Mnuchin says Main Street U.S. companies need grants, not loans

By Andrea Shalal and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday defended his decision to end several of the Federal Reserve’s key pandemic lending programs on Dec. 31, saying Congress should use the money to help small U.S. companies with grants instead.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and Chicago Federal Reserve Bank President Charles Evans have criticized the Treasury move, saying the programs – while not being used extensively – provided an important backstop for the economy.

Mnuchin told Powell in a letter Thursday that the $455 billion allocated to Treasury under the CARES Act last spring, much of it set aside to support Fed lending to businesses, nonprofits and local governments, should be made available for Congress to reallocate.

Speaking on CNBC, Mnuchin said Congress had always intended for the lending programs to end on Dec. 31, and sought to reassure markets that the Fed and Treasury had many tools left to support the economy.

“Markets should be very comfortable that we have plenty of capacity left,” Mnuchin said, adding that the Treasury could reactivate the facilities by tapping the Exchange Stabilization Fund, a seldom-used fund housed at the department.

“To the extent these need to be reactivated, we have over $800 billion of capacity so I consider that to be a pretty good bazooka,” he said. The $800 billion would be combining the ESF and capital in remaining Federal Reserve facilities.

Mnuchin denied the move was intended to handicap the administration of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office on Jan. 20.

“We’re not trying to hinder anything,” Mnuchin said, adding that his department would work closely with the incoming administration “if things get certified.”

He said he and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows would speak with congressional Republican leaders later Friday and would redouble their efforts to pass further stimulus measures.

“We want Congress to reappropriate this money,” he said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and David Lawder; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now 5-19-20

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

On the economy, “medical metrics” rule for now

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell will testify on Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee and face questions about their plans keep the world’s largest economy afloat and missteps in rolling out some $3 trillion in aid so far.

Two months into the pandemic, many analysts have concluded that U.S. policy has at best fought back worst-case outcomes on both the health and economic front.

Powell has said he sees the likely need for up to six more months of government financial help for firms and families. With regular data on the economy at best volatile and at worst outdated when it comes out, he said “medical metrics” were the most important signs to watch right now.

The presidential pill

Donald Trump surprised many on Monday by revealing that he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventative medicine against the coronavirus – despite warnings about the malaria drug.

“I’ve been taking it for the last week and a half. A pill every day,” he told reporters. “All I can tell you is so far I seem to be OK.”

Weeks ago Trump had promoted the drug as a potential treatment based on a positive report about its use against the virus, but subsequent studies found it was not helpful. The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about it.

Glimmer of hope

That overshadowed news that an experimental COVID-19 vaccine made by Moderna Inc produced protective antibodies in a small group of healthy volunteers, according to very early data released by the biotech company on Monday.

The vaccine has the green light to start the second stage of human testing. In this Phase II trial to test effectiveness and find the optimal dose, Moderna said it will drop plans to test a 250 mcg dose and test a 50 mcg dose instead.

Reducing the dose required to produce immunity could help spare the amount of vaccine required in each shot, meaning the company could produce more of the vaccine.

Eating with your mask on

Israeli inventors have developed a mask with a remote control mouth that lets diners eat without taking it off, which they say could make a visit to a restaurant less risky.

A squeeze of a lever opens a slot in the front of the mask so food can pass through.

The process could get messy with ice cream or sauces, but more solid morsels can be gobbled up a la Pac-Man in the arcade game.

(Compiled by Karishma Singh and Mark John; Editing by Giles Elgood)