA (Reuters) -Confusion and complacency in addressing COVID-19 means the pandemic is a long way from over, but it can be brought under control in months with proven public health measures, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday.

“We too want to see societies and economies reopening, and travel and trade resuming,” Tedros told a news briefing.

“But right now, intensive care units in many countries are overflowing and people are dying – and it’s totally avoidable.”

“The COVID19 pandemic is a long way from over. But we have many reasons for optimism. The decline in cases and deaths during the first two months of the year shows that this virus and its variants can be stopped,” he added, saying transmission was being driven by “confusion, complacency and inconsistency in public health measures.”

India has overtaken Brazil to become the nation with the second highest number of infections worldwide after the United States, as it battles a massive second wave, having given about 105 million vaccine doses among a population of 1.4 billion.

WHO team leader on COVID-19 Maria van Kerkove told the news briefing the pandemic was growing exponentially, with a 9% increase in cases last week, the seventh consecutive week of increases, and a 5% rise in deaths.

Tedros said that in some countries, despite continuing transmission, restaurants and nightclubs were full and markets were open and crowded with few people taking precautions.

“Some people appear to be taking the approach that if they’re relatively young, it doesn’t matter if they get COVID-19,” he said.

(Reporting by Silke Koltrowitz and Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)

Florida sues Biden administration in bid to restart cruise industry

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The state of Florida sued President Joe Biden’s administration in federal court on Thursday seeking to block the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to prevent the U.S. cruise industry from immediately resuming operations paused for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The suit, filed by Republican Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody in Tampa, asked the court to issue an injunction barring enforcement of the CDC’s order and to quickly lift a “nationwide lockdown” on the industry in place since March 2020. Early in the pandemic, there were dangerous outbreaks of COVID-19 on numerous cruise ships.

Florida, an important center for the U.S. cruise ship industry, said its ports have suffered a decline in operating revenue of almost $300 million since the pandemic started.

“We must allow our cruise liners and their employees to get back to work and safely set sail again,” Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said.

On Friday, the CDC issued new guidance to the cruise industry, a necessary step before passenger voyages can resume, but did not set a date for resuming cruises. Florida said in its lawsuit that “it now appears the CDC will continue that lockdown until November 2021, even though vaccines are now available to all adults who want them.”

“The CDC guidance is based on data and health and medical guidelines,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters when asked about the litigation.

The CDC declined to comment on the suit.

Florida said in the lawsuit that if a judge does not block the CDC’s order the state “will lose hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions. And, more importantly, the approximately 159,000 hard-working Floridians whose livelihoods depend on the cruise industry could lose everything.”

The Cruise Lines International Association, which represents Carnival Corp, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruises, said on Monday the CDC guidance means there is “no reasonable timeline” for resuming cruises.

“With no discernable path forward or timeframe for resumption in the U.S., more sailings originating in the Caribbean and elsewhere are likely to be announced, effectively shutting American ports, closing thousands of American small businesses, and pushing an entire industry offshore,” the industry group said.

Norwegian on Monday proposed resuming cruises by July for cruises in which passengers and crew members are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Alaska’s two U.S. senators said in a joint statement on Saturday that after speaking with the CDC “we could see cruise ships in U.S. waters as early as mid-summer.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Will Dunham)

New UN study shows 72 nations and $598 billion in debt payments at risk through 2025

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic has worsened debt problems facing 72 low- and middle-income countries and jeopardized $598 billion in debt service payments from 2021 to 2025, including $87 billion this year, the United Nations Development Program reported on Thursday.

Only 49 of the 72 countries are eligible for debt relief measures adopted by the Group of 20 major economies, UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner told reporters, urging G20 members to quickly expand a moratorium on debt service payments and a common framework for debt treatments beyond the poorest nations.

“It is becoming more and more evident … that in the absence of acting in a more ambitious way, the crisis will increase exponentially,” Steiner told reporters.

Failing to boldly act now would extend the health crisis and elevate the risk of further vaccine-resistant mutations of the coronavirus, he said.

Steiner said research showed a potential worst-case scenario would put 1 billion people in extreme poverty by 2030, including some 250 million directly as a consequence of policy decisions made managing the COVID-19 crisis.

