New York: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has cautioned against the need for an interest-rate cut. A record of the US central bank’s most recent meeting could reveal if policymakers in fact discussed that option.
Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee’s April 30-May 1 gathering will be released at 2pm on Wednesday in Washington. Officials held rates steady at the meeting and maintained their pledge to be patient as they weigh future rate moves.
“It will be interesting to see if there was any discussion of what it would take for them to get to lower rates, whether as an insurance cut or because of the inflation-being-too-low story,” said Roberto Perli, a partner at Cornerstone Macro LLC in Washington. “Of course, they will not be crystal clear. Reading between the lines could be interesting.’’
James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Fed and one of the most dovish policymakers at the US central bank, said Wednesday in Hong Kong that a rate reduction “may become a more attractive option if inflation data continue to disappoint.” Investors, who’re pricing in a rate cut by the end of the year, have other grounds to expect some debate on the question.
Fed Vice Chairman Richard Clarida told CNBC in an interview on April 11 that the central bank has sometimes taken out “insurance cuts’’ to protect an economic expansion, as Alan Greenspan did in 1995 and 1998. Chicago Fed chief Charles Evans, speaking several days later, said that a decline to 1.5 per cent core inflation could call for lower rates.
The Fed’s preferred gauge of core inflation, excluding food and energy, slowed to 1.6 per cent in the 12 months through March.
Powell, in his press conference following the meeting, said he didn’t favour an insurance cut and today’s situation is “quite different’’ from 1995. “We don’t see a strong case for moving in either direction,’’ he said.
Powell also played down inflation’s decline below the central bank’s 2 per cent target, telling reporters it may prove to be “transitory.’’ Close attention will be paid to how many other policymakers voiced this view during the meeting.
“I do expect to see a lengthy discussion of inflation,” said Michael Feroli, chief US economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York. “It will be interesting to see if Powell’s ‘transitory’ view is representative of the committee as a whole, or just a part of it.”
The FOMC plans to stop shrinking its balance sheet in September, when it will halt the reduction of its holdings of Treasuries. But key details, including about the maturity composition of its asset holdings over time, remain undecided.
Powell told reporters the committee held a preliminary discussion on the question and the FOMC would return to the topic toward the end of the year, though “there is no pressing need to resolve this matter” and investors will get plenty of warning of any decision.
What Bloomberg’s economists say
Ending interest-rate hikes and being set to end balance-sheet runoff leaves the Fed in the enviable position of sitting on its hands — unless the economic or market environment changes in a meaningful way.
The minutes could shed light on the debate, said Jim O’Sullivan, chief US economist at High Frequency Economics.
“My reading is that they are strongly leaning toward the option of matching average maturity distribution” of the market, rather than going to an all-bills composition, he said.
Some Fed presidents, notably Esther George of the Kansas City, have worried about signs of financial excesses, arguing that prolonged low rates could repeat the asset bubbles that caused the last two US recessions. The S&P 500 hit a record high on April 30, though it has since fallen back amid trade-war concerns.
“Worries about frothy asset markets might be mentioned’’ in the minutes, said Jonathan Wright, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University.
US-China trade tensions could also have been a topic for debate. But President Donald Trump’s decision to escalate the dispute by slapping punitive tariffs on Chinese imports happened after the Fed met.