Federal Reserve Cuts Rate .25%

Jerome Powell
U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

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Federal Reserve policymakers lowered their main interest rate for a second time this year while splitting over the need for further easing, caught between uncertainty over trade and global growth and a domestic economy that’s holding up well.

The benchmark rate was lowered by a quarter percentage point to a range of 1.75% to 2% “in light of the implications of global developments for the economic outlook as well as muted inflation pressures,’’ the Federal Open Market Committee said in a statement Sept. 18 in Washington. It continued to characterize the U.S. labor market as “strong” with “solid” job gains.

Treasuries held onto gains, the dollar rallied and U.S. stocks extended losses after the Fed’s announcement. The decision didn’t alter expectations among futures traders for another 25-basis-point cut this year.

Chairman Jerome Powell has been under relentless public pressure to reduce rates from President Donald Trump, who returned to Twitter minutes after the decision to say policymakers had failed again by not cutting more.

Fed officials maintained their pledge to “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion.”

“Although household spending has been rising at a strong pace, business fixed investment and exports have weakened,’’ the FOMC said.

Five officials wanted to keep rates unchanged, while five saw a quarter point as appropriate this year and seven wanted a half point.

The Fed Board also took a separate step to calm this week’s strains in money markets and avert harm to the economy, lowering the interest rate on excess reserves to 1.8%. Early Sept. 18 the Fed injected $75 billion of liquidity to ease a crunch, and key rates pulled back from elevated levels.

Powell is trying to sustain the expansion despite slowing global growth that has been chilled by uncertainty over U.S. trade policy, fanning fears of recession. Manufacturing has been hit hard, particularly in Germany, which prompted the European Central Bank to ease policy last week.

Kansas City Fed chief Esther George and Boston’s Eric Rosengren dissented against the reduction, as they did in July, preferring to keep rates unchanged. There was a new dissent by James Bullard of St. Louis, who preferred a half-point cut.

Powell’s committee is split between those who don’t think cuts are needed because domestic spending is solid and those worried by global weakness and inflation running persistently under their 2% goal.

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“This statement seems carefully crafted to be silent on that question,” said David Wilcox, a former senior Fed economist and now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “There is no clue here as to whether this is the end of the line.”

The median estimate saw the benchmark rate hold steady after the move at 1.9% and remain there until the end of 2020, then rise to 2.1% in 2021 and 2.4% in 2022. That’s just under the Fed’s longer-run “neutral’’ federal funds rate estimate, which was unchanged at 2.5%.

The unemployment rate was forecast to end this year about 3.7%, up a tenth from June, and finish 2020 at that level. The longer-run estimated jobless rate remained at 4.2%.

Participants continued to forecast that they wouldn’t reach their 2% inflation goal until 2021.

The Fed’s back-to-back rate cuts reverse the tightening last year and follow a wave of easing this year by other central banks. In addition to the ECB, some analysts expect the Bank of Japan to act at its meeting Sept. 19.

U.S. central bankers, who added the reference to exports, worry that uncertainty over trade is denting investment and could slow hiring. Private-sector job growth has slowed from last year.

At the same time, consumption — which accounts for most of the economy — appears strong with retail sales rising 0.4% in August and sentiment indicators relatively solid. Financial conditions have remained easy since the July meeting, although the dollar has resumed gains against major currencies.