Why a coronavirus recession would be so hard to contain

The risks loom larger because this particular crisis is ill suited to the usual tools the government has to stabilize the economy. If a recession happens, it will probably be a result of this poor fit between the economic effects of the potential pandemic and the mechanisms the government uses to try to keep the economy growing.

Interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve — which appeared more likely Friday after a late-afternoon statement by its chairman, Jerome Powell — can lower borrowing costs and raise stock prices. But they can’t replace the goods made by factories closed to keep their workers from getting sick with Covid-19, the serious respiratory illness the virus causes. The government can try to pump more money into people’s pockets directly, such as with tax rebates, but money alone won’t put goods on empty store shelves.

Beyond the natural limitations of policy to cushion the damage, there is the economic and political backdrop of the current moment: a Fed with little room to cut already-low interest rates, and a Congress divided along partisan lines while a president seeks re-election.