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Powell: 'Just so important' to keep economic expansion going

Brian Cheung
Reporter

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell did not push back on a rate cut coming later this month, telling the House Financial Services Committee Wednesday that it is “just so important for us to continue” the economic expansion.

“We see the economy as being in a good place, and we’re committed to using our tools to keep it there,” Powell said in the first of two days of testimony.

Powell’s remarks on Capitol Hill put some air back into expectations for a rate cut in the Fed’s next policy-setting meeting on July 31. Fed funds futures contracts elevated bets on a 50 basis points cut in that meeting, up from 3.3% before the testimony began to 30.7% as of Wednesday afternoon.

Markets traded up to close the day, as the S&P 500 gained 0.45% to 2,993.07, the Dow Jones Industrial Average added 0.29% to 26,860.20, and the Nasdaq Composite rose 0.75% to 8,202.53.

Wall Street also appeared to view Powell’s testimony as tilted toward more accommodation. Barclays wrote Wednesday afternoon that Powell sounded “surprisingly dovish” and pushed their team to increase their confidence in a forecast of at least a 25 basis point cut in July followed by another 50 basis points of cuts by year-end.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testifies during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on July 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. Powell is testifying on monetary policy and the state of the economy. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

The dovish interpretation was partly due to expectations that Powell may push back on the chances of a rate cut in the next meeting, especially on the heels of a June jobs report that handily beat estimates. Healthy job gains with only a slight tick up in unemployment originally reduced market expectations for a 50 basis point cut in the July meeting, as some speculated that the Fed would see a weaker case for accommodation.

Powell acknowledged Wednesday the jobs report was “great news” but said broadly that the “U.S. data came in about as expected,” suggesting that the case for a rate cut hasn’t weakened since the Fed’s June 19 meeting.

He elaborated later that the Fed will do whatever necessary to keep the job market going.

“We’ve had people say to us, this is really the best feel that they’ve had for many years, if ever. And all of that really, in my thinking and in our thinking, just says how important it is for us to continue to sustain this expansion,” Powell said.

Overall, Powell reported that the economy appears to have performed “reasonably well,” but still faces “crosscurrents” from slower global growth and trade concerns.

Fed Minutes

Powell’s testimony in the morning pre-empted the release of the Fed’s minutes in the afternoon, detailing the June 19 decision to hold rates steady at the current range of 2.25% to 2.5%.

The minutes revealed that many participants on the Federal Open Market Committee said the “economy appeared to have lost some momentum,” citing trade concerns and signs of slowing global growth. Those committee members also pointed to weakness in businesses, citing softer confidence and spending numbers ahead of the June meeting.

Those FOMC members likely represent the view of the eight members that telegraphed at least one rate cut by the end of 2019, as visualized in the Fed’s dot plot economic projection.

The FOMC's June dot plots showed eight participants projecting at least one 25 basis point rate cut by the end of 2019. Seven participants project no rate changes by the end of the year, and only one participants sees a case for a rate cut. Source: Federal Reserve


“Many judged additional monetary policy accommodation would be warranted in the near term should these recent developments prove to be sustained and continue to weigh on the economic outlook,” the minutes noted.

Powell’s insistence that the data have come in “as expected” appears to hint that those “developments” have not been resolved, leaving a rate cut on the table.

The minutes interestingly raised concerns over a new but little-discussed topic within monetary policy discussions: the debt ceiling.

Some participants speculated that federal budget negotiations could result in a “sharp reduction in government spending,” which would have a negative impact on U.S. GDP.

Lawmakers have to appropriate funds to keep the government open come October 1. Failure to do so could risk another government shutdown and present a new downside risk to the Fed’s efforts to keep the economic expansion going.

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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