Fed: US business have 'scaled back' investment, growth over trade tensions

Fed: US business have 'scaled back' investment, growth over trade tensions
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Federal Reserve officials are increasingly concerned that trade tensions between the Trump administration and key economic partners could hurt the U.S economy, according to minutes from the central bank’s June meeting released Thursday.

Fed officials said during their June 12-13 meeting that tariffs imposed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE and retaliatory action from key trading partners has forced American companies to scale back or abandon plans to expand and invest in new capital.

Officials said risks and uncertainty related to global trade policy had “intensified,” according to the minutes, and warned that further trade tensions “could have negative effects on business sentiment and investment spending.”

The rising fears among Fed policymakers come as economists and central bankers around the world intensify their warnings about the potential consequences of a global trade war.

Trump’s imposition of tariffs on imported steel and aluminum have been fiercely protested by a wide array of U.S. businesses, who say the levies will cost thousands of American jobs and hinder economic growth.

Congressional Republicans have warned that protectionist trade policies could slow the expansion in business growth, hiring and investment that GOP lawmakers hoped to spur with the 2017 tax-cut law.

Fed officials echoed those fears in their June meeting, when the central bank expected economic growth to increase in 2018 — thanks in part to spending from tax cuts — but noted growing concerns from business that could weaken the economy.

Officials said businesses told the Fed that “plans for capital spending had been scaled back or postponed as a result of uncertainty over trade policy,” and that farmers “were concerned about the effect of potentially higher tariffs on their exports.”

Even so, rising trade fears did not impact the Fed’s plans to gradually raise interest rates. Fed officials remained committed to further rate hikes, and raised rates 0.25 percent at the end of the June meeting. The central bank is expected to hike rates at least two more times this year.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said in a June 13 press conference following the meeting that the Fed's business contacts have expressed worries about the impact of trade tensions, but that those concerns haven't influenced economic data yet.

“Concerns about changes in trade policies are rising, I think it’s fair to say,” Powell said. “We really don’t see it the numbers. It’s just not there, so I would put it down more as a risk.”

The European Union, Mexico, Canada and China have all imposed retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural exports in response to Trump’s levies, first imposed in March. U.S. business groups have campaigned against the tariffs, which have also been opposed by a broad bipartisan coalition in Congress.

Economists have become concerned that the back and forth between could spiral into a trade war that would harm global economic growth. The World Trade Organization (WTO) said Thursday that the the number of new trade restrictions among the world’s top economies has doubled in the past six months, posing a threat to the global economy.

“This continued escalation poses a serious threat to growth and recovery in all countries, and we are beginning to see this reflected in some forward-looking indicators,” said WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo.

Tensions over the tariffs boiled over at the Group of Seven summit of leading industrialized nations last month in Canada, resulting in Trump refusing to endorse a joint communique traditionally signed by all world leaders present at the gathering.

“Based on [Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's] false statements at his news conference, and the fact that Canada is charging massive Tariffs to our U.S. farmers, workers and companies, I have instructed our U.S. Reps not to endorse the Communique as we look at Tariffs on automobiles flooding the U.S. Market!” Trump tweeted after leaving the gathering early for his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Updated at 4:03 p.m.