Business

Federal Reserve head Jerome Powell has one job: Stay cool

Posted May 1, 2019 6:52 a.m. EDT

— Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell will get up on Wednesday to talk about interest rates and the US economy -- and project an air of stability as the central bank is once more drawn into a political drama created by President Donald Trump.

Stephen Moore, the President's pick for a seat on the bank's powerful Board of Governors, faces claims that he is biased against women after multiple reports from CNN's KFile and other outlets about his past writing and comments.

Late Tuesday, Moore, a former Trump campaign adviser and close political ally, told CNN that he plans to stick with his prospective nomination, even after multiple Republican senators expressed open doubts.

That once again leaves Powell to reassure the public and investors worldwide that nothing is amiss inside the Fed, which sets US interest rate policy and is a pillar of the global economic system.

Trump has repeatedly broken with presidential precedent by subjecting the Fed, and Powell personally, to open criticism over moves to prevent inflation, which the President believes are unfairly dampening economic growth and potentially costing him politically. His most recent salvo came Tuesday, when he tweeted that the Fed should cut rates by a full point -- a drastic and unlikely move given the growing economy.

A 'strong culture'

Powell has defended the institution from political threats by citing its "strong culture" and its inability to be "disrupted." The Fed chairman has also made it a point to increase his engagement with members of Congress as a defensive measure against the President's attacks, including more recently addressing House Democrats during their annual policy retreat in April.

"The Fed has a challenging job in any environment," said Cornelius Hurley, the director of Boston University's Center for Finance, Law and Policy and a former Fed official. "They just don't need this extra layer of complexity. The job is hard enough without this."

Since Moore's name was first floated by the President in late March, the conservative commentator and former 2016 Trump campaign adviser has been mired in controversy over his writings and comments made over women, as well as financial issues including unpaid taxes. Economists and former Fed officials have described him as an ill fit for the central bank over his lack of qualifications and close ties to Trump.

Moore told CNN on Tuesday that he intends to proceed with his nomination and plans to sit down with senators to convince them of his seriousness.

"I do need to sit down with every one of them and tell them here's the truth: I'm not anti-woman," said Moore, an economic commentator. "When they hear that I think they'll -- hopefully they'll be supportive."

Powell, a former investment banker who has also served in the George H. W. Bush administration, was initially appointed to the board by President Barack Obama in 2017. He drew scorn from Trump, who picked him for the job on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's endorsement, for raising interest rates four times last year.

Trump weighs in

On Tuesday, Trump renewed that criticism as policymakers gathered in the boardroom at the Fed for their policy-setting meeting. The President urged central bankers to slash interest rates to allow the US economy to grow even faster than it already is.

"We have the potential to go up like a rocket if we do some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing," Trump tweeted early Tuesday afternoon. "Yes, we are doing very well at 3.2% GDP, but with our wonderfully low inflation, we could be setting major records &, at the same time, make our National Debt start to look small!"

Trump and top White House officials have been pressuring the Fed to slash interest rates to halt undermining the Trump administration's campaign promise of attaining 3% sustained growth.

On Wednesday, central bankers are expected to keep rates steady as the economy grew 3.2% in the first quarter and stock markets have reached new record highs.

The federal funds rate, which influences the cost of mortgages, credit cards and other borrowing, stands at a range of 2.25% to 2.5%.

Powell has been trying to carefully thread the needle by saying the US economy remains steady, arguing he's in "no hurry" to raise rates amid a number of risks to the global economy.

In March, the Fed took its patient approach even further, suggesting it would hold off on raising rates indefinitely until it has a better handle on where the economy is going for the rest of the year.

"I think we're in a good place right now," Powell told reporters at a press conference following last month's two-day interest-setting meeting in Washington. "We're being patient. We're watching. We don't see any data pushing us to move rates in any direction."

Waiting for clarity

Since the end of last year, the Fed has shifted the goalposts for the next rate hike, and with new incoming data showing softer inflation, Wall Street analysts now expect the next move could come much later than previously telegraphed.

Goldman Sachs chief US economist Jan Hatzius revised his forecast for the Fed's next rate hike pushing it to the fourth quarter of 2020 rather than the first quarter.

"Coupled with an increase in political scrutiny of monetary policy decision, this has lowered the odds of a hike before next year's presidential election," he wrote.

In recent weeks, Fed officials have broadly agreed that while inflationary pressures have been muted, they are also concerned about the possibility of undershooting the central bank's 2% inflation target. That's left Wall Street wondering if the Fed may be prompted to cut rates rather than notch rates higher.

"Inflation has softened over the inter-meeting period, and expectations are building that the next move will be down rather than up," said Ellen Zentner, chief US economist at Morgan Stanley, in a recent note to clients.

Powell will have the chance to address the issue directly when he takes questions from reporters, and to offer his thoughts on health of the US economy and globally along with financial conditions and ongoing trade talks with China.