US Fed meet opens as markets eye shift in course

The Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington September 16, 2015. — Reuters pic
The Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington September 16, 2015. — Reuters pic

WASHINGTON, June 18 — Under intense scrutiny from the White House, the US central bank opened its two-day policy meeting today to decide the course of interest rates.

The Federal Reserve’s policy panel — the Federal Open Market Committee — is not expected to move the benchmark lending rate, but tomorrow’s announcement will be closely watched for hints it could soon be willing to do what President Donald Trump has demanded: cut rates to boost the economy.

The meeting opens amid widespread speculation the central bank is closer to changing course as the global economy slows and trade battles drag on.

Next month the American economic expansion will hit 10 years and go into the record books as the longest ever.

But Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and other policymakers in recent weeks have floated the possibility of loosening monetary policy to keep the expansion from faltering.

Futures markets today overwhelmingly predicted the Fed would cut rates at its next meeting in July.

Economists say they expect to see confirmation with a shift in wording that ends the pledge to remain “patient” before making its next move.

The world’s largest economy has given off mixed signals in recent months with slowing job gains, weak manufacturing, and sluggish home construction, counteracted by healthy consumer spending and low inflation.

But fears of recession, slackening growth in Europe and Asia or an intensifying trade war with China have caused investors to clamour for support from the Fed.

“What they have to do first of all is give us a new set of forecasts. Those forecasts I suspect are going to take out any sign of a rate hike over the next year and a half,” John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics, told AFP.

The FOMC will release its updated quarterly forecasts tomorrow along with the policy announcement.

Make no promises

However, Ryding and other economists say the Fed will be wary not to appear to promise to cut interest rates, which could create the risk of shocking markets should policymakers instead decide to hold their fire next month.

The Fed raised rates nine times in the last three years as the economy recovered and put millions of Americans back to work in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Central bankers have said repeatedly that they expected the growth to continue, but Trump’s aggressive tariff policies, especially against China, have shaken confidence, and they have begun to acknowledge a chill in the air.

James Bullard, president of the Fed’s St Louis regional branch, was the first to signal a change, saying early this month that a rate cut could be needed “soon.”

Just days later, Powell himself opened the door to a possible move, saying the Fed would do whatever necessary “to sustain the expansion” — a notable shift in posture.

Then Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida added to the mix the possibility of “insurance cuts” — preemptively lowering rates just in case the economic outlook starts to deteriorate. — AFP