He said the depth of the human tragedy caused by the pandemic was “not inevitable and not unavoidable,” adding that a “slow-burning debt crisis” would set back development goals for years.

Nineteen countries were “severely vulnerable,” accounting for $220 billion of debt payments at risk, UNDP chief economist George Molina said.

Steiner called for developing a mechanism allowing richer countries pitch in for a $650 billion expansion of the International Monetary Fund’s emergency reserves to help vulnerable middle income countries.

Molina noted that dozens of middle-income countries and small island states had neither access to the $16 trillion in fiscal measures spent by the richest economies nor the debt relief measures available to the poorest.

Steiner said credit rating downgrade have heightened problems, jacking up costs for borrowing on capital markets in countries such as Kenya, where the interest rate on a 10-year bond was 12.6%, versus 1.6% for a comparable U.S. bond.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by David Gregorio)

Merkel appeals to Germans to stay home for Easter to stem pandemic third wave

By Emma Thomasson

BERLIN (Reuters) -Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to Germans on Thursday to stay at home over Easter and meet fewer people to help curb a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, as the capital Berlin announced a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday.

“It should be a quiet Easter, with those closest to you, with very reduced contact. I urge you to refrain from all non-essential travel,” Merkel said in a video message, adding this was the only way to help doctors and nurses fight the virus.

Merkel was accused of losing her grip on the COVID-19 crisis last week after she ditched plans for an extended Easter holiday agreed two days earlier with governors of Germany’s 16 states.

She has since tried to shift the blame for the third wave of the pandemic onto state premiers, accusing them of failing to stick to earlier agreements to reimpose restrictions if infections rose.

On Thursday, the city government of Berlin said it will impose a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday and only allow children of essential workers to attend nursery from next week.

As the weather has turned warm in recent days, Berliners have been flocking to public spaces. About a hundred youngsters threw bottles and stones at police in one park on Wednesday when they tried to break up the party, the Berliner Zeitung reported.

Merkel said it was no longer the elderly who were fighting for their lives in the pandemic, but the middle-aged and even younger patients who were ending up on ventilators in hospital.

She held out hope, however, that the sluggish distribution of vaccinations would speed up after Easter, when family doctors will start giving shots.

Christian Karagiannidis, the scientific head of the DIVI association for intensive and emergency medicine, said Germany needs a two-week lockdown, faster vaccinations and compulsory tests at schools if hospitals are not to be overwhelmed.

“If this rate continues, we will reach the regular capacity limit in less than four weeks,” he told the Rheinische Post daily. “We are not over-exaggerating. Our warnings are driven by the figures.”

The Berlin city government said people would only be allowed to be outside on their own or with one other person from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., though children under 14 are exempted.

This will be the first limited curfew imposed in Berlin since the pandemic began a year ago. The city of Hamburg already announced on Wednesday it will restrict nighttime outings from Friday, with supermarkets and takeaways shut from 9 p.m.

Unlike Britain and France, Germany’s 16 states, which run their own healthcare and security affairs, have been reluctant to impose drastic limits on movement out of fear of further damaging the economy, as well as an aversion to far-reaching restrictions on freedoms in a country wary of its Nazi past.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany, Europe’s most populous country and largest economy, rose 24,300 to 2.833 million on Thursday, the biggest daily increase since Jan. 14. The reported death toll rose by 201 to 76,543.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

U.S. Congress approves extension of small business Paycheck Protection Program

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A majority of the U.S. Senate on Thursday agreed to extend the coronavirus pandemic Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) until the end of May, giving small businesses more time to apply and the government more time to process requests.

The bill, passed on a vote of 92-7, has already been approved by the House of Representatives and now goes to Democratic President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it into law.

The PPP provides loans to small businesses struggling to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in millions of businesses curtailing their operations or even shutting down for periods.

The loans convert into grants if the recipients meet certain conditions.

Without congressional action, the program would expire at the end of this month.

Senate Small Business Committee Chairman Ben Cardin said that applications could not be completed by then, adding that the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid approved by Congress this month expanded eligibility to more first-time borrowers, including non-profit organizations such as the YMCA.

“We are reaching the most needy,” Cardin said in a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday urging passage of the extension.

