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Powell says Fed is wrestling with whether to cut rates, insulated from politics

Powell says Fed is wrestling with whether to cut rates, insulated from politics
FILE PHOTO: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell holds a news conference following a two-day Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington, U.S., June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque -
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KEVIN LAMARQUE(Reuters)
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By Trevor Hunnicutt

NEWYORK (Reuters) – Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on Tuesday said the U.S. central bank is “insulated from short-term political pressures,” as policymakers wrestle with whether to cut rates as President Donald Trump has demanded.

“The Fed is insulated from short-term political pressures -what is often referred to as our ‘independence,’” Powell said in a speech he delivered at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Congress chose to insulate the Fed this way because it had seen the damage that often arises when policy bends to short-term political interests. Central banks in major democracies around the world have similar independence.”

Powell’s remarks come as the central bank, which paused rate hikes this year and has suggested it could cut them in the face of concerns including the White House’s conflicts with trading partners, faces increasing anger from Trump.

The president, who has said as recently as this weekend that he has the power to demote Powell, on Monday said on Twitter that the Fed “doesn’t know what it is doing,” adding that it “raised rates far to fast” given low inflation and slowing global growth.

“Think of what it could have been if the Fed had gotten it right,” Trump said. “Thousands of points higher on the Dow, and GDP in the 4’s or even 5’s. Now they stick, like a stubborn child, when we need rates cuts, & easing, to make up for what other countries are doing against us. Blew it!” Few economists agree with Trump’s estimates of how high U.S. growth can climb and some legal experts think it would be difficult or impossible for Trump to remove Powell.

At its latest meeting last Wednesday the central bank’s policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee signalled rate cuts beginning as early as July and said it is ready to battle growing global and domestic economic risks as it took stock of rising trade tensions and growing concerns about weak inflation. Investors have long been anticipating rate cuts this year even as Fed policymakers had suggested such a move would have been premature.

Even as the U.S. central bank left its benchmark interest rate unchanged for now, the shift in sentiment since its prior policy meeting was marked.

Powell on Tuesday reiterated that the central bank still sees U.S. growth prospects as strong, with unemployment low and inflation near the Fed’s 2% annual target, but that he and his colleagues are wrestling with whether uncertainty over trade and other issues support a case for lowering rates.

“The question my colleagues and I are grappling with is whether these uncertainties will continue to weigh on the outlook and thus call for additional policy accommodation,” Powell said.

“Many FOMC participants judge that the case for somewhat more accommodative policy has strengthened. But we are also mindful that monetary policy should not overreact to any individual data point or short-term swing in sentiment. Doing so would risk adding even more uncertainty to the outlook. We will closely monitor the implications of incoming information for the economic outlook and will act as appropriate to sustain the expansion.”

U.S. stock indexes dropped following Powell’s remarks, while yields on U.S. Treasury bonds ticked higher. The dollar got a brief boost against a basket of other currencies.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Paul Simao)

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