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The Fed’s $4 Trillion Lifeline Never Materialized. Here’s Why.

WASHINGTON — As companies furloughed millions of workers and stock prices plunged through late March, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin offered a glimmer of hope: The government was about to step in with a $4 trillion bazooka.

The scope of that promise hinged on the Federal Reserve. The relief package winding through Congress at the time included a $454 billion pot of money earmarked for the Treasury to back Fed loan programs. Every one of those dollars could, in theory, be turned into as much as $10 in loans. Emergency powers would allow the central bank to create the money for lending; it just required that the Treasury insure against losses.

It was a shock-and-awe moment when lawmakers gave the package a thumbs up. Yet in the months since, the planned punch has not materialized.

The Treasury has allocated $195 billion to back Fed lending programs, less than half of the allotted sum. The programs supported by that insurance have made just $20 billion in loans, far less than the suggested trillions.

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The programs have partly fallen victim to their own success: Markets calmed as the Fed vowed to intervene, making the facilities less necessary as credit began to flow again. They have also been undercut by Mr. Mnuchin’s fear of taking credit losses, limiting the risk the government was willing to take and excluding some would-be borrowers. And they have been restrained by reticence at the central bank, which has extended its authorities into new markets, including some — like midsize business lending — that its powers are poorly designed to serve. The Fed has pushed the boundaries on its traditional role as a lender of last resort, but not far enough to hand out the sort of loans some in Congress had envisioned.

Lawmakers, President Trump and administration officials are now clamoring to repurpose the unused funds, an effort that has taken on more urgency as the economic recovery slows and the chances of another fiscal package remain unclear. The various programs are set to expire on Dec. 31 unless Mr. Mnuchin and Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, extend them.

Here’s how that $454 billion failed to turn into $4 trillion, and why the Fed and Treasury are under pressure to do more with the money.

The Fed can lend to private entities to keep markets functioning in times of stress, and in the early days of the crisis it rolled out a far-reaching set of programs meant to soothe panicked investors.

But the Fed’s vast power comes with strings attached. Treasury must approve of any lending programs it wants to set up. The programs must lend to solvent entities and be broad-based, rather than targeting one or two individual firms. If the borrowers are risky, the Fed requires insurance from either the private sector or the Treasury Department.

Early in the crisis, the Treasury used existing money to back market-focused stabilization programs. But that funding source was finite, and as Mr. Mnuchin negotiated with Congress, he pushed for money to back a broader spate of Fed lending efforts.

The central bank itself made a major announcement on March 23, as the package was being negotiated. It said it was making plans to funnel money into a wide array of desperate hands, not just into Wall Street’s plumbing. Officials would set up an effort to lend to small and medium-size businesses, the Fed said, and another that would keep corporate bonds flowing. It would go on to expand that program to include some recently downgraded bonds, so-called fallen angels, and to add a bond-buying program for state and local governments.

Congress allocated $454 billion in support of the programs as part of the economic relief package signed into law on March 27. When the Congressional Budget Office estimated the budget effects of that funding, it did not count the cost toward the federal deficit, since borrowers would repay on the Fed’s loans, and fees and earnings should offset losses.

Mr. Mnuchin and congressional leaders did not settle on that sum for a very precise economic reason, a senior Treasury official said, but they knew conditions were bad and wanted to go big.

Overdoing it would cost nothing, and the size of the pot allowed Mr. Mnuchin to say that the partners could pump “up to $4 trillion” into the economy.

It was like nuclear deterrence for financial markets: Promise that the government had enough liquidity-blasting superpower to conquer any threat, and people would stop running for safer places to put their money. Crisis averted, there would be no need to actually use the ammunition.

Still, the huge dollar figure stoked hopes among lawmakers and would-be loan recipients — ones that have been disappointed.

Key markets began to mend themselves as soon as the Fed promised to step in as a backstop. Companies and local governments have been able to raise funds by selling debt to private investors at low rates.

Corporate bond issuance had ground to a standstill before the Fed stepped in, but companies have raised $1.5 trillion since it did, Daleep Singh, an official at the New York Fed, said on Tuesday. That is double the pace last year. The companies raising money are major employers and producers, and if they lacked access to credit it would spell trouble for the economy.

While self-induced obsolescence partly explains why the programs have not been used, it’s not the whole story. The Main Street program, the one meant to make loans to midsize businesses, is expected to see muted use even if conditions deteriorate again. In the program that buys state and local debt, rates are high and payback periods are shorter than many had hoped.

Continued lobbying suggests that if the programs were shaped differently, more companies and governments might use them.

The relatively conservative design owes to risk aversion on Mr. Mnuchin’s part: He was initially hesitant to take any losses and has remained cautious. They also trace to the Fed’s identity as a lender of last resort.

Walter Bagehot, a 19th-century British journalist who wrote the closest thing the Fed has to a Bible, said central banks should lend freely at a penalty rate and against good collateral during times of crisis.

