Federal Reserve officials signaled they are ready to cut interest rates by a quarter-percentage point at their coming meeting, while indicating the potential for additional reductions because they are worried about a slowdown in global growth, an increase in trade-policy uncertainty and a pullback in inflation.
Officials aren’t prepared for bolder action by making a half-point cut, as analysts and traders have speculated in recent days, according to the officials’ recent public statements and interviews.
The larger move appears unlikely for now because officials have said recent economic developments haven’t signaled an imminent downturn.
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell set the stage for the cut last week during congressional testimony, when he signaled concern about global growth and the risk of a more prolonged shortfall in inflation from the Fed’s 2% target. Those developments strengthened the case for a somewhat easier policy stance, he said.
The upshot is that — barring unexpected economic developments between now and the July 30-31 meeting —the bigger debate will center on how to signal their plans and outlook beyond July.
Market expectations of a half-point Fed cut swelled Thursday afternoon after New York Fed President John Williams delivered a speech expounding upon 20 years of theory and practice that indicates more aggressive and pre-emptive action is warranted when the economy is weakening at a time that interest rates are already low.
Williams’ words carry great weight in markets, in part, because he is vice chairman of the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee. After markets began anticipating the larger rate cut, the New York Fed issued a rare clarification that the speech hadn’t been intended to deliver a specific signal about near-term policy actions.
“This was an academic speech on 20 years of research. It was not about potential policy actions at the upcoming FOMC meeting,” said a New York Fed spokesman on Thursday evening in response to questions from reporters.
Williams, a leading academic thinker, highlighted points he has made publicly before. But the context of his remarks —he was speaking near the start of the Fed’s customary pre-meeting quiet period, which begins Saturday — fueled an unintended market reaction.
“We have not seen anything like this before and honestly, we are not sure what they were thinking,” said Neil Dutta, head of economics at Renaissance Macro Research LLC in a client note on Friday morning. “Of course the market would latch on to a speech like this — given focus and timing — right before the July confab.”
President Donald Trump, who has been regularly calling for multiple rate cuts, said on Friday in a pair of tweets that he preferred Williams’ “first statement much better than his second.” He repeated his call for the Fed to cut rates aggressively: “Don’t blow it!”
Some officials who support lower rates have said they don’t think the Fed needs to make a big move right now. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard — who dissented from the June decision to keep rates steady because he favored a rate cut—said in an interview he would “listen to arguments” for a half-point cut but added, “Sitting here today, I just don’t think the situation really calls for that aggressive of a move.”