The legislation gives the Small Business Administration 30-days, beyond May 31, to complete processing loan applications.

The PPP was designed to stanch the loss of millions of businesses, such as restaurants that were particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. Critics complained that large companies and well-to-do law firms won millions of dollars in funding, especially in the early days of the program nearly a year ago.

Republican Senator Susan Collins called the PPP “a life-line for small businesses,” saying more than $718 billion in loans already had been approved. He said it had secured tens of millions of jobs.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Edmund Blair)

Fed’s Powell tells lawmakers inflation risk remains low

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday that a coming round of post-pandemic price hikes won’t get out of hand and fuel a destructive breakout of persistent inflation.

“We do expect inflation will move up over the course of the year,” but it will be “neither particularly large nor persistent,” Powell said in testimony before the House of Representatives Financial Services Committee after some members said they were concerned about rising prices.

“We have the tools to deal with that” if it becomes a problem, Powell said.

Powell was testifying alongside Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as part of a hearing to ostensibly review the progress of the U.S. economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, and the effectiveness of the fiscal and monetary policies used to combat the crisis.

But it was marked by an early skirmish over possible infrastructure and tax increase plans being considered by the Biden administration.

Yellen, questioned about whether corporate or other tax increases could do more harm than good, said an infrastructure plan would target “spending that this economy needs to be competitive and productive,” but would require “some revenue raisers” to offset the cost.

“The Biden administration is not going to propose policies that hurt small businesses or Americans,” Yellen said.

The U.S. economic recovery is evolving faster than expected, but still faces risks from the coronavirus pandemic on one side and potential inflation on the other as massive fiscal support rolls through the system.

The federal response to the crisis, including spending of about $5 trillion and massive support from the central bank, set the stage for a rebound now taking hold as the COVID-19 vaccination program gains momentum and pandemic restrictions are lifted.

However, it remains unclear how quickly millions of still-unemployed workers will find their way back to jobs, whether the Fed can keep markets on an even keel amid rising prices and bond yields, and if initial progress against the pandemic can be sustained.

ECONOMIC OPTIMISM

In testimony released ahead of the hearing, Yellen repeated an optimistic view that the U.S. response, including the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion relief package that was passed this month, could get the country back to full employment by next year.

“I am confident that people will reach the other side of this pandemic with the foundations of their lives intact. And I believe they will be met there by a growing economy. In fact, I think we may see a return to full employment next year,” Yellen said.

The current U.S. unemployment rate of 6.2% is far above the multi-decade lows of around 3.5% reached before the pandemic, and statistical surveys during the crisis may understate the true level. The economy is about 9.5 million jobs short of where it was in February 2020.

Still, Fed officials including Powell expect job growth to accelerate in coming months as life returns to normal and a wide variety of businesses, from restaurants to amusement parks, begin to reopen and re-staff their workforces.

“The recovery has progressed more quickly than generally expected and looks to be strengthening,” Powell said in his opening statement.

Yellen and Powell are scheduled to appear before the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Howard SchneiderEditing by Paul Simao)

U.S. airlines see ‘glimmers of hope’ as bookings improve

By Tracy Rucinski and Sanjana Shivdas

(Reuters) – U.S. airlines said on Monday that leisure bookings are rising and offered some of the first concrete signs that the worst may be over for the sector since the coronavirus pandemic ground air travel to a near halt a year ago.

Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways each said first-quarter revenue would decline at the low end or less than previously forecast as vaccine rollouts accelerate and more people plan vacations or visits to friends and relatives

Speaking at a J.P. Morgan conference, Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian said there are “real glimmers of hope.”

Bastian said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the airline could halt its cash burn this spring and that it would use cash for aircraft purchases in the second quarter.

More than 1.3 million passengers were screened in U.S. airports on Friday and Sunday, according to Transportation Security Administration data, the highest number since the pandemic crushed air travel in 2020.

Delta expects its first-quarter revenue decline to be at the low end of its forecast for a 60% to 65% decline from the same quarter in 2019, before the onset of the pandemic.

Southwest forecast lower cash burn in the first quarter on Monday and a lower decline in operating revenue for February and March than previously forecast.