In short: Step in when you must, but don’t replace the private sector or gamble on lost causes.

That dictum is baked into the Fed’s legal authority. The law that allows it to make emergency loans instructs officials to ensure that borrowers are “unable to secure adequate credit accommodations from other banking institutions.” The Fed specified in its own regulation that loan facilities should charge more than the market does in normal conditions — it wants to be a last-ditch option, not one borrowers would tap first.

The Fed has stretched its “last resort” boundaries. The Main Street program works through banks to make loans, so it is more of a credit-providing partnership than a pure market backstop, for instance.

Yet Bagehot’s dictum still informs the Fed’s efforts, which is especially easy to see in the municipal program. State finance groups and some politicians have been pushing the central bank to offer better conditions than are available in the market — which now has very low rates — to help governments borrow money for next to nothing in times of need.

The Fed and Treasury have resisted, arguing that the program has achieved its goal by helping the market to work.

Congress is not uniformly on board with wanting a more aggressive Fed that might become a first option for credit. Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, a Republican on the committee that oversees the central bank, has repeatedly underlined that the Fed is a backstop.

And replacing private creditors during times of crisis would put central bankers — who are neither elected nor especially accountable — in the position of picking economic winners and losers, a role that worries the Fed.

Such choices are inherently political and polarizing. Already, many of the same people who criticize stringency in the state and local programs regularly argue that the programs intended to help companies should have come with more strings attached.

And it could become a slippery slope. If the Fed shoulders more responsibility for saving private and smaller public entities, Congress might punt problems toward the central bank before solving them democratically down the road.

“It’s opening Pandora’s box,” said David Beckworth, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Being too careful could also carry an economic risk if it meant that the Fed failed to provide help where needed. The midsize business segment, which employs millions of people, has had few pandemic relief options. Struggling states and cities are also huge employers.

Yet those entities may be past the point of needing debt — all the Fed can offer — and require grants instead. And it is worth noting that just because the Fed and Treasury are not rewriting their programs to support broader use now does not mean the Fed would stand back if conditions were to worsen.

If that happens, “it’s going to stop pointing to the fact that it has a fire hose,” said Peter Conti-Brown, a Fed historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s going to take it out and turn it on.”

Alan Rappeport contributed reporting.

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As China Ages, a Push to Add Elevators Offers a New Kind of Economic Relief

GUANGZHOU, China — When China faced previous economic slowdowns, it favored pharaonic, multibillion-dollar construction projects to quickly pump money into the economy. A bullet train network that now connects 700 cities. Ultramodern expressways longer than America’s interstate highways. And 81 of the world’s 100 highest bridges.

Now, a top Chinese official has a new idea to rev up growth during the coronavirus pandemic: elevators.

China’s premier, Li Keqiang, and his allies in the government want to retrofit as many as three million older, walk-up apartment buildings, projects that usually cost less than $100,000.

The downsized ambitions reflect the evolution of China, from a youthful but impoverished country to a graying but increasingly middle-class one.

Although China still likes grandiose infrastructure projects, they no longer have the same economic effect. High-speed rail lines and superhighways already link every large city, so new ones connect smaller and smaller communities in China’s mountainous interior — at exorbitant cost. And the country’s debt has spiraled so high that it has become a serious drag on growth.

While elevators may pack a smaller economic punch, they provide a social benefit for a rapidly aging population. A wealthier Chinese society is also demanding more from its leaders.

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Credit…The New York Times

Kong Ting endured nine months of pregnancy in a 10th-floor walk-up apartment in Guangzhou, the semitropical hub of southeastern China. Several times a day, she trudged up and down the building’s 162 stairs. “The hardest part was carrying food and drinking water,” she said.

Every day, she sat on the building’s third-floor patio and complained to the neighbors, many of them older. Last year, most apartment owners in the building chipped in $4,300 apiece, collected a large municipal subsidy, and added a small elevator to the side of the building.

Buildings all over China need a similar upgrade.

As China’s economy started to open up after Mao’s death in 1976, young migrants moved en masse from the farms to newly built factories popping up everywhere. Over the next 25 years, Chinese cities swelled by almost as many people as the entire population of the United States.

To house the new city dwellers, municipal governments and state-owned enterprises hastily built no-frills apartment towers of seven to 10 stories across the country. The Soviet-style, hulking complexes soon dominated the landscape, particularly in manufacturing hubs like Guangzhou.

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Credit…The New York Times

Almost none had elevators. China was still a poor country. It had few factories to manufacture elevators. Imports were expensive.

The lack of elevators is now a major problem in a rapidly aging society.

Through the 1960s, Mao encouraged families to have lots of children. The slogan became “the more people, the stronger we are.”

Starting this year, babies born in the 1960s are turning 60, an age by which many Chinese retire. They have few children or grandchildren to help them, since China began imposing its stringent “one child” policy in the 1970s.

“If we do not prepare ahead of time, we may have a greater challenge than expected” as the number of older adults in China rises steeply, said Lu Jiehua, a professor of demographic studies at Peking University.

