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Fed officials signal readiness to pause interest rate increases
TWO influential Federal Reserve officials said on Wednesday that the central bank should pause to assess economic conditions before considering additional interest rate increases, reinforcing the message delivered last week by Fed chairman Jerome Powell.
The Fed on Wednesday also published an account of its most recent meeting, in December, which showed that most Fed officials already had reached a similar conclusion at that time. Taken together, the speeches and the meeting minutes signal that the Fed will not raise its benchmark interest rate at its January meeting and that it is unlikely to do so at the following meeting, in mid-March.
But most Fed officials still expect that economic growth will be strong enough to justify rate increases later in the year.
Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, told a Boston audience that the Fed was puzzling through the recent divergence between strong economic data and faltering financial markets.
"At this juncture, with two very different scenarios - economic slowdown implied by financial markets; or growth somewhat above potential GDP growth, consistent with economic forecasts - I believe we can wait for greater clarity before adjusting policy," he said.
Charles Evans, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, delivered a similar message in a speech on Wednesday in Riverwoods, Illinois. "I feel we have good capacity to wait and carefully take stock of the incoming data and other developments," he said.
The remarks were significant because both men spoke in favour of the Fed's rate increases last year, and both hold rotating votes on the Fed's policy committee.
James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, who opposed the rate increases last year, told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that he, too, favoured a pause.
The Fed is "bordering on going too far and possibly tipping the economy into recession", Mr Bullard said. He added that other Fed officials were coming around to his position that the Fed should pause.
The Fed at its December meeting raised its benchmark rate into a range between 2.25 and 2.5 per cent. It was the fifth consecutive quarterly increase. Mr Powell said the rate now stood near the lower end of the range that the Fed regards as neutral territory - neither encouraging nor discouraging borrowing and growth.
At a news conference after the December meeting, Mr Powell emphasised that economic growth remained strong, and that the Fed expected to continue raising rates in 2019. Investors registered their disapproval by driving down asset prices, exacerbating a market slump.
Since then, Mr Powell and other Fed officials have sought to deliver a more nuanced message, emphasising that they are paying attention to investors' concerns, and that the absence of inflationary pressure means the Fed can afford to postpone judgment.
The account of the December meeting reinforced that message.
The Fed, according to the minutes, said that "participants expressed that recent developments, including the volatility in financial markets and the increased concerns about global growth, made the appropriate extent and timing of future policy firming less clear than earlier." NYTIMES