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Buffett: Fed ‘resurrected’ US economy during COVID-19 pandemic

Storied investor Warren Buffett said Saturday that the U.S. central bank was to thank for propping up the economy through the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder meeting held virtually and exclusively live-streamed by Yahoo Finance, Buffett applauded the Federal Reserve and its chairman, Jerome Powell, for specifically supporting U.S. corporate bond markets in the spring of last year.

“The economy went off a cliff in March [2020],” Buffett said. “It was resurrected in an extraordinarily effective way by Federal Reserve actions and, later, on the fiscal front, by Congress.”

Buffett added that the Fed’s actions helped companies brace for impact, as the initial spread of COVID sent companies scrambling to raise funds.

Berkshire Hathaway was among the many companies that turned to debt issuance as the stock market tanked in late February and early March last year, issuing a $500 million 10-year bond on March 4, 2020.

The appetite for corporate debt dried up shortly after that, prompting the Fed weeks later to create several liquidity facilities that would take on commercial paper and medium-term investment grade debt.

[Read: A glossary of the Federal Reserve's full arsenal of 'bazookas']

By entering the debt market as its own counterparty (through separate vehicles with equity investment from the U.S. Treasury), the central bank hoped to not only backstop markets but give private players the confidence to provide their own liquidity.

“[The Fed] took a market where Berkshire couldn't sell bonds on the day before and turned it into one where Carnival Cruise Lines, a day or two later, had record issuance of corporate debt,” Buffett said. “Companies losing money, companies were closed. It was the most dramatic move that you could imagine.”

The Fed had been buying individual corporate bonds and corporate bond ETFs until December 31, 2020, accumulating billions in debt as part of its effort to inspire confidence in corporate funding markets.

Those purchases included over $40 million in debt issued by Berkshire Hathaway, covering its insurance, finance, and energy businesses.

Buffett applauded Powell for his “speed and decisiveness” in backstopping the corporate debt market, adding that his persistence on getting more fiscal support was also helpful to the federal government’s relief efforts.

Buffett similarly said at Berkshire Hathaway’s meeting last year that “every one of those people that issued bonds in late March and April [2020] ought to send a thank you letter to the Fed.”

The Oracle of Omaha added that the Fed and the government have helped the economic rebound, estimating that 85% of the U.S. economy now appears to be “running a super high gear.”

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the Fed, economics, and banking for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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