Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard predicted the U.S. unemployment rate may hit 30% in the second quarter because of shutdowns to combat the coronavirus, with an unprecedented 50% drop in gross domestic product.

Bullard called for a powerful fiscal response to replace the $2.5 trillion in lost income that quarter to ensure a strong eventual U.S. recovery, adding the Fed would be poised to do more to ensure markets function during a period of high volatility.

“Everything is on the table” for the Fed as far as additional lending programs, Bullard said in a telephone interview Sunday from St. Louis. “There is more that we can do if necessary” with existing emergency authority. “There is probably much more in the months ahead depending on where Congress wants to go.”

Massive Aid
Bullard’s grave assessment of the world’s largest economy underscores the critical need for Congress and the White House to quickly find agreement on a massive aid program. The Fed last week restarted financial crisis-era programs to help the commercial paper and money markets, after cutting interest rates to near zero and pledging to boost its holdings of Treasuries by at least $500 billion and of mortgage securities by at least $200 billion.

“This is a planned, organized partial shutdown of the U.S. economy in the second quarter,” Bullard said. “The overall goal is to keep everyone, households and businesses, whole” with government support. “It is a huge shock and we are trying to cope with it and keep it under control.”

The U.S. central bank bought $272 billion of government debt last week, of the more than $500 billion authorized, which Bullard emphasized should not be seen as a limit.

More If Needed
“This is unlimited and we can go much higher if necessary,” he said. “We are trying to provide as much support as we can to that market.”

Commercial paper funding should provide support for corporations trying to roll over short term debt, Bullard said, and the Fed could look at buying other corporate debt.

“We could certainly look at that,” he said. “We are already supporting very short term funding markets.”

Bullard said Fed purchases of municipal debt are permitted for short term debt, and “that is probably the place we would want to concentrate on here” if the Fed were to go ahead with direct buying. At the same time, he said the Fed would need to be careful with such a program, and it could be problematic to pick and choose which debt to buy, just as European authorities have struggled with purchasing sovereign debt.

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