Without elevators, many longtime tenants become trapped in their homes, reliant on food deliveries and unable to meet friends or go for walks.

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Credit…The New York Times
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Credit…The New York Times

Jiang Weixing, a white-haired woman in her 90s, sat in sunshine in a wheelchair outside a Guangzhou clinic on a recent afternoon. She waited briefly with two younger family members for a special wheelchair-accessible taxi that took her home after a medical treatment.

Until the recent addition of an elevator to her high-rise building, Ms. Jiang almost never left her apartment. Doing so required two or three people to carry her down many flights of stairs.

Elevators, or the lack of them, have become another cause of surging economic inequality in China.

Guangzhou, a fairly affluent and socially progressive city, can afford to subsidize the projects and has already added about 6,000 elevators to older buildings — almost as many as the rest of China combined. In Beijing, the prosperous municipal government pays almost the entire cost of elevator installations, offering a $93,000 subsidy to apartment buildings within the city limits.

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Credit…The New York Times

Many less affluent cities have no programs for elevator installation or tiny ones. In far southern China, Zhanjiang offers a meager $3,000 subsidy for each apartment building.

The projects also are not universally appreciated, particularly by residents on bottom floors. Elevators usually block one or more of their windows and scarcely benefit them.

Chen Xin, a 52-year-old owner of a ground-floor apartment in Guangzhou, initially resisted an elevator project in her building that involved bricking up her front door, forcing her to come and go through a side door onto a patio. Ms. Chen agreed after residents of higher floors paid her $3,500.

To avoid arguments and court cases, Guangzhou imposed rules on the projects. If the owners of two-thirds of the units in an apartment building and two-thirds of the square footage in the building vote in favor of the elevator, the project must be installed.

Guangzhou’s approach is spreading. Hefei, a metropolis of eight million people in central China, announced on Sept. 1 that it was adopting a similar rule.

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Credit…The New York Times

From an economic perspective, a national elevator policy, which Premier Li proposed in May in his annual speech to the country’s legislature, could help mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic on China’s blue-collar workers.

Constructing elevator towers of concrete or glass and steel up the sides of apartment buildings is labor intensive. It could provide jobs to some of the tens of millions of still-unemployed Chinese migrant workers.

But the plan’s supporters may lack the political muscle to make it truly national.

Building elevator shafts on the sides of buildings is a task dominated by small, private contractors in China. The contractors then buy elevators from a multinational — usually Otis Elevator, Schindler, Kone, Mitsubishi Electric or Hitachi — or one of several smaller Chinese manufacturers, like IFE Elevators in Guangzhou.

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Credit…The New York Times
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Credit…The New York Times

While China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has called for greater reliance on domestic demand to stimulate growth and has separately called for addressing poverty and improving housing for the elderly, he has not specifically backed a national elevator agenda.

His main constituencies — the military, security agencies and very large state-owned enterprises — have little to gain from elevator projects. They have focused on building rail lines and highways that allow China to rush troops to remote hot spots, like the border with India.

Housing experts in China insist that the country will resolve its elevator shortage. “Everyone invests together, and then solves the issue,” said Huo Jinhai, a senior engineer at the Ministry of Housing and Construction.

And the plan has a powerful backer: the Ministry of Finance.

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Credit…The New York Times

Such support is rare. The ministry has kept central government spending on a very tight rein even as most local and provincial governments have plunged deep into debt.

One of the ministry’s most famous budget hawks is Jia Kang, its longtime research director. When he finally retired, the ministry set up an influential advisory group nearby for him to run, the China Academy of New Supply-Side Economics.

In his new role, Mr. Jia has emerged as an outspoken advocate of spending money — on elevators. His support is born of personal experience.

Mr. Jia, 66, and his wife, Jiang Xiaoling, 63, bought a tiny ground-floor apartment years ago and then, as their savings grew, purchased a somewhat larger third-floor apartment nearby. They walk back and forth between the two apartments many times every day, and want an elevator installed so that they do not need to trudge up the stairs.

“In recent years,” he said, “my wife frequently complains, ‘Why do we tolerate these conditions?’”

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Credit…The New York Times

Coral Yang contributed research.

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China Tries Its Favorite Economic Cure: More Construction

XUZHOU, China — At a cavernous factory in the Chinese city of Xuzhou, 100 new workers have just been hired to produce giant construction cranes. Nearby, at another sprawling factory, employees toil until midnight to assemble drilling and tunneling machines. A few blocks away, their colleagues at a factory that makes dump trucks have received enough orders to keep them busy well into next year.

These factories, and half a dozen more in the city, are all owned by Xuzhou Construction Machinery Group, a state-owned industrial behemoth which manufactures the outsized machines behind China’s latest construction boom.

The company, China’s largest producer of construction equipment, is at the center of Beijing’s strategy to revive the country’s economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic by doubling down on a tested strategy: investing in infrastructure projects at home.

