Fed delivers second rate cut to head off global risks

The Federal Reserve announced Wednesday it would cut interest rates for the second consecutive time this year to protect a record stretch of U.S. prosperity from looming foreign risks.

In a statement following a two-day meeting in Washington, the central bank’s rate-setting Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) said it would cut interest rates by 0.25 percentage points to a 1.75 to 2 percent baseline range. The decision marks the second time since July — and the 2008 recession — that the Fed has moved to ease borrowing costs.

ADVERTISEMENT

"In light of the implications of global developments for the economic outlook as well as muted inflation pressures, the Committee decided to lower the target range for the federal funds rate," the FOMC said.

But the move did little to assuage President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE, who has attacked and belittled Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and the bank for not being more aggressive in cutting rates.

"Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve Fail Again," Trump tweeted. "No 'guts,' no sense, no vision! A terrible communicator!"

The decision also highlighted the divisions within the central bank. Seven of the FOMC's 10 voting members voted to cut rates by 0.25 percentage points, while three officials voted against the move. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard preferred a larger cut of 0.5 percentage points, while Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren and Kansas City Fed President Esther George voted to keep rates steady.

"This is a time of difficult judgments, and as you can see, disparate perspectives," Powell said during a Wednesday press conference, "and I really do think that's nothing but healthy."

The cut follows months of signals from Powell that the central bank would act to stave off a potential recession while the U.S. economy remains strong.

Fading global growth, rising trade tensions and a minefield of geopolitical flashpoints are among the several risks the Fed is seeking to outmaneuver. By cutting rates, the Fed hopes to stimulate a slightly slowing U.S. economy before it’s too late to prevent a recession.

"We took this step to help keep the U.S. economy strong in the face of some notable developments and to provide insurance against ongoing risks," Powell said Wednesday.

With interest rates already well below historically neutral levels, the Fed is depending on a small burst of steady stimulus to prop up a strong labor market and consumer spending. 

But marginally cheaper money has failed to appease Trump, who has derided the Fed’s efforts to defend the U.S. economy from factors largely driven by his trade battles.

Trump has tried to bully the Fed into cutting rates, even suggesting that they go below zero percent, which would match countries with drastically worse economies than the U.S. 

The Fed has only cut rates by that magnitude in times of crisis and is unlikely to do so otherwise.

In projections released Wednesday by the Fed, seven FOMC members projected just one more rate cut in 2019, while the remaining five were split between no further rate cuts and one rate hike before the end of the year. 

Powell also ruled out the Fed adopting negative interest rates, citing the bank's decision not to do so during the 2008 crisis and recession. The chairman suggested that the Fed would likely renew recession-era purchases of bonds and other assets intended to flood the economy with cheaper money.

"I just don't think those will be at the top of our list," Powell said.

Wednesday's move was also a rebuke to Trump's calls for the independent central bank to help him in his trade war with China by lowering rates to weaken the U.S dollar.

“Will Fed ever get into the game? Dollar strongest EVER! Really bad for exports,” Trump tweeted Monday.

As Trump scrambles to strike a deal to end the costly U.S.-China trade war, the president has raised pressure on the Fed to give him more leverage. Trump faces political risks ahead of the 2020 election if he fails to land an agreement or allows the trade war to slow the economy into recession.

Powell has acknowledged the costs of Trump’s trade war, which is responsible in part for a recession in the manufacturing sector, a decline in the monthly average jobs gain and a freeze in business investment and expansion.

"Tensions have waxed and waned and elevated uncertainty is weighing on U.S. investment and exports," Powell said. "Our business contacts around the country have been telling us that uncertainty about trade policy has discouraged them from investing in their businesses."

Even so, Powell has dismissed the president’s effort to draft the Fed into his trade war, warning that the bank could only target unemployment and inflation, not the global trading regime.

"The Fed has no role in the formulation of trade policy but we do take into account, anything that could materially affect the economy relative to our employment and inflation goals," Powell said Wednesday.

Updated at 4:12 p.m.