JetBlue also forecast a slowing pace in its first-quarter revenue drop, projecting a decline of between 61% and 64%, compared with the same period in 2019. It had previously forecast a 65% to 70% fall in revenue.

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski, Editing by Louise Heavens and Paul Simao)

Biden signs $1.9 trillion stimulus bill into law on U.S. lockdown anniversary

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden signed his $1.9 trillion stimulus bill into law on Thursday, commemorating the one-year anniversary of a U.S. lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic with a measure designed to bring relief to Americans and boost the economy.

The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives gave final congressional approval to the measure on Wednesday, handing the Democratic president a major victory in the early months of his term.

“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country,” Biden said before signing.

Biden signed the measure before a prime-time speech he plans later on Thursday to herald the anniversary of the lockdown, urge vigilance as the pandemic rages, and offer hope amid a growing number of vaccinated people across the country.

Biden’s signing of the legislation, called the American Rescue Plan, had initially been scheduled for Friday, but White House chief of staff Ron Klain said it was moved up after it arrived at the White House on Wednesday night.

“We want to move as fast as possible,” Klain posted on Twitter. A celebration with congressional leaders would still take place on Friday, he said.

The package provides $400 billion for $1,400 direct payments to most Americans, $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, an expansion of the child tax credit and increased funding for COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Biden has told Americans since his January inauguration that more deaths and pain were coming from COVID-19.

With the vaccinated population slowly increasing, Biden is conveying fresh hope even as he urges people to continue to be cautious to prevent further flare-ups.

Biden and top aides are planning a nationwide tour to sell Americans on the benefits of the pandemic relief bill, including Pennsylvania next Tuesday and Atlanta on March 19.

Roughly 530,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, and about 10% of Americans have been fully vaccinated.

Biden said on Wednesday he would use his 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT) address to discuss “what we’ve been through as a nation this past year” and lay out the next phase of the government’s COVID-19 response.

The president is expected to warn Americans who, like people worldwide, are weary of pandemic restrictions, not to revert to normal behavior prematurely. Biden has urged continued mask wearing, social distancing and good hygiene, and he has discouraged cities and states from loosening their guidelines on large gatherings even as more localities relax restrictions.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal and Susan Heavey; Editing by Heather Timmons, Will Dunham and Howard Goller)

U.S. Treasury launches $9 billion coronavirus aid for low-income lending

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury on Thursday launched a new program to infuse $9 billion into minority and community lenders to boost financing for small businesses and consumers struggling with the coronavirus pandemic in low-income and underserved communities.

The Emergency Capital Investment Program, funded as part of a $900 billion COVID-19 aid bill signed into law at the end of 2020 by former president Donald Trump, will provide $9 billion in capital to Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and minority depositary institutions.

These institutions, from small mortgage lenders to minority-owned banks and rural credit unions and other lenders, will be able to increase loans and grants to their communities and extend forbearance to struggling customers, Treasury officials said.

The program sets aside $2 billion for participating institutions with less than $500 million in assets and another $2 billion for those with less than $2 billion in assets. Treasury officials said equity and subordinated debt investments into these institutions will lower their cost of capital, allowing them to reach more difficult lending cases.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that the program, negotiated in part by her predecessor, Steven Mnuchin, was aimed at reducing “financial services deserts” in low-income communities that have worsened during the pandemic.

“The Emergency Capital Investment Program will help these places in that the financial sector hasn’t typically served well. It will allow people to access capital, especially in communities of color.”

Yellen’s team developed a new capital multiplier formula to reward lenders with lower interest or dividend costs on Treasury capital that is used to make the most challenging loans in the poorest communities, Treasury officials said.

The $9 billion program, coupled with $3 billion in other support for CDFIs and minority lenders as part of the year-end COVID bill, could make a large impact on community lenders.

Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond shows that as of August 2019, there were 1,076 certified U.S. CDFIs, which could be banks, community development corporations, venture capital funds, loan funds, or credit unions with a mission to serve low and moderate income communities. The number of non-certified CDFIs is unknown, the bank said.

But most are tiny. The Richmond Fed survey found that nearly half of CDFIs surveyed had assets of $25 million or less, with 5% holding assets of less than $1 million and just 6% holding assets of over $500 million.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Kirsten Donovan)