China appears to have mostly eradicated the coronavirus within its borders. But outbreaks overseas have caused economic downturns elsewhere that have hurt foreign demand for Chinese exports, including the trucks and machines made in Xuzhou.

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Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

Foreign markets helped fuel the country’s rapid growth for four decades. But now China is back to doing business with a local customer — itself. Once again, Beijing is investing heavily in the country’s own infrastructure, employing millions of people not just to build new roads, railway lines and sewage systems but also to make the equipment necessary for those projects.

“This year is a very bad year for overseas contracts, and I cannot travel,” said Vincent Cao, the drilling and tunneling equipment manager at the company, better known by its initials XCMG. Despite those limitations, business is booming, he said, adding: “It is a good year for China.”

On its face, China’s strategy appears to be working. Big investments helped make China the first major economy to see its economy rebound after an outbreak, with output rising 3.2 percent from April through June compared to the same period last year. China’s economy is reviving even as Europe’s downturn now appears significantly deeper than originally expected, and the American economy struggles.

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Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times
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Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times
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Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

Previous investment campaigns have given China some of the best infrastructure in the world, including the fastest train and longest sea bridge. But the latest push comes with its own set of risks and puts China at odds with how much of the rest of the world is handling the downturn.

Practically all of China’s infrastructure projects are being funded with more debt. Economists warn that paying interest on all that debt may be a drag on future growth.

Additionally, some Chinese economists say, the country does not need more record-breaking megaprojects but would instead benefit from modest programs, like building better sewer lines close to people’s homes. While these less-glamorous infrastructure projects improve the quality of people’s lives, they offer little glory or political reward for the local officials who oversee them.

China’s captains of industry have prospered by building the country’s premier projects, not by improving neighborhood sewer lines. Wang Min, XCMG’s longtime chairman, said that he wanted to make big machines for large projects, a space in which few other Chinese businesses can compete.

When told of a sewage line being replaced in Xuzhou using construction equipment of modest size, Mr. Wang was unenthusiastic. “All enterprises can manufacture this kind of excavator, so we don’t have any kind of competitive strength,” he said. “But in terms of the large-scale excavators, XCMG has an advantage.”

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Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

Long before building some of the world’s largest cranes and bulldozers, XCMG got its start manufacturing land mines for the People’s Liberation Army during World War II. In the 1950s, it briefly produced plows until it switched to making construction machinery.

The company, which is owned by the Xuzhou municipal government, is still inextricably entwined with the state and military, though it no longer produces weapons. XCMG has been an integral part of China’s development strategy, and as the country has prospered so too has the company.

During China’s last infrastructure binge, intended to bail the country out of the global financial crisis, XCMG’s sales soared eightfold from 2008 to 2010. When Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, rolled out his Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 that offered enormous loans to developing countries to buy Chinese-made goods, XCMG was there, cashing in on exports to countries like Venezuela and Nigeria.

Now the company is shifting gears again. Many developing countries are struggling to repay their debts to state-owned Chinese banks and are unable to buy bulldozers and other gear. China has almost completely closed its borders, adding another wrinkle of difficulty for XCMG managers trying to close deals in distant markets.

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Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

But China is also looking inward. Mr. Xi has set poverty alleviation as the country’s top economic goal this year. Many of China’s poorest areas are remote villages, and extending road and rail lines to them requires extensive bridge and tunnel construction. That means putting lots of people and lots of XCMG equipment to work.

Premier Li Keqiang, China’s second most powerful leader, called in May for much of the country’s new construction spending to take place close to where people live. That would make it easier for millions of rural workers who have lost their jobs at factories producing goods for export to find new work without migrating to distant cities.

The scope of China’s latest building boom is enormous, and XCMG is playing a pivotal role. Thirty-seven Chinese cities are in the process of building a total of 150 new subway lines, and the company is manufacturing the needed equipment for half of them.

The country’s high-speed rail system, which already connects more than 700 towns and cities, is expanding so fast that it annually buys three times as many pile drivers as the European and American markets combined. XCMG, the world’s biggest producer of pile drivers, has supplied most of them.

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Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times
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Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times
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Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

But China’s plan to build its way out of its pandemic downturn contrasts with the policies of most Western governments. Western economists generally recommend transferring money directly to consumers rather than constructing ever more railroads and highways.

“It would be more efficient to give them the money than spending two-thirds of it on steel and petroleum and whatever,” said Michael Pettis, a professor of finance at Peking University in Beijing.

A number of Chinese local governments experimented this spring with trying to restart consumer spending by issuing coupons worth a few dollars apiece for meals and other outlays. But the central government subsequently rejected that idea, pushing cities and provinces to spend instead on infrastructure.

As a result, local governments are borrowing heavily to pay for the construction, adding to already immense debts that China’s leaders have tried for years to tame. But projects in remote areas may yield scant economic returns to repay debt. Dozens of new high-speed rail stations have been built in small towns, which ultimately see few paying passengers. In some stations, fewer than three trains make stops each day.

