Washington: The Federal Reserve indicated a readiness to cut interest rates for the first time in more than a decade to sustain a near-record U.S. economic expansion, citing “uncertainties” in their outlook.
While Chairman Jerome Powell and fellow policy makers left their key rate in a range of 2.25% to 2.5% on Wednesday, they dropped a reference in their statement to being “patient” on borrowing costs and forecast a larger miss of their 2% inflation target this year.
While inflation near the goal and a strong labor market are the most likely outcomes, “uncertainties about this outlook have increased,’’ the Federal Open Market Committee said in the statement following a two-day meeting in Washington. “In light of these uncertainties and muted inflation pressures, the Committee will closely monitor the implications of incoming information for the economic outlook and will act as appropriate to sustain the expansion.”
The FOMC vote was not unanimous, with St. Louis Fed President James Bullard dissenting in favor of a quarter-point rate cut. His vote marked the first dissent of Powell’s tenure as chairman.
Policy makers were starkly divided on the path for policy. Eight of 17 pencilled in a reduction by the end of the year as another eight saw no change and one forecast a hike, according to updated quarterly forecasts.
In the statement, officials downgraded their assessment of economic activity to a “moderate” rate from “solid” at their last gathering.
The pivot toward easier monetary policy shows the Fed swinging closer to the view of most investors that President Donald Trump’s trade war is slowing the economy’s momentum and that rates are too restrictive given sluggish inflation.
The change in tone follows attacks on the Fed by Trump for not doing more to bolster the economy and Tuesday’s news report that the president asked White House lawyers earlier this year to explore his options for demoting Powell from the chairmanship.
That risks casting a political shadow over whatever policy decision the Fed makes, though Powell and his colleagues say they’re focusing only on the economic goals Congress gave them.
Officials noted that “growth of household spending appears to have picked up from earlier in the year” and that indicators of business fixed investment “have been soft.” They repeated that the labor market “remains strong.”
Investors have been betting the Fed will reduce rates at its next meeting in late July, though a majority of economists surveyed earlier this month don’t expect a move until December. Yields on 10-year Treasuries have fallen to the lowest since 2017. The hope of fresh stimulus has sent U.S. stocks to near a record.
Recent U.S. economic data have been mixed. Consumer spending held up in May but job gains were disappointing, and some gauges of business sentiment have cooled on uncertainty around the outlook for trade. The Fed remains bedevilled by inflation continuing to undershoot the central bank’s 2% target despite unemployment being at a 49-year low.
Central bankers are likely hoping for greater clarity over Trump’s trade war with China. Stocks jumped on Tuesday after the president said he would meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping at next week’s Group of 20 summit in Japan.
The Fed, which raised interest rates four times last year and as recently as December projected further hikes in 2019, isn’t alone in shifting tack. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi on Tuesday paved the way for a rate cut, and central banks in Australia, India and Russia have lowered borrowing costs this month.
The median projection for 2019 GDP growth was unchanged at 2.1% and revised up by a tenth of a point to 2% in 2020. The 2021 estimate was held at 1.8%.
The median unemployment rate forecasts 2019-21 were all lowered by a tenth of a point. Officials see 3.6% this year rising to 3.7% next year and 3.8% in 2021.
Officials see the jobless rate most consistent with full employment in the long run at 4.2%, versus 4.3% in March.
Officials cut estimates for their preferred inflation gauge. The personal consumption expenditures price index is expected to increase just 1.5% in 2019, down from a 1.8% projection in March. By 2020, the main and core gauges are both projected to rise 1.9%, below the target.
The Federal Reserve’s so-called dot plot, which the U.S. central bank uses to signal its outlook for the path of interest rates, shows that policy makers are divided on policy for the remainder of this year, a change from no hikes in March.
The Federal Open Market Committee meeting
The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 charged the Federal Reserve with setting monetary policy to influence the availability and cost of money and credit.
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting is a regular session held by the members of the Federal Open Market Committee, a branch of the Federal Reserve that decides on the monetary policy of the United States.
During these meetings, the FOMC reviews economic and financial conditions and determines the federal funds target rate
A decline in the target rate could stimulate economic growth; however, too much economic activity can cause inflation pressures to build. A rise in the rate limits economic growth and helps control inflation pressures; however, too great an increase can stall economic growth. The FOMC seeks a target rate that will achieve the maximum rate of economic growth.
A change in the federal funds rate can affect other short-term interest rates, longer-term interest rates, foreign exchange rates, stock prices, bond prices, the amount of money and credit in the economy, employment and the prices of goods and services.
So traders and investors around the world usually attempt to predict where monetary policy is headed next in each Fed meeting, and adjust their strategies and portfolios accordingly.
The Federal Funds Target Interest Rate
The federal funds rate is the interest rate that banks charge each other for overnight loans, meaning that it effectively acts as the base interest rate for the US economy. Changes to the federal funds rate will impact short and long-term interest rates, forex rates, and eventually economic factors like unemployment or inflation. This, in turn, will play out across the global economy.
While it doesn’t have a direct say over the rates charged by banks to lend money to each other, the FOMC can indirectly change the fed funds rate using three policy tools that affect money supply. These are open market operations, the discount rate, and reserve requirements.
Open market operations are the buying and selling of government bonds on the open market.
When the FOMC wants to decrease monetary supply it will sell bonds, taking money out of the economy and in turn raising interest rates. When it wants to increase money supply, it will buy bonds, injecting money into the economy and lowering rates.
As well as borrowing this money from each other at the federal funds rate, banks can borrow money directly from the Federal Reserve itself.
The interest rate a bank will have to pay to borrow from the Fed is called the discount rate. A lower discount rate will encourage a lower federal funds rate, and vice versa.
Reserve requirements are the percentage of a bank’s deposits from customers that it has to hold in order to cover withdrawals.
If reserve requirements are raised, then banks can loan less money and will ask for higher interest rates. If they are lowered, then the opposite happens.
Quantitative easing (QE) is an extra measure that the Fed can apply in times of severe financial situation. It is usually only used once the above policy tools have been exhausted.
In function, QE looks fairly similar to open market operations. The FOMC buys securities on the open market, injecting money directly into the system.