Fed's Powell, Facing Dissent, Says Officials Shouldn't `Overreact' to Slowdown

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Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said the central bank shouldn't "overreact" to signals that the U.S. economy might be slowing. 

The comments come as President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for interest-rate cuts amid signs that the U.S. economy might be slowing. Investors believe it's a near certainty that the central bank's Federal Open Market Committee, which sets monetary policy, will cut rates by a quarter percentage point at their next meeting in late July. 

Powell said Tuesday in prepared remarks for a public interview there's not consensus among the committee's members that rates should be lower under the current backdrop, with the economy still expanding and U.S. unemployment at 3.6%, its lowest in a half century.    

"Many FOMC participants judge that the case for somewhat more accommodative policy has strengthened," Powell said. "But we are also mindful that monetary policy should not overreact to any individual data point or short-term swing in sentiment. Doing so would risk adding even more uncertainty to the outlook."

The monetary-policy committee voted last week to keep official U.S. interest rates in their current range from 2.25% to 2.5%, but officials at the central bank have sent signals recently that they're open to cutting rates in July to prevent a steeper-than-expected slowdown in the economy.

One member of the central bank monetary panel, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard, went so far as to dissent from the majority decision and vote for a rate cut, saying in a web post afterward that doing so would serve as "insurance" against the "elevated downside risks" to the economy.

It was the first dissent on a major monetary-policy matter since Powell was appointed chairman by Trump early last year.

Trump has called for lower interest rates, seen as a way of bolstering the economy at a time when the administration has intensified his trade war with China, a dispute that could spark retaliation against U.S. exporters and lead to higher prices for imported goods. 

Facing the uncertainty, many U.S. businesses have scrapped or delayed plans for new investment in factories, technology, equipment and personnel.

In his remarks, Powell signaled a willingness to rate cuts if warranted.  

"Since the beginning of the year, we had been taking a patient stance toward assessing the need for any policy change," he said. "We now state that the committee will closely monitor the implications of incoming information for the economic outlook and will act as appropriate to sustain the expansion."