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Powell says there's no 'rulebook' for trade war, pledges to 'act as appropriate' to sustain economy

Updated: Aug 24, 2019

August 23, 2019

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell repeated his pledge Friday to keep the economic expansion going while acknowledging that tariffs and other factors are causing growth to slow. Less than an hour after the speech, President Donald Trump blasted Powell on Twitter, referring to him as “our enemy.”

Powell, while not saying specifically where he thought rates should go, promised that the Fed “will act as appropriate to sustain the expansion,” a phrase he has used several times in the recent past.

Powell also said in his annual remarks at the central bank’s Jackson Hole symposium that the “economy is close to both goals” of the Fed’s dual mandate of full employment and price stability.

“Our challenge now is to do what monetary policy can do to sustain the expansion so that the benefits of the strong jobs market extend to more of those still left behind, and so that inflation is centered firmly around 2 percent.”

He also outlined the challenges the Fed faces and indicated that for he and his fellow officials there are “no recent precedents to guide any policy response to the current situation.”

“While monetary policy is a powerful tool that works to support consumer spending, business investment, and public confidence, it cannot provide a settled rulebook for international trade,” he said in prepared remarks. “We can, however, try to look through what may be passing events, focus on how trade developments are affecting the outlook, and adjust policy to promote our objectives.”

He did say the Fed is looking at ways to address developments in a landscape that has changed significantly since the expansion began a decade ago.

“We are examining the monetary policy tools we have used both in calm times and in crisis, and we are asking whether we should expand our toolkit,” he said.

On a broader level, Powell painted a mostly positive picture on the U.S. economy, saying it has “continued to perform well overall” while facing challenges.

“The global growth outlook has been deteriorating since the middle of last year. Trade policy uncertainty seems to be playing a role in the global slowdown and in weak manufacturing and capital spending in the United States,” he said.

At its July 30-31 meeting, the policymaking Federal Open Market Committee approved a 25 basis point rate cut, the first reduction in 11 years. Officials cited concerns over weaker global growth, the U.S.-China trade tensions and low inflation in making the reduction.

Markets expect the Fed to approve another cut at its September meeting and another before the end of the year.

In his discussion Friday, Powell broke Fed policy into three eras: one that lasted from 1950-82 that saw the Fed use “stop and go” policy that promoted faster growth but that ultimately ended up with runaway inflation; 1983-2009, in which the Fed controlled inflation but saw financial excesses that culminated in the Great Recession; and the current era, in which policymakers are confronting a world of slower growth with lower-than-normal interest rates and unemployment.

“We have not seen unsustainable borrowing, financial booms, or other excesses of the sort that occurred at times during the Great Moderation, and I continue to judge overall financial stability risks to be moderate. But we remain vigilant,” he said.

“Because the most important effects of monetary policy are felt with uncertain lags of a year or more, the Committee must attempt to look through what may be passing developments and focus on things that seem likely to affect the outlook over time or that pose a material risk of doing so,” he added. “But fitting trade policy uncertainty into this framework is a new challenge. Setting trade policy is the business of Congress and the Administration, not that of the Fed.”

Powell did not mention the yield curve inversion that has been rattling the markets, in which the 2-year Treasury note has surpassed the 10-year, a reliable recession indicator for the past 50 years. Minutes from the last meeting also offered only passing reference to the curve spread, and Powell made no mention of recession in his speech.

Trump thundered Powell on Twitter, saying “the Fed did NOTHING.”


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