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Federal Reserve may get less bang for the buck if it repeats 2016 rate pause

Federal Reserve may get less bang for the buck if it repeats 2016 rate pause

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For the Federal Reserve, 2019 has started out looking a lot like 2016: the last time uncertainty over global growth roiled financial markets for months on end.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell pointed to the 2016 episode earlier this month to underscore the U.S. central bank’s ability to be flexible when necessary, recalling that the Fed held interest rates steady almost all year. But while officials still have the option to press pause on their campaign of gradual rate hikes again, it may not have such a calming influence this time around.

At the outset of 2016, policymakers were projecting four quarter-point rate increases for the year. Sliding stock markets knocked them off track and they ended up staying on hold until making a single move in December.

Amid the turmoil, investors anticipated that Fed officials would blink, which pushed down longer-term interest rates. That in turn helped offset some of the tightening of financial conditions. In March 2016, then-Fed Chair Janet Yellen referred to this effect as an “automatic stabilizer” for the U.S. economy. It helped. The economy weathered the market turmoil and the U.S. expansion ground on to become the second-longest on record.

Fast-forward to now and U.S. central bankers don’t have the luxury of relying on that automatic stabilizer. Fed officials entered this year projecting two rate increases, but investors currently anticipate that a rate cut this year has become more likely than a hike.

That leaves the Fed in a tough spot because central bankers aren’t inclined to cut rates at the moment, and the rest of the government isn’t offering any help to support investor sentiment, said Ethan Harris, co-head of global economics research at Bank of America in New York. Congress has fallen back into gridlock, and President Donald Trump’s trade war with China is increasing uncertainty.

“All of the pressure is on the Fed: They are the ones that have to say the right thing to keep markets comfortable,” Harris said. “Powell talked about the baseline for the economy and downplayed the risks. That, I think, scared the markets,” he said, referring to the Fed chairman’s Dec. 19 press conference, which sent stocks tumbling further.

Ongoing trade tensions and a homegrown slowdown in China’s economy have combined to fan fears among investors about the outlook for global growth, just like 2016.

“With the muted inflation readings that we’ve seen coming in, we will be patient as we watch to see how the economy evolves, but we’re always prepared to shift the stance of policy and to shift it significantly if necessary,” Powell said Jan. 4 in Atlanta. “I’d actually like to point to a recent example when the committee did just that, in early 2016.”

At the end of 2015, investors had priced 60 basis points over the coming year. That fell to zero during the following six months as the Fed cut its forecast, helping offset the effect of tighter financial conditions.

This time around, prices of interest-rate swaps signal investors see rates easing by 10 basis points over the next 12 months, meaning the Fed would probably actually have to cut rates to offset tighter financial conditions.

That’s something they are unlikely to do unless they’re convinced a recession is right around the corner, according to Michael Hanson, chief U.S. macro strategist at TD Securities in New York.

Powell gave no such hint of a rate cut . He said economic data remained solid and pointed to the December jobs report, released earlier that day, which was strong across the board with unemployment of 3.9 percent still near a 50-year low.

That said, other economic indicators have softened. A monthly gauge of sentiment in the manufacturing sector plunged in December, according to data published Jan. 3 by the Institute for Supply Management. But even after the drop, the gauge remains at levels consistent with strong economic growth.

Fed officials are unlikely to be as cautious in 2019 as in 2016 because interest rates are higher now — which means they have more room to ease if they make a mistake by over-tightening than they would have had then — and because the unemployment rate is still below levels they bet are sustainable, Hanson said.

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Related to this story

Stocks rose as investors cheered the dovish approach discussed in minutes from the latest Federal Reserve meeting, but the gains were muted by concerns that the partial shutdown of the U.S. government will continue for some time. The dollar fell with Treasuries, while oil surged above $52 a barrel and entered a bull market.

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