Soon after the Federal Reserve’s March 23 assurance that it would make borrowing easier for American corporations, Sysco Corp. sold $4 billion of debt.
Not long after that, the food-service giant announced plans to cut one-third of its workforce, more than 20,000 employees. Dividends to shareholders would continue, executives said.

That process repeated itself in April and May as the coronavirus spread. The Fed’s promise juiced the corporate-bond market. Borrowing by top-rated companies shot to a record $1.1 trillion for the year, nearly twice the pace of 2019. Companies as diverse as Sysco, Toyota Motor Corp., international marketing firm Omnicom Group Inc. and movie-theater chain Cinemark Holdings Inc. borrowed billions of dollars -- and then fired workers.

The companies were under no obligation to behave any differently, but their actions call into question the degree to which the U.S. central bank’s promise to purchase corporate debt will help preserve American jobs.

While the Fed has yet to buy a single bond, its pledge threw a lifeline to the market that undoubtedly kept some people working. Retail chains such as Dollar General Corp., CVS Health Corp., Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., Lowe’s Cos. and Costco Wholesale Corp. said they’re adding personnel after tapping the bond market.

But unlike the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which has incentives for employers to keep workers on the job, the taxpayer-backed facilities that the Fed and Treasury Department created for bigger companies have no such requirements. To make sure the emergency programs help fulfill one of the Fed’s mandates -- maximum employment -- the central bank is essentially crossing its fingers that restoring order to markets will translate to saving jobs.

“They could set conditions, say to companies, hire back your workers, maintain your payroll to at least a certain percentage of prior payroll, and we will help,” said Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton who now teaches economics at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s hardly clear that if you keep companies afloat they’ll hire employees.”

Unanimous Senate
The lending programs -- credit for big companies and the so-called Main Street facilities for midsize firms -- are supported by the CARES Act, a law that passed the House with more than 96% of the chamber’s votes and cleared the Senate unanimously. For many supporters, putting conditions on the assistance was a step too far. If Congress had intended any, it would have made it explicit in the legislation, they say.

“Really it’s all about creating a context, a climate, in which employees will have the best chance to either keep their job, or go back to their old job, or ultimately find a new job,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said in a May 29 webinar hosted by Princeton University. “That’s the point of this exercise.” A spokesman for the U.S. central bank declined further comment.

Even as businesses around the country began reopening in May after months of stay-at-home orders, helping a battered U.S. economy add 2.5 million jobs in May, prospects remained grim for millions of Americans who’ve been let go since February. An extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits that Congress approved in March is slated to stop on July 31. The prohibition against firing workers in the $25 billion government rescue of U.S. airlines expires Sept. 30, and the biggest recipients have said they intend to shed employees after that date.

Protecting Workers
Reich’s view is echoed mostly by progressive Democrats and supporters of stricter regulatory oversight of the financial system.

First « 1 2 3 4 » Next