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Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

Nevertheless, all of that construction is good for XCMG’s business.

The company is now on the cusp of passing John Deere to become the world’s third-largest manufacturer in the sector, trailing only Caterpillar and Komatsu, its archrival. Mr. Wang, the chairman, said that he intended for the company to become the world’s largest in the industry in another 15 years.

“It will be my dream,” he said, “and my purpose for my life.”

To that end, he said, he planned an overhaul of the company’s ownership this autumn. The city of Xuzhou would retain 34 percent ownership in the company while surrounding Jiangsu Province would obtain 17 percent.

Another 47 percent would be sold directly to a group of large private sector and public sector investors and the final 2 percent would be acquired by XCMG’s management. XCMG has begun interviewing possible financial advisers for the deal, said Mr. Wang, who declined to estimate its potential value.

In Xuzhou, the success of the company can be heard in the unrelenting thrum of its cavernous factories and is reflected in the fat overtime paychecks of its 20,000 employees.

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Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

The crane factory alone has scheduled two Sundays a month of extra production, in addition to a standard six-day workweek. Workers earn double pay on Sundays, said Song Decheng, who leads a team of workers building small cranes.

Yet that extra money has been slow to trickle to other businesses. While XCMG prospers, wide areas of China and parts of Xuzhou itself are still struggling.

Shoppers and repairmen used to throng the city’s construction-materials market, a dusty, two-block area of small shops specializing in paint, cupboards and hardware. On a recent afternoon, it was completely deserted except for the vendors. Shan Kehu, a mortar salesman, said that the only customers who showed up were opportunists looking to stock up on merchandise at a reduced price.

“We’re trying to keep the retail prices where they were before,” he said.

The worries are similar across the city at Xuzhou’s wholesale food market, a blocks-long labyrinth of open-sided steel sheds. A restaurant-supplies vendor, Cao Fang, complained that eateries have practically stopped buying utensils and plates.

At another vendor’s stall, half the bananas were getting too ripe to sell.

“It has gotten a lot better,” said the fruit seller Xin Xiaoli. “But it hasn’t gotten to our normal levels yet.”

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Property Taxes Are Probably Still Due Despite Coronavirus

Everyone has three extra months to pay federal income taxes because of the financial pain caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But what about the real estate taxes on your home? Any flexibility on paying those?

Maybe. It depends on where you live, since property tax payments are governed by a patchwork of state and local rules.

Extra time to pay could help people struggling with furloughs or layoffs. The average property tax bill on a single-family home in 2019 was about $3,600, but average bills are three to five times higher in some areas of the country, including parts of New York, New Jersey and California, according to Attom Data Solutions, which tracks property trends.

It’s generally harder for local governments to postpone tax payments because they rely on the money — usually paid in lump sums once or twice a year — to finance essential services. And while the federal government has vast financing power, counties, cities and towns have limited reserves of cash and credit to fill budget gaps.

Cities and towns rely on property taxes to fund the very services that are heavily strained because of the virus, said Christiana McFarland, research director for the National League of Cities. “It’s a huge hit on their budgets,” she said.

Some governments have extended spring property tax deadlines by as much as a month because of the economic dislocations caused by the virus. Others are effectively providing extensions to people who need more time by waiving penalties for late payments.

“We’re seeing a wide range of responses,” said Teryn Zmuda, chief economist with the National Association of Counties.

The extensions help people who pay their property taxes directly. People whose property taxes are included in their monthly mortgage payment don’t benefit because the money is already collected in an escrow account. (People struggling with mortgage payments should contact their bank or loan servicer. Relief has been granted for federally backed mortgages and some other home loans.)

Fewer than half of the homeowners in the United States paid their property taxes with their mortgages in 2015, according to a report in 2018 by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The majority either didn’t have a mortgage or had one that didn’t put their property taxes in escrow accounts. (The share of people paying property taxes through escrow accounts varied widely by state.)

Older people are much more likely to pay their property taxes directly; just 20 percent of homeowners 65 and older had escrow accounts, the report found.

In many areas, homeowners are still expected to make property tax payments by the usual deadlines despite the economic strain caused by the virus. For a variety of reasons, “it is more difficult to change property tax filing dates than to change income tax dates,” said Jared Walczak, director of state tax policy at the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on tax policy.

Local governments, typically counties or cities, set property tax rates and collect the money. But payment deadlines are often dictated by state law, and changing them may require an act of the legislature — many of which are now in recess — or an executive order.

Property taxes are used to pay for public schools, public health and emergency services, trash pickup, water and sewer operations, road maintenance and libraries. More than two-thirds of counties rely on property taxes for more than one-quarter of their revenue, Ms. Zmuda said. And during the coronavirus crisis, she said, counties are funding increased public health services, spending far beyond what they budgeted.

Postponing receipt of property taxes can cause havoc with local budgets, Mr. Walczak said. Unlike income taxes, which are collected over time through regular payroll deductions and estimated tax payments, property taxes are typically paid all at once or perhaps in a few installments.

