Christopher Rugaber

Fed’s Powell sees steady growth, signals pause in rate cuts

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Nov. 13 that the Fed is likely to keep its benchmark short-term interest rate unchanged in the coming months, unless the economy shows signs of worsening. But for now, in testimony before a congressional panel, Powell expressed optimism about the U.S. economy and said he expects it will grow at a solid pace, though it still faces risks from slower growth overseas and trade tensions. “Looking ahead, my colleagues and I see a sustained expansion of economic activity, a strong labor market, and inflation near our symmetric 2 percent objective as most likely,” Powell said before Congress’ Joint Economic Committee. Fed policymakers are unlikely to cut rates, Powell said, unless the economy slows enough to cause them to make a “material reassessment” of their outlook. The Fed cut short-term rates last month for the third time this year, to a range of 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent. “It now looks increasingly likely that the Fed will move to the sidelines for an extended period,” said Andrew Hunter, an economist at Capital Economics, a forecasting firm. Still, when asked if he expected rates to remain unchanged over the next year, Powell said, “I wouldn’t say that at all.” Powell’s testimony came a day after President Donald Trump took credit for an “economic boom” and attacked the Fed for not cutting interest rates further. Powell and other Fed officials, however, argue that their rate cuts, by lowering borrowing costs on mortgages and other loans, have spurred home sales and boosted the economy. Powell was asked about negative interest rates, which Trump also called for Nov. 12, and responded that they “would certainly not be appropriate in the current environment.” Negative rates occur “at times when growth is quite low, and inflation is quite low, and you really don’t see that here,” Powell said. Other Fed officials have also questioned whether cutting rates below zero has actually succeeded in boosting growth in places like Europe and Japan, where central banks have pushed rates into negative territory. Despite Trump’s attacks, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers took a largely respectful approach to Powell. Several complimented him for the “Fed Listens” events the central bank has held around the country, which have sought input from a range of groups, including unions and nonprofits, on ways the Fed could update its monetary policy framework. Powell repeatedly demurred when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed him on how higher tax rates would affect the economy, including wealth taxes that have been proposed by Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But Powell did concede, under questioning from Cruz, that a ban on fracking would “not be a good thing for the economy.” Some Democrats have called for a fracking ban over environmental concerns about the controversial method for drilling for oil and gas. Recent data suggests that growth remains solid if not spectacular. The economy expanded at a 1.9 percent annual rate in the July-September quarter, down from 3.1 percent in the first three months of the year. The unemployment rate is near a 50-year low of 3.6 percent and hiring is strong enough to potentially push the rate even lower. Inflation, according to the Fed’s preferred gauge, is just 1.3 percent, though it has been held down in recent months by lower energy costs and most Fed officials expect it to move higher in the coming months. Yet Powell reiterated that higher tariffs from the Trump administration’s trade war with China and uncertainty over potential future duties have caused many businesses to delay or cut back on their spending on large equipment and buildings. That has slowed economic growth. Powell also urged Congress to lower the federal budget deficit so that lawmakers would have more flexibility to cut taxes or boost spending to counter a future recession. Other Fed officials have voiced similar concerns. Patrick Harker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, said Nov. 12 that the large deficit, and the constraints it imposes on Congress in the event of a recession, “is one of the things I do lose sleep over.” Powell also noted that with the Fed’s benchmark rate at historically low levels, the central bank is considering whether it needs new tools to help boost growth whenever the next downturn arrives. “Central banks around the world are going to have less room to cut in this new normal of low rates and low inflation,” he said. The Fed is exploring an alternative policy framework, Powell said, that it hopes will provide more flexibility. In typical recessions, the Fed cuts short-term rates by roughly 5 percentage points. Powell reiterated that the Fed believes the unemployment rate could fall further without necessarily pushing inflation higher, a view that suggests the central bank is a long way off from hiking rates. “The data is not sending any signal that the labor market is so hot or that inflation is moving up,” he said in response to a question from New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat and vice chair of the Joint Economic Committee. “What we have learned … is that the U.S. economy can operate at a much lower level of unemployment than many thought.” Historically, super-low unemployment has been seen as likely to push up inflation, as workers push for higher pay and companies offer greater salaries to find and keep workers. Most analysts forecast that the Fed will hold rates steady when it meets next month. But some economists expect growth will slow in the coming months and the Fed will likely have to cut again next year. ^ AP Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.

