WASHINGTON – The Federal Reserve reduced the benchmark interest rate Wednesday for the first time in more than a decade, lowering the rate by a quarter-point in an effort to bolster the U.S. economy amid early signs of a global slowdown. However, the central bank inadvertently caused confusion about what it plans to do next, causing stocks to fall sharply.
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s stressed that the Fed is going to do whatever it takes to “sustain the expansion,” but he was not willing to commit to a series of interest rate cuts that Wall Street and President Donald Trump have repeatedly called for.
“Let me be clear. What I said was it’s not the beginning of a long series of rate cuts,” Powell said at a news conference.
Stocks sold off as investors questioned whether the Fed would cut again at its next meeting in September. The Dow Jones industrial average had shed 333 points, or 1.2 percent, by the end of the trading day. Trump saw the market slide and blasted Powell on Twitter for not going far enough to stimulate the economy.
“What the Market wanted to hear from Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve was that this was the beginning of a lengthy and aggressive rate-cutting cycle which would keep pace with China, The European Union and other countries around the world. As usual, Powell let us down,” Trump tweeted.
Powell is trying to navigate pressure from Wall Street and Trump to cut more against pressure from a number of economists and Fed leaders who do not think the central bank should be cutting at all.
Two out of 10 members of the Fed’s rate-setting committee dissented Wednesday, the largest revolt since Powell took over as chair. Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren and Kansas City Fed President Esther George said rates should be left unchanged.
The president has been critical of the Fed since last summer, even though he appointed the vast majority of the Fed’s board, including Powell. Investors appear to agree with Trump that the Fed should do more to counteract slowing growth overseas and Trump’s trade war.
“So far, financial markets clearly believe the Fed hasn’t done enough to alleviate concerns,” said Guy LeBas, chief fixed-income strategist at the Janney financial firm.
Powell said the U.S. economy is “healthy,” but he stressed that there are three problems Fed leaders are worried about: “weak global growth, trade policy uncertainty, and muted inflation.” Powell’s attempts to dance around questions about whether the Fed would cut rates again in September at times came across as confused or ill at ease to some.
“I lost count of how many times he said ‘uncertain’ or he ‘didn’t know,’ which is very disconcerting,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton.
In addition to the rate reduction, the Fed announced that it would stop selling off its $3.8 trillion assets in August, two months earlier than expected, in another easing move. Trump applauded that action on Twitter.
The Fed bought a large amount of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities in the aftermath of the financial crisis to keep interest rates low. The central bank started to sell some of its holdings in recent months because it did not think that extra stimulus was necessary anymore. Now the Fed is putting this on hold.
Powell specifically mentioned trouble in Europe and China as reasons for Wednesday’s cut, and while he didn’t mention Trump by name, Powell gave some of his most critical comments to date about trade.
“Trade is unusual. We don’t, you know, the thing is there isn’t a lot of experience in responding to global trade tensions. So it is something that we haven’t faced before and that we are learning by doing,” he said. “Trade policy tensions nearly boiled over in May and June but now appear to have returned to a simmer.”
Some economists have questioned why the Fed is stimulating growth at a time when the economy looks solid, if not strong.
“I would not cut interest rates,” said Steven Ricchiuto, chief U.S. economist at Mizuho Securities USA. “Cutting interest rates at this juncture will do only one thing: It will add to additional financial market inflation, which is the last thing in the world the Fed should be doing.”
The last time the Fed cut rates, in December 2008, the U.S. economy was deep in the financial crisis. The stock market had shed a third of its value in a matter of weeks, and unemployment was over 7 percent. Today the economy is widely viewed as healthy, with unemployment at a half-century low, stocks at record highs and inflation remaining modest.
Fed leaders have characterized this rate reduction as an “insurance” cut to enhance the economy’s strength in the face of growing problems abroad that could spill over into the United States. The Fed pointed to “soft” business investment and declining manufacturing output as areas of particular concern.
The Fed is supposed to make the best decisions for the economy’s long-term health and ignore political pressure. Scholars and business leaders say Fed independence is a bedrock foundation for the economy and financial markets, and there is some concern the Fed might be caving to Trump’s demands.
“I think Powell did this to push back on the White House and signal the Fed’s independence,” said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco. “I believe that in Powell’s mind, a short-term sell-off was a small price to pay to assert the Fed’s right to self-determination.”
The president has recently nominated several candidates to the Fed’s board who share his low-rate views, though the Senate has not confirmed any of them.
Some White House officials had hoped that a series of interest rate cuts by the Fed in the second half of this year would lead to a rebound in growth, boosting the economy before next year’s November elections. But Powell’s remarks Tuesday, combined with cloudy outlooks for a number of trade fights, could give businesses pause before they resume investments.
Former Fed leaders say that Powell and his colleagues are making good calls and that Trump’s tweets and criticism are not swaying anyone on the committee.
“I know Jay Powell very well,” said former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. “The chance he would buckle to what the president of the United States said about policy above his knowledge of how it works just seems inconceivable.”
The Washington Post’s Thomas Heath and Damian Paletta contributed to this report.
Video: After an announcement that the Federal Reserve would cut rates for the first time since 2008, Chairman Jerome Powell said the U.S. economy “remains favorable.”(The Washington Post)