Officials are struggling to find a balance between their needs and residents’ newly straitened circumstances. A group of county and tax officials in California urged the state to stick to an April 10 property tax deadline. Allowing all homeowners and businesses more time to pay, they said, “will tip local governments into insolvency at a time when our residents need us the most.”

Counties, the group said, “will use all existing authority” to cancel penalties for homeowners and small businesses affected by coronavirus “on a case-by-case basis.”

In a statement on Saturday, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California praised the counties’ “commitment” to cancel penalties because of “demonstrated economic hardship” caused by the virus. “This is good news for Californians,” he said.

A spokesman for Mr. Newsom said on Thursday that his office was “looking into further actions as well.”

Taxpayer and business groups have urged the governor to extend the deadline by 90 days, arguing that applying for waivers is burdensome, and that counties may grant them inconsistently.

Florida has extended property tax deadlines statewide about two weeks, to April 15 from March 31, because of the virus. King County in Washington State, which includes Seattle, a city hit hard by the virus, has postponed its spring deadline by a month, to June 1. West Virginia approved a statewide one-month extension to May 1. San Francisco has moved its deadline from early April to May 4, when it expects a stay-at-home order to be lifted.

Some New York state and county officials have asked Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to postpone May property tax deadlines. A request for comment sent to the New York governor’s office was forwarded to the State Division of the Budget. A division spokesman, Freeman Klopott, said Wednesday that the state was “open to discussing adjustments to those dates at the request of the impacted local taxing jurisdictions.”

New York City follows a different payment schedule. In a transcript of remarks on March 22, Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that the city was unlikely to extend an April 15 city tax payment deadline for some homeowners, given “skyrocketing” expenses and “plummeting” revenue because of the coronavirus crisis. But he added, “We’re going to look at everything.”

Here are some questions and answers about paying property taxes:

What happens if I don’t pay my property taxes?

Failure to pay your property taxes can lead to financial headaches like penalties and interest and, eventually, more serious problems like a lien on your home. Local governments may auction delinquent properties to collect back taxes, or sell the liens to companies that, in turn, may foreclose. Some areas, however, have temporarily halted tax lien sales because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Are there programs that can help me if I can’t pay?

Even before the virus, most tax authorities offered programs that reduced property taxes for low-income, disabled or elderly people and veterans. Some also offer those suffering financial hardship the option to defer payment or arrange an installment plan.

“There’s a lot of variation in how flexible taxing authorities are,” said Sarah Bolling Mancini, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center.

To find out whether your local government has postponed payment deadlines, or for instructions on how to request a deferred payment or payment plan, contact your local tax collector or tax commissioner’s office. Some offices may be closed because of the virus, so it’s best to start by checking the agency’s website.

Can I challenge the assessment on which my property tax bill is based?

Yes, but usually you must do this well before the tax bill comes due. Most communities send property owners assessments months before bills are issued and set a deadline for appeals. If it is too late to appeal the assessment used to calculate your current tax bill, you can plan to challenge the assessment for next year.

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The Struggle to Mend America’s Rural Roads

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Wearing bright safety vests, the county highway workers followed the scalding, red tar kettle as it pumped out liquid rubber bandages, thick as melted butter, to cover the pavement’s worst gashes. From above, it looked like the flip side of skywriting — as if yellow cursors on the ground were carefully spelling out a message for unseen readers in the clouds.

The farmers, truckers and others who traverse these rural roads, though, could quickly tell you what the hieroglyphics mean: Help.

Like hundreds of other small agricultural counties and towns around the country, Trempealeau County in central-west Wisconsin is overwhelmed with aging, damaged roads and not enough money to fix them.

“Our road hasn’t been paved since the ’60s,” said Kellen Nelson, whose family owns Triple Brook Farms on County Road O outside Osseo. “Patching and seal coating is all they’ve ever done.”

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Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

The roads look like losers in a barroom brawl. Thick, jagged cracks run down the asphalt like scars, interrupted at points by bruised bumps. In some places, guardrails are tilted off their moorings like a pair of glasses knocked askew.

“It is not real stable — the shoulders are eroding in many places,” Mr. Nelson said. “When you’re going through with an 80,000-pound load of soybeans and meeting cars, that’s dangerous.”

Throughout much of the Midwest and South, the rural transportation system is crumbling. Two-thirds of the nation’s freight emanates from rural areas. Traffic volume has increased. And over the years, tractor-trailers and farm equipment have been supersized, ballooning in length, breadth and weight.

A legally loaded semi-trailer truck can produce 5,000 to 10,000 times the road damage of one car according to some estimates, said Benjamin J. Jordan, director of the Wisconsin Transportation Information Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Roads and bridges have not kept up.

Although just 19 percent of the country’s population lives in rural areas, those regions have 68 percent of the total lane and road miles, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“We have less resources to maintain and rehabilitate the road system and it’s deteriorating more quickly,” Mr. Jordan said.

