WASHINGTON – The Federal Reserve on Wednesday cut interest rates for the third time this year to ensure the U.S. economy weathers its trade war without slipping into a recession, but signaled it will leave borrowing costs where they are unless things take a material turn for the worse.
“We believe that monetary policy is in a good place,” said Fed Chair Jerome Powell in a news conference after the U.S. central bank announced its decision to cut its key overnight lending rate by a quarter of a percentage point to a target range of between 1.50 percent and 1.75 percent.
“We see the current stance of monetary policy as likely to remain appropriate as long as incoming information about the economy remains broadly consistent with our outlook,” he said.
Risks relating to global trade, as well as to the prospect of the U.K. crashing out of the European Union, have moved in a “positive direction” since the Fed’s last meeting, Powell said, adding that the U.S. economy has remained resilient.
With the stimulative effects of the Fed’s rate cuts so far this year still working their way through the economy, only “a material reassessment of our outlook” could drive the central bank to cut rates further from here, Powell said. Currently the Fed expects moderate economic growth, a continued strong labor market and for inflation to move back up to its 2 percent annual target.
In the statement accompanying its decision to cut rates, the Fed dropped a previous reference that it “will act as appropriate” to sustain the economic expansion — language that had been considered a sign for future rate cuts.
Instead, the Fed said it will “monitor the implications of incoming information for the economic outlook as it assesses the appropriate path” of its target interest rate, a less decisive phrase.
Kansas City Fed President Esther George and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren dissented from the decision. They have opposed all three Fed rate cuts this year as unnecessary.
St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, who had dissented in September because he supported a bigger rate cut then, voted with the majority on Wednesday — an indication that pressure within the Fed for further rate cuts may have lessened.
The rate cut was widely anticipated by financial markets, but expectations for additional cuts after October have diminished significantly in recent weeks.
While yields on longer-dated bonds showed little reaction, those on shorter-dated maturities — that are more closely influenced by Fed policy expectations — moved higher. The yield on the 2-year note rose to its highest value since Oct. 1 at about 1.67 percent.
U.S. stocks, down modestly before the Fed’s statement, pared some of their losses and were little changed on the day. The benchmark S&P 500 Index, which had hit a record high earlier in the week, was down fractionally.
“It’s pretty much what was expected,” said Jim Powers, director of investment research at Delegate Advisors.
“The more important outcome is they removed the phrase ‘act as appropriate.’ It looks like the market is taking that to mean that there will be a pause in the declining rate path they were on beforehand. That’s what was expected, and that’s generally a good thing,” Powers said.
The central bank and U.S. economy are at an unusual juncture.
Unemployment is near a 50-year low, inflation is moderate, and data earlier on Wednesday showed gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 1.9 percent in the third quarter, a slowdown from the first half of the year but not as sharp a decline as many economists expected and some Fed officials feared.
But parts of the economy, particularly manufacturing, have stuttered in recent months as the global economy slowed. Businesses have pared investment in response to the U.S.-China trade war, which has both raised tariffs on many goods and also made the world a riskier place to make long-term commitments.
While that has not had an obvious impact yet on U.S. hiring or consumer spending, Fed officials felt a round of “insurance” rate cuts was appropriate to guard against a worse outcome. The Fed cut rates in July and again in September, and by doing so hoped to encourage businesses and consumers with more affordable borrowing costs.
The approach was successful in the 1990s, when risks developed during another prolonged period of economic growth.