October 10, 2019 / 9:36 PM / 12 days ago

Fed's Mester: U.S. likely to avoid serious downturn; content to keep rates steady

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - The U.S. economy will likely skirt a serious downturn despite current risks from trade and a slowing global economy, Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester said on Thursday, arguing that absent evidence of a “material change” in the outlook the central bank should not cut rates any more.

FILE PHOTO: Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank President Loretta Mester speaks in London, Britain, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Marc Jones/File Photo

Mester said that she opposed the rate cut her colleagues approved in September along with the one in July but was now content to maintain those lower rates “for a while” to support firmer inflation.

“You don’t relitigate those things,” she said. “What I am looking at is, is there evidence that the slow down in the business side is becoming broader and impacting the consumer side and labor markets?”

There has been growing concern at the Fed that a drop in business investment, considered to be fallout from the Trump administration’s trade war with China, would eventually lead to less hiring and a hit to household consumption.

Mester, in an interview, said she regarded the situation as different than economic shocks of the past, rooted in weak business sentiment rather than a credit crunch, the collapse of an asset bubble or a spike in inflation - triggers to past recessions.

“The economy has been resilient through other situations that look like this,” she said, comparing the current sense of global weakness to a soft patch the economy hit around 2014 without going into recession.

“I would rather wait until we see this broadening out,” before reducing rates any more, Mester said.

The Fed has cut rates twice this year, in July and September, lowering them to a range of between 1.75% and 2% on the grounds that an economy buffeted by an uncertain global trade environment needed some support to keep a decade-long recovery under way.

Investors expect at least one more quarter of a percentage point rate reduction by the end of the year.

Despite global weakness and recent signs the U.S. manufacturing sector was slowing, however, “the data indicate that the economy continues to perform well along a number of dimensions,” particularly with low unemployment, Mester said in remarks at John Carroll University near Cleveland. 

While it was “not too difficult to envision” an outcome where firms trim capital spending and hiring, and undercut households as a result, “on balance, I continue to expect that we will avoid a more serious turndown in the economy,” with growth continuing and the unemployment rate remaining below 4 percent for the next two years. 

Mester does not currently have a vote on interest rate policy and thus could not join two others who dissented against the July and September rate cuts.

Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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