US Fed chairman Powell hints at higher rates following Trump attack

Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell backed rate hikes, but appeared to signal a nearer end to them, saying rates are now 'just below' estimates of neutral.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks at the Economic Club of New York's luncheon in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, US, on Nov 28, 2018.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks at the Economic Club of New York's luncheon in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, US, on Nov 28, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) – A day after President Donald Trump’s latest attack on the US central bank, Federal Reserve chief Jerome Powell hinted Wednesday (Nov 28) the key lending rate would move higher but said there was no preset course. 

Powell said in a speech in New York that interest rates remained “low by historical standards” and still provided stimulus to the economy. 

And he said economists estimated the Fed’s policy rate – at 2.25 per cent – was “just below” the estimate of neutral, a rate that neither stimulates nor restrains the economy.  

US stock markets jumped following the comments, as investors interpreted them to mean the central bank was close to the end of its tightening cycle, which has seen eight rate increases since December 2015 following the global financial crisis. 

The benchmark Dow Jones Industrial Average powered 2.5 per cent higher, turning positive for the year after steep recent losses. 

“He said the magic words,” Gregori Volokhine of Meeschaert Financial Services told AFP. 

However, central bankers have never signalled they intend to stop raising rates once they hit neutral – which is a moving target and subject to debate. Instead they will watch economic data, especially inflation. 

Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics said markets were reading too much into Powell’s statement and with historically low unemployment, the Fed may have no choice but to keep raising. 

With estimates of a “neutral” rate in the range of 2.5-3.5 percent, the Fed is “only one hike away from the bottom end of the range but it remains three hikes from the middle of the range,” Shepherdson said in a research note. 

‘Democratic legitimacy’   

Trump on Tuesday (Nov 27) again blasted his hand-picked chief of the US central bank, saying the Fed was “way off base” and the rate hikes undermined the work he was doing to juice the US economy. 

The Federal Reserve chairman has presided over three interest rate increases this year and is widely expected to hike again in December. 

“They’re making a mistake because I have a gut and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post. 

In his speech to the New York Economic Club, Powell again stressed there was “no preset policy path” for interest rates and said the central bank had moved gradually, since “moving too fast would risk shortening the expansion”.

But keeping rates “too low for too long” could create other risks, including accelerating inflation, he said. 

“As always, our decisions on monetary policy will be designed to keep the economy on track,” he said. 

But in response to questions he likened the policy process to walking through a dark room, forcing officials to slow down. “You feel your way more under uncertainty of this kind.”

Powell has dismissed the unprecedented political attacks from Trump, saying they have no influence on deliberations of the independent central bank.  But many economists warn that the attacks actually could pressure the central bank to raise rates to demonstrate its independence from political influence. 

Powell’s speech was focused largely on a new Fed report on stability of the US financial system, but contained an unusual comment: “By clearly and transparently explaining our policies, we aim to strengthen the foundation of democratic legitimacy that enables the Fed to serve the needs of the American public.”

No dangerous excesses 

He also explained the Fed’s inaugural report on the stability of the US financial system, released earlier Wednesday, noting that the central bank did not see “dangerous excesses” in stock markets.

And he said the financial system was now “substantially more resilient” than it was before the 2008 financial crisis. 

“My own assessment is that, while risks are above normal in some areas and below normal in others, overall financial stability vulnerabilities are at a moderate level,” Powell said. 

While he acknowledged the growing concern over increased borrowing by businesses that already carried a high debt load, he said for now they were “unlikely to pose a threat to the safety and soundness” of the system in the event of a downturn. 

Meanwhile “the unsettled state of trade negotiations, Brexit negotiations, budget discussions between Italy and the European Union, and cyber-related disruptions” all remain risks to the global economy, he said.