Trump's attacks on Fed intensify
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said interest rates are “just below” the so-called neutral range, softening previous comments that seemed to suggest a greater distance and spurring speculation central bankers are increasingly open to pausing their series of hikes next year.
Wall Street embraced the news with a rally for Treasuries and surge of more than 2 per cent for major U.S. stock indexes. His “just-below” comment tempered remarks last month that markets read as a signal of more tightening. Speaking on Oct. 3, Powell said that “we may go past neutral. But we’re a long way from neutral at this point, probably.”
In his speech Wednesday to the Economic Club of New York, Powell said the Fed’s benchmark interest rate was “just below the broad range of estimates of the level that would be neutral for the economy -- that is, neither speeding up nor slowing down growth.”
The S&P 500 was up 1.6 per cent as of 1:26 p.m. in New York, on track for its biggest rally in three weeks, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose as much as 2 per cent. The rise in Treasuries pushed down the yield on 10-year notes as low as 3.04 per cent, from 3.07 per cent before Powell’s speech. The Bloomberg Dollar Spot index was down 0.6 per cent after rising earlier in the day.
If rates are closer to what policy makers ultimately judge is the neutral level, that could signal the Fed will tighten monetary policy less than previously projected. Eurodollar futures pricing reacted to Powell’s comments, reflecting even firmer expectations that the Fed will hike only once next year.
Powell’s remarks on the economy and monetary policy were seen as keeping the Fed on track to raise interest rates in December. They offered few explicit clues, however, as to how many hikes he thinks will be necessary in 2019. Powell repeated his view that the Fed will have to be especially responsive to incoming economic data.
“We also know that the economic effects of our gradual rate increases are uncertain, and may take a year or more to be fully realized,” he said. “While FOMC participants’ projections are based on our best assessments of the outlook, there is no preset policy path,” Powell said, referring to the central bank’s Federal Open Market Committee, which sets interest rates.
Even before the speech, investors had grown skeptical that Fed officials will reach their own median projection for three hikes in 2019 against a backdrop of slowing growth and uncertainty over the U.S.’s ongoing trade dispute with China.
“As always, our decisions on monetary policy will be designed to keep the economy on track in light of the changing outlook for jobs and inflation,” Powell said.
The Fed still sees the economic outlook as relatively strong. “My FOMC colleagues and I, as well as many private-sector economists, are forecasting continued solid growth, low unemployment, and inflation near 2 per cent,” Powell said in the speech.
On the same day the Fed released its first-ever semi-annual Financial Stability Report, Powell highlighted some concern over corporate debt levels, pointing especially to highly-leveraged borrowers who may “surely face distress if the economy turned down.” Still, he judged the area posed little systemic risk, labeling broader, overall risks to financial stability as “moderate.”
“Such losses are unlikely to pose a threat to the safety and soundness of the institutions at the core of the system,” he said.