WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve cut interest rates for the third time this year as the US economy continued slowing amid ongoing trade disputes and weak global growth.
The federal funds rate, which affects the cost of mortgages, credit cards and other borrowing, will now hover between 1.5% and 1.75%.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell strongly suggested at a press conference Wednesday that the Fed would hold rates steady for the foreseeable future. Powell said the current level is “likely to remain appropriate” given the Fed’s economic outlook of moderate economic growth, a strong labor market and inflation growing at around 2%.
“If that changes, the Fed will respond accordingly,” Powell said.
Rate cuts during an economic expansion aren’t common, but they aren’t unprecedented either. The Fed similarly made what former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan called “insurance cuts” in 1995 and 1998. The Fed quickly went back to rate hikes after those moves.
Yet, despite the fact that there is little wiggle room left to cut rates further should the economy suddenly start shrinking, Powell said he doesn’t believe the Fed is about to start raising rates anytime soon.
“We would need to see a really significant move up in inflation … before we would consider raising rates to address inflation concerns,” he said.
Two voting members of the policy-setting committee — Kansas City Fed President Esther George and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren — dissented against the decision to lower interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point.
Policymakers painted a mostly rosy picture of the US economy in their statement, pointing to “solid” job gains and household spending rising at a”strong pace,” but also noted that business investment and exports continued to “remain weak.”
Powell noted that a potential “phase one” trade deal between the United States and China and signs that the UK may be able to orchestrate a smooth exit from the EU may mean that risks are less dire and could boost business confidence.
“There’s plenty of risk left, but I have to say the risks seems to have subsided,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Chile canceled the upcoming APEC summit in November where President Donald Trump was expected to sign a trade deal with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Fed officials next meet in six weeks. They left some room open for further rate cuts by omitting certain language in their statement, but left some room for deviation by pointing to remaining “uncertainties” to the country’s economic outlook.
“The committee will continue to monitor the implications of incoming information for the economic outlook as it assesses the appropriate path of the target range for the federal funds rate,” the statement read.
The Fed chairman has been under pressure all year by Trump to continue juicing the economy by sharply cutting interest rates, which are already at historically low levels, as he seeks to bolster his chances of winning next year’s election in 2020.
Data released earlier on Wednesday, however, showed the economy may be slowing, making Powell’s job even more difficult as he seeks to keep the country’s longest running economic expansion running.
In the third quarter, the economy grew 1.9% according to initial data released by the Commerce Department. That was better than what Wall Street had been predicting, but still fell short of the Trump administration’s forecast of hitting 3% economic growth annually. It was also the second back-to-back reading well below this year’s first quarter report of 3.1%.
While the fresh data shows the economy isn’t quite going off the road yet, consumers are now spending less than before just as manufacturing continues to contract and investment spending by businesses continues to decline.
The US stock market moved higher Wednesday after the rate cut.
“The Fed better put another log or two on the fire because the economy isn’t burning as bright as the Trump administration had hoped when they came into office and with an election just over a year away, the economy needs more stimulus if it is going to grow at a moderate pace,” wrote Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG.
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