The Fed: Powell says economic expansion can last, but there are risks

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Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has been under constant pressure from President Trump as the economy has softened.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said the consensus among his colleagues at the U.S. central bank is that the record-long U.S. economic expansion can be sustained, but there are risks to this optimistic view.

“FOMC participants continue to see a sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labor market conditions, and inflation near our symmetric 2 percent objective as most likely. Many outside forecasters agree,” Powell told the National Association for Business Economics annual meeting in Denver.

He noted that inflation “has been gradually firming over the past few months.”

Powell did not give any concrete guidance to investors about the Fed’s plans regarding short-term interest rates, saying only that the meeting set for the end of October “is several weeks away.”

“We are carefully monitoring incoming information. We will be data dependent, assessing the outlook and risks to the outlook on a meeting-by-meeting basis,” he said.

Repeating what the central bank has said in its policy statement since the summer, Powell said the Fed “will act as appropriate to support continued growth.”

There is a split at the Fed about whether more easing or further interest rate cuts are necessary.

Some on the Fed back another rate cut prior to the end of the year, believing that low rates would calm financial markets and give businesses reason to invest. Economists think that this camp includes Powell.

Others on the central bank want to wait for more clues about the actual health of the economy before giving it more stimulus. They’re worried low rates would create what amounts to a short-lived sugar-high for the economy and foster financial imbalances.

Private sector economists are forecasting that the economy will slow over the next 14 months. Economists at the Peterson Institute for International Economics see growth slipping to a 1.8% rate next year, down from the 2.6% rate seen in the first half of this year.

The Fed has cut interest rates twice this year by a quarter-point at the last two policy meetings.

Officials will meet again on Oct. 29-30. Investors see an 80% chance the Fed will trim rates by another quarter point to a range of 150%-175%, according to the CME Group’s FedWatch tool.

Turning to short-term funding markets, Powell said “a range of factors” might have caused the turmoil seen last month when the cost of short-term borrowing spiked as firms scrambled to get funding.

Regardless the cause, Powell said it was now time for the Fed to increase the size of its balance sheet. He said the central bank would purchase short-term Treasury bills.

Some analysts call this a “soft” form of quantitative easing, because the Fed buys these securities from the market, but Powell bristled at this description.

“I want to emphasize that growth of our balance sheet for reserve management purposes should in no way be confused with the large-scale asset purchase program that we deployed after the financial crisis,” he said.

Stocks recovered some of their losses after Powell’s remarks were released. The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -0.69%   was down 90 points, after having been down by more than 150 points earlier in the day.