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Federal Reserve expected to cut interest rates on Wednesday

What interest rate cuts mean for your money
  • The Federal Reserve is widely expected on Wednesday to trim short-term interest rates by 0.25 percentage points.
  • It would be the second rate cut this year amid signs the U.S. economy is slowing. 
  • The central bank also moved to lower rates in July, the first cut since the financial crisis in 2008.
  • Investors will look to Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, who'll address reporters in a press conference, to clarify if policymakers plan to continue easing monetary policy to keep a 10-year U.S. expansion rolling.

The Federal Reserve is expected Wednesday to trim its benchmark interest rate for the second time this year, offering the U.S. economy a spoonful of medicine amid signs it's catching cold. 

When the central bank in July lowered rates for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell cited global trade tensions and slowing growth overseas. But he also described the 0.25 percentage point cut in the federal funds rate, to a range of 2% to 2.25%, as more of an adjustment in policy rather than the start of a longer-term shift toward easier money. 

Since then, the U.S. manufacturing sector has continued to lose speed and companies' capital spending has dipped, fueling angst and volatility in financial markets and leaving American consumers to prop up growth. Those signals have also spurred more criticism of the Fed from President Donald Trump, who in a break from historical precedent has badgered Mr. Powell to cut rates more steeply. 

Against that backdrop, many experts predict the Fed will cut short-term rates by another quarter percentage point. "Fed communication since the July meeting suggests unchanged motives for further easing, including a slowdown in the industrial sector on the heels of slower growth momentum abroad, increased uncertainty from trade and other geopolitical tensions, and persistent below-target inflation," Barclays analysts said in a note.

Here are three things to watch for when the Fed announces its latest policy move on Wednesday afternoon.

1. A rate cut

After Mr. Trump escalated the trade war with China last month by announcing a new round of tariffs, investors started pricing in a greater likelihood that the Fed would end up cutting rates three more times this year beginning this week.

But more recently, with a resumption of trade negotiations and a less antagonistic tone between the two sides, hopes are rising for at least a preliminary breakthrough in the trade war. Partly as a consequence, investors have lowered their  expectations for rate cuts this year for only one or two rather than three. A belief that oil prices will remain elevated and that inflation might finally be reaching the Fed's target level have reinforced that perception.

Federal Reserve cuts interest rates for first time since 2008

Don't expect Powell to tip his hand at the news conference. He will likely keep his options open by reiterating a pledge that the Fed will do what it deems necessary to sustain the expansion. The chairman may also avoid characterizing rate cuts, as he did at his previous news conference, as just a "mid-cycle adjustment to policy" - a comment that elicited an instantly sour response from stock traders who would like multiple rate cuts.

Powell will surely be pressed about whatever updates the Fed provides Wednesday to its "dot plot" - an illustration showing the anonymous forecasts of individual Fed officials for their benchmark rate. Though the dot plot doesn't bind the Fed to any policy, it shows their expectations for the coming months and years.

2. The state of the economy

Does the U.S. economy appear more vulnerable? Updated forecasts from the Fed on Wednesday will show whether the policymakers think the faltering global economy, the sluggishness of U.S. manufacturing, the tariffs and counter-tariffs from Mr. Trump's trade wars, and oil price spikes resulting from the attack on Saudi Arabia's oil facilities last weekend will significantly slow growth.

The Fed's policy statement, which has a section describing the economy, will be watched to see if officials have downgraded their view given a slowdown in the nation's gross domestic product — the total U.S. output of goods and services — and in job growth. Complicating the picture is that the most vital pillars of the U.S. economy, notably consumer spending and the job market, still look fairly resilient.

Any downward adjustment in the Fed's outlook would provoke questions for Powell about whether it suggests a greater likelihood of further rate cuts to come.

3. Jerome Powell's leadership

After the Fed's first rate cut in July, Powell left a trail of confusion about just where he and the central bank stood in their rate policy. The chairman said the Fed would do all it needed to do to sustain the economic expansion. That suggested further cuts in the Fed's benchmark rate.

Yet at another point, he called the Fed's first rate cut in more than a decade a "mid-cycle adjustment." This left the impression that the Fed wasn't necessarily inclined to make further cuts unless its outlook changed appreciably.

One issue is that the Fed's policymaking board is hardly unanimous in its view of the need to ease credit. Its rate cut on July 31 was approved despite dissenting votes from two Fed officials who felt the action was unwarranted.

Assuming the Fed cuts again Wednesday, those two regional Fed bank presidents — Esther George of the Kansas City Fed and Eric Rosengren of the Boston Fed — could once again dissent. At the opposite end of the spectrum, James Bullard of the St. Louis Fed has argued for a steep half-point cut to demonstrate the Fed's resolve to fight off a potential recession.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell: The 60 Minutes interview

If dissents from inside the Fed weren't enough, Powell has absorbed relentless personal attacks from Mr. Trump tied to the president's insistence that the Fed slash rates far more aggressively — even to below zero — to help devalue the U.S. dollar and boost American exports.

Would the Fed — whose independence from political interference is being challenged by Mr. Trump — contemplate negative rates? Most economists think it would be unwise. Yet with the European Central Bank having cut its key rate further into negative territory last week, it's an issue Powell might be asked to address at his news conference.

Powell has studiously avoided commenting directly on Mr. Trump's attacks, saying tersely that the Fed will keep pursuing its mandates and ignore any outside pressures, even from a president who has branded Powell an "enemy" and the Fed's policymakers as "boneheads."

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