Fed cuts rates for a 3rd time but signals it will now pause

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve cut short-term interest rates Oct. 30 for a third time this year to try to support the economy. But it signaled that it plans no further cuts unless it sees clear evidence that the economic outlook has worsened. For now, Chairman Jerome Powell sounded a bullish note about the economy in a news conference after the Fed’s latest policy meeting. Despite some signs of weakness, the Fed expects growth to continue and the job market to remain strong. Since spring, manufacturing output has stumbled amid trade tensions and slower global growth, while businesses have cut spending on large equipment. But Powell stressed that the Fed doesn’t see those trends weakening the broader economy. Instead, steady hiring is keeping unemployment very low, boosting consumer confidence, and encouraging more spending. “Monetary policy is in a good place,” Powell said. “If developments emerge that cause a material reassessment of our outlook we would respond accordingly. Policy is not on a pre-set course.” Some of the global and trade threats that have been bedeviling the economy have receded, Powell said, thereby reducing the need for future rate cuts. The U.S. and China have reached a tentative truce that has cooled their trade war. And the European Union has agreed to extend the deadline for the United Kingdom’s exit from Oct. 31 to Jan. 31, lowering the likelihood of an economically disorderly “no deal” Brexit. “On both, the risks appear to have subsided,” he said. “That could bode well for business confidence and activity over time.” Investors appeared pleased with Powell’s positive take on the economy. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 115 points, or 0.4 percent. Analysts also noted that the year’s third rate cut had been widely expected and that expectations for another cut at the Fed’s next meeting, in December, were already dim. “He clearly set the bar high for rate cuts in December and January,” said Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics. But Bostjancic and some other economists say they expect growth to keep slowing and to eventually force the Fed’s hand. Bostjancic expects growth to decline to just 1.6 percent in 2020, below the Fed’s forecast of 2 percent, and that the policymakers will cut rates sometime next spring. Powell may be too optimistic about a defusing of the China trade and Brexit threats, Bostjancic said. While President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping are seeking to agree to an initial pact next month, it would likely leave many significant areas of dispute between the two countries unresolved. “He was wearing a little bit of rosy glasses with the trade talks and Brexit,” she said. “Trade tensions are still going to remain.” The Fed’s move reduces the short-term rate it controls — which influences many consumer and business loans — to a range between 1.5 percent and 1.75 percent. The policymakers dropped from their statement a key phrase they had used since June to indicate that a future rate cut was likely. That phrase said they would “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion.” The Fed’s new statement says instead that it will review the latest economic data as “it assesses the appropriate path” for its benchmark interest rate. Two of the Fed’s policymakers dissented from the decision: Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren and Kansas City Fed President Esther George said they preferred to leave rates alone. Both have dissented from all three rate cuts this year. The economy is in its 11th year of expansion, fueled by consumer spending and a solid if slightly weakened job market. By cutting rates, the Fed has tried to counter uncertainties heightened by Trump’s trade conflicts, a weaker global economy and a decline in U.S. manufacturing. The third rate cut of the year has partly reversed the four hikes that the Fed made last year in response to a strengthening economy. That was before rising global risks led the Fed to change course and begin easing credit. Lower rates are intended to encourage more borrowing and spending. Powell has said that the central bank’s rate reductions were intended as a kind of insurance against threats to the economy. Powell has pointed to similar rate cuts in 1995 and 1998 as precedents; in both those cases, the Fed cut rates three times. He and most other Fed officials credit their rate cuts with lowering mortgage rates, boosting home sales and generally keeping the economy on track. The Fed is also weighing the consequences of a decline in expectations for inflation. Lower inflation expectations can be self-fulfilling. This can pose a problem for the Fed because its preferred inflation gauge has been stuck below its 2 percent target for most of the past seven years. In the meantime, Trump, via Twitter, has renewed his attacks on the Fed for not lowering its benchmark rate closer to zero. The president has contrasted the Fed’s actions unfavorably with central banks in Europe and Japan, which have slashed their rates into negative territory. Though Trump has argued that this puts the United States at a competitive disadvantage, most economists regard negative rates as a sign of weakness. The U.S. economy is still growing, and hiring remains steady, though there have been signs of a slowdown in recent data. Americans cut back on spending at retailers and restaurants last month, a worrisome sign because consumer spending is the leading engine of economic growth. Still, consumer confidence remains high, and shoppers could easily rebound in the coming months. Earlier Wednesday, the government estimated that the economy grew at a tepid but steady 1.9 percent annual rate during the July-September quarter. That report showed that businesses cut back on their investment in new equipment and buildings by the most in nearly four years. But it also showed that the housing market helped drive growth for the first time in seven quarters, as home purchases and renovations have increased. Powell credited the Fed’s interest rate cuts for spurring those gains, along with greater spending on cars and appliances.

