By appearing to buckle to Trump on rates, is the Fed chief creating problems down the road?

Don Lee, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

WASHINGTON -- In signaling that the Federal Reserve is almost certain to cut interest rates at the end of this month, Fed Chairman Jerome H. Powell may have given President Trump what he wants.

But the central bank now looks more vulnerable to criticism that it is caving to political pressures that will only grow as the election cycle heats up.

Powell, in testimony to lawmakers Wednesday, essentially argued that heightened uncertainty, from trade tensions and slowing global economic growth, along with low inflation, was enough to justify a cut in interest rates.

Historically, the Fed has lowered rates to ward off recession or when it sees substantial risks of a downturn.

The U.S. economy expanded at nearly 3% pace last year and, although it has slowed in recent months, the Fed and most private forecasters see growth continuing at a decent rate. The latest jobs report for June showed hiring remains strong, and Trump recently agreed to a ceasefire in the trade war with China, tenuous as it may be.

For those reasons, Powell's remarks Wednesday came as a pleasant surprise to financial markets. Stocks rose to record highs.


Lowering the rate by a quarter point later this month may help borrowers a little. The Fed's main rate is a benchmark for credit cards, auto loans and other short-term consumer lending, but long-term rates such as mortgages already have dropped in anticipation of a Fed rate cut, meaning it's unlikely to provide much of a boost to the housing market or the broader economy.

"We've already gotten 90% of the benefit; it's already priced into the market," said Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Investors are expecting at least one more quarter-point rate cut after July, and some even two. Powell and his colleagues at the Fed will have their hands full managing investors' expectations on future rate reductions, so they don't set themselves up for a sharp fall.

"The issue that the Fed is going to run into ... is just like parenting," said Ryan Sweet, an economist at Moody's Analytics. "They can't bend every time the markets throw a tantrum. At some point, you've got to put your foot down."


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