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Federal Reserve saw July interest rate cut as insurance for growth and inflation

Federal Reserve chief Jerome H. Powell
Fed Chairman Jerome H. Powell in 2018. The Fed’s interest rate cut was controversial in the committee: Two members wanted no cut; “a couple” wanted a half-point cut.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Federal Reserve officials viewed their interest rate cut last month as insurance against too-low inflation and the risk of a deeper slump in business investment stemming from uncertainty over President Trump’s trade war.

“Members who voted for the policy action sought to better position the overall stance of policy to help counter the effects on the outlook of weak global growth and trade policy uncertainty, insure against any further downside risks from those sources, and promote a faster return of inflation” to the 2% target, according to minutes of the July 30-31 Federal Open Market Committee meeting, released Wednesday.

The Fed cut rates for the first time since 2008, a move Chairman Jerome H. Powell called a “mid-cycle” adjustment. The minutes described the quarter-point cut as part of an “ongoing reassessment” of the policy path that began in late 2018.

“Members generally agreed that it was important to maintain optionality in setting the future target range for the federal funds rate,” the minutes said, indicating the committee didn’t view the cut as part of an extended cycle of reductions.

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The Fed went out of its way to highlight the reasons for the cut in three bullet points, citing signs of economic deceleration, risk management concerns and too-low inflation. The minutes said participants noted that “trade uncertainty would remain a persistent headwind for the outlook.”

Federal Open Market Committee participants said they still viewed a sustained U.S. economic expansion, strong labor markets and inflation near the target “as the most likely outcomes.”

The minutes began with a lengthy discussion of the Fed’s policy strategy review, which indicated that officials weren’t ruling out any options, including an expansion of their policy toolkit.

Since the last meeting, the dollar has strengthened as the global economic outlook has dimmed, raising the prospect for rate cuts abroad. Yields on U.S. 10-year Treasury notes have plunged toward record lows. Investors expect as many as three additional quarter-point rate cuts this year to offset increasing downside risks, including a move next month.

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The quarter-point cut in July was controversial within the committee, with Fed presidents Eric Rosengren of Boston and Esther George of Kansas City dissenting in favor of no change, the first double dissent Powell had faced since he took the Fed’s helm in February 2018. “A couple” participants wanted a half-point cut, the minutes said.

The chairman is trying to sustain a record U.S. economic expansion at a time when uncertainty over Trump’s trade policy is weighing on global growth.

Although U.S. data are mixed, economists remain positive on growth, with estimates showing the expansion continuing into 2021, according to forecasts compiled by Bloomberg. Retail sales in July rose the most in four months. The consumer price index also rose, with core prices excluding food and energy climbing 2.2% for the year.

At the same time, consumer sentiment plummeted to a seven-month low this month, raising the risk that the economy’s biggest engine may be poised to downshift.


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