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Markets go for a ride as Powell tried to communicate next steps on rates

Brian Cheung

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell fielded a number of questions on Wednesday after policymakers lowered interest rates by 25 basis points, strapping markets in for a roller coaster ride through the close.

At its lowest point during the day, the Dow was down more than 400 points as investors tried to figure out what Powell’s commentary meant for future rate moves.

The S&P 500 (GSPC), Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) and Nasdaq composite (IXIC) were quiet heading into Fed Chairman Jerome Powell's press conference but moved wildly as Powell fielded questions about where rates go from here.

Here is a rough timeline of key points communicated by the Fed and Chairman Powell throughout the afternoon on Wednesday.

2:00 p.m.

The Fed announces that it cut its target interest rates by 25 basis points to a target range of 2% to 2.25%, citing a need for accommodation amid “global developments” and “muted” inflationary pressures.

The Federal Open Market Committee statement says the Fed also decided to end its balance sheet normalization process two months early. Since 2017, the Fed has been unwinding assets that it accumulated to battle the financial crisis. The Fed had originally planned on stopping “quantitative tightening” at the end of September.

The Dow Jones twitches by about 100 points but bounces back as markets wait for Powell to take the podium. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury slips from 2.04 to 2.01% in the next 20 minutes.

2:30 p.m.

Powell opens with a statement saying that the Fed still sees a “favorable” outlook for the U.S. economy but opted to lower rates to “support that outlook” for three reasons: insuring against further slowing global growth, countering the slowing impacts already affecting the U.S., and spurring inflation closer to its 2% target.

Powell says there were positive and negative developments in data received since the FOMC’s last meeting on June 19. GDP and job growth were positives, foreign growth and falling business fixed investment at home were negatives.

2:36 p.m.

Powell gets a question on whether or not 25 basis points is strong enough to return inflation to the Fed’s target and what developments may require the Fed to cut again.

“The committee is really thinking of this as a way to adjusting policy to a somewhat more accommodative stance,” Powell says before referencing the three reasons he mentioned in his opening remarks. “We’re thinking of it as essentially in the nature of a mid-cycle adjustment.”

Markets start turning, and the Dow, which headed into the opening statement around 27,162, slips 100 points in the next few minutes.

2:43 p.m.

Powell describes 25 basis points as “a bit of an insurance” cut, adding during another answer that different members of the committee saw different conditions in the economy that warranted a need for a 25 basis point cut. Two voting members, Boston Fed’s Eric Rosengren and Kansas City Fed’s Esther George, dissented because they would have preferred holding rates steady at the previous level of 2.25% to 2.5%.

Powell says Fed had signaled that it was watching changing financial conditions closely over the past few months.

“I don’t think asking about a quarter-point is really the right question. I think you have to look at the course of the year and see the committee moving away from rate increases to a neutral posture to now a rate cut.”

Markets continue to dip.

2:48 p.m.

Powell says the 25 basis point cut is not the beginning of a “lengthy cutting cycle.”

"That's not what we're seeing now,” Powell says.

The Dow, which is already down over 200 points from where it was when the press conference began, begins accelerating downward over the next five minutes before bouncing back and recuperating some losses. At its lowest point, the Dow was more than 400 points off of where it was when Powell stepped up to the podium.

The 10-year Treasury yield jumps up to 2.07% but starts coming back down.

2:57 p.m.

Powell says the decision to cut rates and end the balance sheet unwind, as President Donald Trump has called for, had nothing to do with political pressure.

“We never take into account political considerations there’s no place in our discussions for that. We also don’t conduct monetary policy in order to prove our independence.”

On the decision to end the balance sheet normalization process, Powell said it was a “matter of simplicity and consistency, really nothing more to it than that.” Some speculated ahead of the meeting that the Fed might try to avoid out-of-sync monetary policy actions by pre-emptively ending its quantitative tightening process to align with its efforts to also ease rates.

3:03 p.m.

Powell clarifies earlier commentary on where the Fed goes on rates.

“Let me be clear, I said it’s not the beginning of a long series of rate cuts. I didn’t say it’s just one or anything like that. I said when you think about rate-cutting cycles they go on a long time. The committee is not seeing that, not seeing us in that place. You would do that if you saw real economic weakness and you thought the federal funds needed to be cut a lot. That’s not what we’re seeing.”

Markets continue bouncing back, and are now down only about 200 points compared to where it was about 30 minutes earlier. The 10-year Treasury comes back down to around 2.02%.

3:09 p.m.

Powell says the insurance cut could get the economy to good enough place where the Fed hikes again.

“In other cycles, the Fed wound up raising rates again after a mid-cycle adjustment. Again I’m not predicting that but I don’t think we know that we we’ll have less ammo because of these things,” Powell said.

3:13 p.m.

Powell responds to a Yahoo Finance question on communicating downside risks against the Fed’s description of the U.S. outlook as “positive.”

“There really isn’t anything in the U.S. economy that presents a prominent near term risk to the U.S. economy. As I mentioned, there’s no segment or sector that’s really boiling over or overheating. Within the economy it’s healthy so I would say that. Downside risks are really coming from abroad, of course we are concerned about low inflation.”

3:15 p.m.

Powell concludes press conference. Dow hovers around 26,900.

4:00 p.m.

Closing bell rings and the Dow Jones Industrial Average ends the day down over 300 points to 26,864.27, a 1.23% decline. The S&P 500 had fallen 1.09% to 2,980.38 and the NASDAQ Composite had lost 1.19% to 8,175.42.

The spread between the two-year and the ten-year Treasuries narrows to 13 basis points. The day before, the spread was 21 basis points.

4:41 p.m.

President Trump tweets that markets would have preferred a more “aggressive rate-cutting cycle,” saying Powell disappointed “as usual.”

The Fed’s next policy-setting meeting will be on September 18.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the banking industry and the intersection of finance and policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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