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Fed's Powell vow to act to sustain US expansion, Trump lashes out

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Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell vowed Friday to act to ensure that the US economic expansion continues, but admitted the central bank had limited tools to respond to an intensifying trade war.

[WASHINGTON] Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell vowed Friday to act to ensure that the US economic expansion continues, but admitted the central bank had limited tools to respond to an intensifying trade war.

Powell's speech in Wyoming - in which he said trade tensions was exacerbating the global slowdown - came on the heels of China's decision to impose US$75 billion in new tariffs on US soybeans, lobsters, peanut butter and other imports.

US President Donald Trump lost no time in criticising Mr Powell - and swiping at Beijing.

In a furious flurry of tweets, Mr Trump attacked the Fed's stewardship of the world's biggest economy and vowed a quick response to China.

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"As usual, the Fed did NOTHING! It is incredible that they can 'speak' without knowing or asking what I am doing, which will be announced shortly. We have a very strong dollar and a very weak Fed," Mr Trump tweeted after Mr Powell's comments.

"My only question is, who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powel or Chairman Xi?" Mr Trump said, misspelling the Fed chief's name.

The Fed cut the benchmark interest rate last month for the first time in more than a decade, partly due to the anticipated impact of trade uncertainties on the growth.

But in his hotly anticipated speech to an annual central banking conference in Jackson Hole, Powell cautioned that the Fed has no "rulebook" for dealing with the impact generated by trade uncertainties.

"The three weeks since our July FOMC meeting have been eventful, beginning with the announcement of new tariffs on imports from China," he said.

"The global growth outlook has been deteriorating since the middle of last year. Trade policy uncertainty seems to be playing a role in the global slowdown and in weak manufacturing and capital spending in the United States," Mr Powell said.

The US economy "is now in a favourable place," but given the "significant risks we have been monitoring," the Fed "will act as appropriate to sustain the expansion," he said.

He warned, however, that there is no "settled rulebook for international trade ... no recent precedents to guide any policy response to the current situation."

WALKING A TIGHTROPE

Stock markets seemed to like the speech, regaining some ground after sinking on news of Chinese tariff retaliation, but they fell after Mr Trump's comments.

"Mr Powell is rather more diplomatic in his language than the president - a low bar, admittedly - but it is clear from his speech that the single biggest factor driving both market volatility, the actual global slowdown, and fears of a US slowdown, is trade policy," said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics.

The Fed chief has had some communication misfires as he walks the tightrope between competing views on the correct policy and defending the institution's independence from political interference.

Mr Powell seemed to be making an economic case for some further stimulus - possibly to ward off concerns he is bowing to the relentless pressure from Mr Trump - but he also noted the generally healthy state of the US economy, a possible signal he does not foresee a series of cuts.

Those favouring more stimulus face opposition within the Fed, but Mr Powell tried to lay those concerns to rest as well, saying he does not see any buildup of financial risks or price pressures.

"Low inflation seems to be the problem of this era, not high inflation," he said.

"In the unlikely event that signs of too-high inflation return, we have proven tools to address such a situation," he added.

Mr Shepherdson said the inflation "hawks have been vocal recently, but they seem still to be outnumbered."

"We don't envy Mr Powell and his colleagues right now; all their analysis and forecasts can be upended by a single tweet, so the policymaking process has been wrecked, even without the overlay of the president railing at the Fed like Lear on the heath, but less coherently."

AFP