Washington: Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell said downside risks to the US economy are lingering as trade wars soften business investment and inflation stays weak, signaling that policy makers may be poised to cut interest rates as soon as this month.
Since Fed officials met in June, “it appears that uncertainties around trade tensions and concerns about the strength of the global economy continue to weigh on the US economic outlook," Powell said in prepared remarks to US lawmakers on Wednesday. “Inflation pressures remain muted."
The Fed chief’s semiannual testimony supports the market view that the central bank is preparing to reduce borrowing costs at its July 30-31 meeting, despite a strong June jobs report.
Traders cemented bets that a quarter-point rate cut is coming this month, and moved to price in closer to three quarter-point reductions by the end of 2019. US stock index futures reversed a decline, Treasuries rallied and the dollar weakened.
Under mounting pressure from President Donald Trump to cut rates, Powell opened his testimony by embracing the central bank’s mandates for maximum employment and stable prices as well as its “independence," noting that it comes comes with a need for transparency and accountability.
Powell carefully explained the reasons why the policy committee has shifted its views this year, and noted that “crosscurrents have reemerged, creating greater uncertainty." Despite a current trade war truce with China, Powell continued to stress downside risks to the outlook.
“Uncertainties about the outlook have increased in recent months," Powell said in the text of his remarks. “Economic momentum appears to have slowed in some major foreign economies, and that weakness could affect the US economy. Moreover, a number of government policy issues have yet to be resolved, including trade developments, the federal debt ceiling, and Brexit."
He noted that policy makers are carefully monitoring developments including the risk that weak readings on inflation could be “even more persistent than we currently anticipate."
The hearing before the House Financial Services Committee is scheduled to begin at 10 am in Washington.
In addition, Powell pointed to a slowdown in business investment, decelerating global growth, and declines in housing investment and manufacturing output.
“It strongly suggests they’re going to be inclined to ease at the meeting later this month," Michael Feroli, chief US economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co., said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “He continued to highlight the uncertainties that are weighing on the outlook rather than highlighting the better jobs report."
The statement released after the last meeting also cited rising “uncertainties" and “muted" inflation in its shift toward a rate-cutting bias last month. Some analysts say the case for a cut is intact even after the Trump Administration dialed down its trade war with China and the June employment report showed payroll gains climbed a solid 224,000 last month.
Investors expect a quarter point reduction this month, according to pricing in interest-rate futures contracts. Recent US economic data have been mixed but analysts cite a variety of indicators the Fed could point to supporting a cut. A gross domestic product tracking indicator from the Atlanta Fed suggests second quarter economic growth slowed significantly.
Powell noted that while the labor market remains healthy, gains have been uneven for many Americans, citing unemployment rates for African Americans and Hispanics that remain well above the rates for whites and Asians. Income inequality has become a rallying cry for Democratic candidates as the 2020 presidential race kicks off.
The Fed chief gave lawmakers a list of troubling economic issues that would be better solved by fiscal policy rather than by the central bank. Finding ways to boost productivity “should remain a high national priority," he said.
Powell is testifying before the House, and again before the Senate on Thursday, as Trump has relentlessly attacked him.
“Blew it!" Trump tweeted 24 June after the Fed left rates on hold the week before, comparing it to “a stubborn child." If the Fed “knew what it was doing" it would cut rates, the president told reporters on Sunday.
Trump announced his intentions to nominate two potentially dovish members to the Fed last week, either of whom might be a Fed chair pick for Trump when Powell’s term ends in 2022, assuming the president wins reelection next year.
One is Christopher Waller, research director at the St. Louis Fed. Trump’s other pick is Judy Shelton, who has a record as a hard money advocate but tweeted after the announcement that she “will strive to support the US pro-growth economic agenda with the appropriate monetary policy."