Slowing growth momentum and the lack of inflationary pressure are fuelling the case among Federal Reserve policymakers that a rate cut may be necessary this year in order to stimulate the economy.
A duo of Fed officials — St Louis Fed president James Bullard and Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari — on Friday cited rising global uncertainty as a reason the US central bank should take immediate action to lower rates.
At its latest policy meeting this week, the Federal Open Market Committee voted 9-1 to hold rates steady but signalled a strong possibility of cutting them this year.
Mr Bullard, one of the most dovish members of the Fed board, was the lone dissenter. He said on Friday he pushed for a quarter-percentage point cut at the meeting in order to safeguard against weaker growth, tepid inflation and an increasingly volatile environment.
“I believe that lowering the target range for the federal funds rate at this time would provide insurance against further declines in expected inflation and a slowing economy subject to elevated downside risks. Even if a sharper-than-expected slowdown does not materialise, a rate cut would help promote a more rapid return of inflation and inflation expectations to target,” he said in a brief statement posted on his bank’s website.
Mr Kashkari, a non-voting member of the FOMC, went even further. In an essay published on Friday, he said he argued at this week’s meeting for a 50 bps cut in order to “re-anchor” inflation expectations.
“I believe an aggressive policy action . . . is required to re-anchor inflation expectations at our target,” he wrote. “In the past few months, the job market has slowed, wage growth has flattened, inflation has continued to come in below our 2 per cent target, inflation expectations have fallen, and the yield curve has inverted.”
Concerns over the fallout from the US-Sino trade war and renewed geopolitical tensions with Iran prompted the Fed to cut its inflation forecast for this year on Wednesday. It also shifted some of its language on growth, saying economic activity was rising at a “moderate” rate, a dimmer view than the “solid” rate noted in the May statement.
A run of mixed economic data in recent weeks has done little to ease these concerns. On Friday a gauge of US manufacturing and services showed that both sectors are losing momentum. The IHS Markit manufacturing purchasing managers’ index slipped to 50.1 from 50.5 in June, putting it just above the threshold between expansion and contraction. A separate reading for service providers slipped to 50.7, a three-year low.
The housing market remains a relative bright spot, however. Sales of previously owned homes — which make up the bulk of home sales in the US — rose by a bigger than expected 2.5 per cent in May from the previous month, suggesting the all-important spring selling season has gotten off to a positive start.
Fed vice-chairman Richard Clarida reiterated on Friday that the central bank stands ready to lower interest rates if the outlook for the US economy deteriorates.
“There was, I think, broad agreement around the table that the case for providing more accommodation has increased since our May meeting,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg. “We’ll act as appropriate to sustain expansion.”
The view was echoed by Fed governor Lael Brainard, who said that while she believes the outlook for the US economy “remains solid”, rising downside risks and weak inflation means the central bank should stand ready to support the economy.
“Basic principles of risk management in a low neutral rate environment with compressed conventional policy space would argue for softening the expected path of policy when risks shift to the downside,” she said in a speech.