Fed plans more Treasury purchases to control lending rates

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve said Oct. 11 that it will buy short-term Treasury bills each month until the second quarter of 2020 to inject cash into the banking system and make it easier to control its benchmark lending rate. The action marks the Fed’s latest response to a shortage of cash reserves that developed last month and caused short-term interest rates to spike, briefly sending the Fed’s benchmark rate above its target range. The New York Fed said its first monthly purchases, starting Oct. 15, will total $60 billion. Future amounts weren’t specified. The Fed also said it will extend a separate short-term lending operation through January that is also intended to boost bank reserves. Chairman Jerome Powell has said these Treasury purchases aren’t intended to stimulate the economy. On Oct. 11, the Fed said its purchases are “technical” and “should not have any meaningful effects on household and business spending decisions and the overall level of economic activity.” Even so, large Fed bond-buying programs typically attract attention from economists and investors because they recall the extraordinary programs the central bank undertook to support the economy during the Great Recession and its economically sluggish aftermath. For several years through 2013, the Fed bought roughly $1.5 trillion of Treasurys and mortgage bonds to try to hold down long-term interest rates and encourage more borrowing and spending. Lower rates also led investors to invest more in stocks. At the time, many critics feared that the purchases, known as “quantitative easing” or QE, would stoke rampant inflation. That fear proved unfounded. Fed officials consider those earlier bond-buying programs to have largely succeeded. Still, some critics charge that by leading more investors to buy stocks, QE contributed to higher stock prices that disproportionately benefited wealthier Americans while leaving lower-income people with measly savings rates. This time, the Fed has stressed that its new bond-buying isn’t intended to affect most interest rates. Instead, they are intended to help the Fed’s tools for setting interest rates work better. “Purchases of Treasury bills likely will have little if any effect on longer-term interest rates, broader financial conditions, or the overall stance of monetary policy,” the Fed said in a written Q&A. Some observers are skeptical. Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, notes that $60 billion is three times as large as purchases under the European Central Bank’s recently announced quantitative easing program. “When it swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s hard to prove your intentions aren’t fowl,” Ashworth said. But Ashworth also acknowledged in an email that “The Fed is of course correct that this isn’t the same as QE,” because it isn’t intended to lower longer-term rates. Fed policymakers met by video conference Oct. 4 to approve the new buying operations. The Fed’s benchmark interest rate is now a range of 1.75 percent to 2 percent. Changes in that rate flow through other interest rates, such as those charged on mortgages, to influence borrowing and spending and the broader economy. The central bank keeps its short-term rate in its target range by paying banks interest on the reserves they hold at the Fed. That rate is 1.8 percent. This provides an incentive to banks to lend only at rates above 1.8 percent. But shortages of reserves occurred last month. Most experts blame quarterly tax payments made by many banks as well as auctions of new Treasury securities by the government, which soaked up cash. The reserve shortfall caused rates to spike in several short-term funding markets. If it continued, such spikes could offset the Fed’s efforts to keep interest rates low. The Fed plans to buy Treasury bills of durations between five and 52 weeks, until reserves exceed the level they were at in early September. Reserves at that time were between $1.45 trillion and $1.5 trillion, according to Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan Chase. On Oct. 9, reserves were $1.35 trillion, Feroli said, suggesting that the Fed will need to buy at least $100 billion in Treasurys. But the purchases will likely be much higher: The Fed needs reserves to offset the growth of currency, which rises at about $10 billion per month. And the central bank also wants to eventually replace about $160 billion in short-term loans it has made since the troubles in money markets first surfaced. Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont, said the Fed will likely buy about $60 billion a month for the first few months before slowing to roughly the $10 billion a month that is needed to keep up with currency growth.

Q&A: Stocks soar while bonds are signaling gloom. What’s up?

