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July 11, 2019, 8:08 a.m. EDT

Fed’s Powell says trade worries restraining the economy, hints at interest-rate cuts soon

Fed boss says bank will ‘act as appropriate to sustain expansion’

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By Greg Robb and Jeffry Bartash, MarketWatch


Bloomberg News/Landov
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell says he’s the boss: He won’t quit or leave his post if Trump tries to fire him.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said the U.S. is suffering from a bout of uncertainty caused by trade tensions and weak global growth, but he pledged to do whatever it takes to shore up the economy in what Wall Street took as a sign the central bank will cut interest rates soon.

In the first of two days of testimony before Congress , Powell said ongoing trade fights with China and other countries have contributed to slower growth at home and abroad and pose more risk to the U.S. economy.

The Fed, for its part, is prepared to “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion,” Powell reiterated, using a phrase that economists say points strongly to a rate cut at the bank’s next meeting at the end of July.

Read: Fed minutes of June meeting bolster sense of imminent interest-rate cut

The Fed chairman appeared to downplay a rebound in consumer spending during the spring and a surge in hiring in June that eased worries after poor employment in May. Instead he emphasized trade tensions and slower growth around the world.

“When asked what the Fed is looking at in determining whether to ease, the first thing he cited was weaker data in overseas economies,” said chief economist Stephen Stanley of Amherst Pierpont Securities.

Steve Blitz, chief economist at TS Lombard, said Powell and the Fed have simply come to recognize just how much a world that largely trades in dollars has come to depend on what the U.S. central bank does.

“Economic momentum appears to have slowed in some major foreign economies, and that weakness could affect the U.S. economy,” is how Blitz summed up what he called the Fed’s new-school thinking

To be sure, Powell also pointed to flagging U.S. business investment and slower growth among American manufacturers as worrisome signs. He said U.S. gross domestic product is likely to moderate in the second quarter from the 3.1% annual pace of growth in the first three months of the year.

While the Fed chairman said renewed trade talks between the U.S. and China are a “constructive step, we don’t see it as removing the uncertainty.”

Some economists have argued that relaxed trade tensions, stronger job creation and sturdy consumer spending show the U.S. economy is on a firmer path than senior Fed officials believed when they last met in mid-June.

Fed officials will meet again on July 30-31 to evaluate the economy. Wall Street has forecast a quarter-point cut in the bank’s benchmark fed funds rate.

President Donald Trump has also been pushing Powell to cut interest rates, arguing that Fed hikes last year stopped the economy from experiencing a “rocket” from the Republican tax overhaul of 2017. Trump has insisted he has the authority to fire Powell, though legal analysts disagree.

Asked what he would do if Trump tried to remove him, Powell made it clear he intends to serve the remaining three years of his four-year term.

Read: Fed’s Powell tells Congress he’d refuse to leave if Trump tries to fire him

Even as the Fed signaled an impending rate cut, Powell also sought to reassure the public that the economy is still on solid ground. He said the economy has performed “reasonably well” over the first half on 2019 and is likely to remain on a steady course.

Stocks rose in Wednesday action. The Dow Jones Industrial Average /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA +0.13% had fallen three straight days before Powell’s testimony.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note /zigman2/quotes/211347051/realtime BX:TMUBMUSD10Y -2.36% was little changed at 2.06%.

/zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime
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+33.98 +0.13%
Volume: 223.58M
Sept. 17, 2019 4:56p
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add Add to watchlist BX:TMUBMUSD10Y
BX : Tullet Prebon
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Greg Robb is a senior reporter for MarketWatch in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @grobb2000. Jeffry Bartash is a reporter for MarketWatch in Washington.

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