Jerome Powell, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve in Washington. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Fed Eyes Inflation as Trump Pushes Cut: Decision-Day Guide

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Federal Reserve policy makers may decide Wednesday that falling inflation reinforces a message of caution on interest-rate moves, rather than bowing to President Donald Trump’s demands for drastic action to boost the U.S. economy.

The Federal Open Market Committee is all but certain to hold interest rates steady at the close of a two-day meeting in Washington and repeat in its policy statement at 2 p.m. that the central bank will be patient in making future moves.

Fed Eyes Inflation as Trump Pushes Cut: Decision-Day Guide

The meeting includes no updated forecasts, though Chairman Jerome Powell will give his assessment at a press briefing 30 minutes later. He can expect questions on political pressure after the president tweeted on Tuesday -- hours after the Fed meeting began -- that the economy would soar “if we did some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing.”

The president’s entreaties came as another political drama swirled around the central bank on Capitol Hill, where Trump’s planned nomination of ally Stephen Moore to the Fed’s board looked increasingly uncertain. Several Republican senators expressed concern about Moore following reports on controversial public remarks and other matters.

Powell and his colleagues have repeatedly said they ignore political pressure and focus on their congressionally-mandated goals of price stability and maximum employment. Here’s what they’re trying to focus on amid the noise:

Policy Bias

Policy makers are confronting a puzzling outlook that could push some FOMC participants to look to easing in the future and others to tighten. Inflation has weakened this year, falling further from the committee’s 2 percent target, while growth accelerated in the first quarter after early signs that it would slow. The upshot will likely be a prolonged pause, with a few talking of when to cut.

“The concern for many committee members remains the downside risks to inflation,’’ said Lindsey Piegza, chief economist at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Chicago. “Further downward pressure on prices could force the Fed to move from a neutral policy stance to a defensive policy stance sooner than later.’’

Economic Outlook

Most changes in the Fed’s statement are likely to be in its description of current conditions, reflecting the first-quarter growth of 3.2 percent, which was more than expected, and job growth of 196,000 in March. The committee may upgrade its characterization of the labor market, consumer spending and housing activity.

What Bloomberg’s Economists Say

“Policy makers will offer little evidence that they are drifting from their ‘patient’ posture at the current meeting. While first-quarter GDP topped expectations, the details of the report showed slower momentum beneath the surface. Furthermore, the inflation data are once again sagging below policy makers’ 2 percent objective.”
-- Carl Riccadonna, Yelena Shulyatyeva and Eliza Winger (Economists)

The language on inflation should be particularly important after core inflation -- which excludes food and energy and is considered by the Fed as a more reliable barometer of underlying pressures -- cooled to 1.55 percent in March.

“The economic data is generally improving, but that is unlikely to matter much until core inflation picks up,’’ said Sarah House, senior economist with Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina. “There is a high bar for additional tightening until core inflation consistently meets 2 percent.’’

Fed Eyes Inflation as Trump Pushes Cut: Decision-Day Guide

Patient Pause

Officials may discuss the reference to being “patient” in the FOMC statement regarding future rate moves. But economists expect the word will remain in place because dropping it could trigger expectations of a near-term move.

That said, Powell can also expect to be quizzed in the press conference about what would prompt a rate cut, a question he dodged after the March FOMC meeting. Investors see close to 70 percent odds that the central bank will have cut rates by the end of the year, according to pricing in interest-rate futures contracts. Chicago Fed President Charles Evans said April 15 a decline to 1.5 percent core inflation could call for lower rates.

“There is no great reason to tweak anything,’’ said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities in New York. “They are waiting to see the whites of the eyes of inflation before moving again. The main impetus for any cut would be a weakening in the economy.’’

IOER Tweak

One change that the Fed could potentially make is to tweak the interest on excess reserves rate, which has historically acted as a cap for the federal funds rate, the benchmark that the central bank aims for. That’s currently in a target range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent.

With short-end funding pressures helping to lift fed funds toward the upper end of the Fed’s target range in recent weeks, there has been speculation that officials might repeat the kind of tinkering to IOER that it has done before.

On the previous two occasions that the Fed has shifted IOER relative to the main range it has been in conjunction with a broader policy hike. If it were to do so without shifting overall policy, it would likely mean a cut to the IOER.

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