NEW YORK (AP) — Why is the stock market so happy and the bond market so gloomy? Just as the S&P 500 was setting a record high Thursday, bond yields were tumbling to their lowest levels since Donald Trump was elected. The yield on the 10-year Treasury, which influences rates for mortgages and other loans, dropped below 2 percent at one point. It was above 3.20 percent in November. Usually, stock prices rise when investors are feeling confident. Bond yields, meanwhile, often fall when investors are worried about a softening economy. How can both be happening at the same time? In large part, it’s because investors are locking in bets based on expectations for what the Federal Reserve will do with interest rates. The U.S.-China trade war is also playing a role. Here’s a look at how ebullience and trepidation can occur simultaneously: How is the Fed pushing the stock market higher? Most investors expect the Fed to cut interest rates at its next meeting in July for the first time since the economy was swamped under the Great Recession in 2008. Not only that, many investors expect the central bank to cut rates another one or maybe even two times later this year. It’s a sharp turnaround from December 2018, when the Fed raised rates for the seventh time in two years. For stocks, lower rates can goose prices higher because stocks suddenly look more attractive than bonds. Lower rates also can encourage borrowing and more economic activity. “Markets have accepted the new world order where low interest rates are viewed as a huge positive and people buy into the fact that you can afford to pay higher valuations” for stocks, said Nate Thooft, senior portfolio manager at Manulife Asset Management. It’s also not just the Fed. Central banks around the world have shown their willingness to keep interest rates low to invigorate their economies. Why are Treasury yields falling? Short-term yields tend to fall when expectations build for coming rate cuts. Longer-term yields, meanwhile, fall when expectations for inflation are low and worries about the economy are growing. Inflation has remained remarkably tame. Some concerning economic figures, meanwhile, have been popping up around the world. Particularly in manufacturing, countries have seen slowing momentum as the global trade war weighs on trade and business confidence. “The bond market has reacted more powerfully than the equity markets over the last several months, both in anticipation of Fed news and when it comes to global growth worries,” said Thooft. The bond market is usually seen as the more sober one when it comes to assessing economic trends, rather than the stock market, but Thooft said the movement in bond yields may have been overdone. Is the trade war also moving markets? Yes. Optimism is rising that the world’s largest economies can make progress on their trade dispute when the U.S. and Chinese leaders meet at the Group of 20 summit next week. Trump’s tweet announcing the meeting earlier this week helped send the S&P 500 to one of its better days of the year, up 1 percent. Aren’t the two things moving markets mutually exclusive? If the trade war gets resolved, will the Fed still cut rates? If Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping make so much progress that a deal seems near, Fed policymakers may not cut rates, or at least not in July. But few economists expect much progress will be made. Most analysts say that the most likely outcome is that the two sides agree to schedule talks. It’s not clear whether Trump will suspend his threat to slap more tariffs on the remaining $300 billion in Chinese imports that haven’t yet been taxed. Even if the Trump-Xi meeting goes well, the effects of Trump’s trade fights with Europe and Mexico, as well as China, will likely linger. U.S. farmers have been hurt by retaliatory tariffs imposed on agricultural exports and U.S. business investment has slowed, as companies delay planned expansions amid greater uncertainty. Trade fights “don’t unwind rapidly,” Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, said. There are signs that the U.S. economy is stumbling, and that low inflation is more stubborn than the Fed previously thought, both of which argue for lower rates. “They’re getting the cuts,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at tax advisory firm RSM, referring to stock market investors who bid up shares on anticipation of the Fed slicing rates. “The U.S. domestic economy is decelerating at an accelerating pace.” But the economy is doing well, isn’t it? Yes, for now. Few economists are forecasting a recession. But Brusuelas and others expect growth could come in as low as 1.8 percent this year, sharply below last year’s 2.9 percent. The boost to consumer spending from the tax cuts is fading, Brusuelas said. And while the unemployment rate remains low, hiring is on track to fall to its slowest pace since 2010. Inflation has remained below the Fed’s 2 percent target, which Chairman Jerome Powell said as recently as April was likely a temporary issue stemming from cheaper gas and other factors. But Wednesday, Fed policymakers forecast that inflation would be just 1.5 percent at the end of this year. While lower inflation might sound good, it suggests that wages won’t rise by enough to push prices higher. What if the Fed surprises everyone and doesn’t cut rates at all? The expectation for rate cuts is so deeply entrenched in markets that most investors don’t consider this a likely scenario. Brian Jacobsen, senior investment strategist at the multi-asset solutions team at Wells Fargo Asset Management, is outside the mainstream in saying that the Fed might stand pat. He says China’s slowing economy adds urgency for its leaders to reach a deal, while Trump has seen how much the stock market wants a trade agreement. If next week’s meeting does offer some resolution, expectations for a rate cut will be dashed. But any disappointment could be offset by expectations for more durable economic growth around the world. “Once again, we could be in a position where bond yields rise and stocks rise as well,” Jacobsen said. “We’ll no longer have this divergence.”
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