The state’s gas tax, which is dedicated to transportation needs, has been unchanged since 2006. A proposal last year from Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, for an 8-cent increase was voted down by the Republican-led Legislature, which instead raised vehicle title and registration fees.

“In the last budget, the Legislature and governor did come up with some additional funding,” said Daniel J. Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association. “But the problem is it’s one-time funding and it’s not ongoing and it’s not sustainable.”

In Trempealeau, decades of underfunding have left the county of 29,000 people with roughly $60 million to $80 million worth of road repairs. Generally, there is no state or federal assistance to help cover the costs.

“The last time we received money to help with road projects was 2008,” said Al Rinka, commissioner of the county’s Highway Department.

The normal life span of an asphalt road is 30 years. The county’s 292 miles of roads are now averaging 74 years.

Emergency closings and weight limits are as common as a sunrise. Farmers can’t easily move equipment from one field to another. Truckers must make long detours to deliver feed and fertilizers. Drivers end up with broken axles, wrecked suspension systems or busted tires.

Last March, when the snow melted, inadequate drainage around County Road K near Galesville was so severe that several homes were flooded.

In November, a school bus slid off a county road outside Arcadia as it navigated a turn and tipped over into a ditch. No one was seriously injured.

“I get people calling me and screaming at me all the time,” Mr. Rinka said. “In 10 years, we’re going to start turning roads back into gravel” if nothing changes.

This week, temperatures remained below freezing. But when the spring thaw comes, the melting will create soft spots that are easily damaged by traffic.

The county also has the worst bridges in the state, with the highest proportion — 6 percent — given a D rating, requiring tonnage restrictions.

The repair backlog is long. Mr. Nelson of Triple Brook Farms waited three years before a small bridge near his property was fixed. That meant he had to to drive eight miles to get to fields that were just half a mile away because the crossing couldn’t handle the weight of a combine or a tractor. And an emergency weight limit on a bridge on County Road O caused a 12-mile detour each time he sent crops to the grain elevator or river barges.

Still damaged is a 15-ton bridge east of the farm on County Road OO that requires him and his neighbors to reroute their combines and semi-trucks.

“There are things that we can accept that are beyond our control, like viruses and trade deals,” Mr. Nelson said, referring to the effects that soybean farmers felt from the coronavirus outbreak and the tariff war with China. “But when it comes to infrastructure, that’s crucial for everyone, not just farmers. All the businesses that are out here rely on quality roads.”

Quality roads are expensive. Reconstructing a mile costs $300,000, Mr. Rinka said. Chip sealing, a kind of short-term patching, costs $17,000 a mile.

In November, the Trempealeau County Board of Commissioners approved the largest increase ever in the road budget — $5 million — paid for through debt.

With luck, the added funding will cover 15 miles of reconstruction, nearly four times what would be possible with the department’s typical annual budget of $1.2 million to $1.5 million. County Road JJ, where the school bus accident occurred, will get new blacktop. (A new culvert was added to County Road K over the summer.)

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Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times
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Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

What’s really needed, Mr. Rinka said, is a “culture change” in residents and business owners who want good roads but don’t want to pay for them.

Someone will beg to have a road repaired, Mr. Rinka said. “I’ll say, ‘O.K., I’ll fix your road, and you’re going to see an increase in your property tax.’

“‘Oh, no, no,’ they say, ‘I don’t want that.’”

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Crazy Mascots Flooded Japan. Can This Grouchy Boar Survive?

NAGANO, Japan — The mayor of Misato, a remote village of 4,700 people in rugged western Japan, laid down an ultimatum early last year: The local mascot character, Misabo, must prove his worth. Or else.

Misabo, a gloomy boar with a mountain on his head who wears whale overalls hiked up to his snout, has the daunting job of promoting the village as a tourism destination. He waddled into the world in 2013, as a mascot craze swept Japan and hundreds of the country’s graying and shrinking towns turned to colorful, often wacky characters to lure visitors and investment.

Now, as their tax bases dwindle along with their populations, communities like Misato are increasingly questioning whether the whimsy is worth the cost in public spending. In the absence of much evidence that the characters are delivering economic benefits, the answer for many towns in the grip of Japan’s demographic crisis has been to quietly mothball them.

“It was a boom without any reality,” said Akihiko Inuyama, an author and designer who wrote a book about the mascot industry.

It is impossible to know exactly how many mascots, who plug their hometowns as both illustrated characters and humans in costumes, have been liquidated. For most, the end comes with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, not a formal announcement. But industry numbers hint at the toll.

Sun.Mold, a manufacturer of mascot costumes, said that orders had dropped by about half from their peak five or six years ago, when the company was producing 20 to 40 outfits a month for the characters, known as yuru-chara.

More dramatic evidence came last November at the Yuru-chara Grand Prix, an annual gathering to crown Japan’s king of cute.

For a select few, the Grand Prix has been a springboard to riches. Kumamoto, a sparsely populated prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, reaped a $1.2 billion economic windfall in the two years after its mascot, Kumamon, won the first Grand Prix, in 2011, according to a study by the Bank of Japan.

“It was thanks to Kumamon that yuru-chara became a national phenomenon,” said Shuichiro Nishi, the creative force behind the competition.

When the charmingly plump black bear with rosy red cheeks won the event, the country was still reeling from the catastrophic tsunami and nuclear disaster that had struck northern Japan months earlier. People were “clamoring” for a sense of national connection, Mr. Nishi said.

Kumamon moved mountains of merchandise and drove up tourism. Hit mascots can also lift tax revenue thanks to a program, introduced in 2008, that allows citizens to direct a portion of their income taxes to the locality of their choice.

Inspired by Kumamon’s success, local governments rushed to cash in. As the characters became fixtures on national airwaves, Mr. Inuyama said, the media “tricked people into thinking yuru-chara were making money,” and local governments “went along for the ride.”

More and more, though, it looks like the end of the road. The number of characters in this November’s Grand Prix, held in Nagano, was down a third from the peak of about 1,700 in 2015. Many of the entrants did not even bother to show up. And officials, seeing the writing on the wall, announced that the 2020 contest would be the last.

Misabo’s handlers, however, were not about to give up.

The mayor had given them one year to show that the character was worth the tens of thousands of dollars that taxpayers had spent on him.

With the deadline quickly approaching, the team was hoping for an upset victory at the Grand Prix.

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Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times
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Credit…Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

“We need to make the Top 10,” said Ayami Nakada, an employee of the town hall, who had flown to Nagano with two co-workers.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think it’s important that we stay focused,” she said.

It was a long shot. Misabo, who looks less like a cuddly friend than a guy who just spilled his beer at Oktoberfest, finished in 339th place in the 2018 Grand Prix — a result that may or may not have been affected by a vote-rigging scandal that year.

Since then, Misato’s officials had worked hard and pushed his ranking into the mid-20s. But as voting was drawing to a close, he was still tens of thousands of votes behind the top competitors.

The characters have their roots in the 1980s, when local government mascots first began appearing. They were a natural fit for a country where adorable characters like Hello Kitty are used to sell everything from microwaves to motor oil.

The positioning of mascots as ambassadors for ailing local governments let fans see their hobby as a kind of virtuous consumption or even a public service.

“They represent the national character,” said Masumi Shindo, who had come to the Grand Prix to support Nagano’s mascot, Arukuma, a bear with an apple on his head. “They energize us. When I see them working hard, it makes me want to do my best.”

As mascots flooded the market, character development began to look like a Japanese Mad Lib: Use a local animal as a base. Combine it with a famous local snack or architectural highlight. Give it a terrible pun for a name. Profit!

The results were often endearingly surreal. Narita, home to Tokyo’s largest international airport, dreamed up a plush eel with jet engines.

But the novelty quickly wore off. Copycats were everywhere: Froglike water spirits called Kappa proliferated, and after Sanomaru — a dog with a bowl of ramen on its head — won the 2013 Grand Prix, other animals sporting Japanese noodles popped up.

Misabo made his debut that same year. A local government employee created the character. The first suit cost around $7,200, and the village has since ordered a second one.

With little to set it apart from the many other localities that have also fallen on hard times, Misato leaned heavily on Misabo.

The character’s grumpy disposition was a good fit for his home prefecture’s brand. Shimane, which is one of the poorest and least populated areas in Japan, has turned its obscurity into a resource. In 2011, a calendar created by the local government and filled with self-deprecating jokes about the locals became a surprise hit in Japan.

Misato made Misabo merchandise. It started a YouTube channel. It came up with a dance, the Misabo Samba. It built a slick tourism website prominently featuring the character. It even designed a series of stickers that fans could buy and send to each other on the chat app Line.

Still, nothing seemed to stick. Officials began to wonder if it was time to put Misabo out to pasture.

Hoping to drum up some publicity, early last year Misato’s mayor called a news conference and threatened to fire the character. At one point, government employees held Misabo back as he tried to take a swing at his boss. The story was picked up by the national broadcaster, NHK, and it played well on social media, lifting the mascot’s profile.

But Misabo’s moment in the spotlight had been brief. On the last day of the Grand Prix, with his job on the line, his odds looked as grim as his countenance.

His team pinned their aspirations on skipping rope.

“We’re hoping that winning the jump-rope contest will give us a boost,” Ms. Nakada, the town employee, said as her co-worker did some calisthenics nearby, preparing to strap himself into the unwieldy suit and skip for all he was worth.

After a failed initial attempt, he managed 47 jumps, handily putting him in first place.

In the end, though, it was not enough to overcome the other mascots’ considerable advantages. When the votes were tallied, he came in 24th.

But fear not for Misabo, at least for now. The results seem to have satisfied the mayor. He has agreed to let Misabo mope along for another year.

Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo.