Feds seen lowering U.S. rates by late July

FILE PHOTO: Federal Reserve Board building on Constitution Avenue is pictured in Washington, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve will likely reduce key U.S. borrowing costs by a quarter-point at its upcoming July 30-31 policy meeting with the chance of a 50 basis-point decrease, Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts said on Wednesday.

The U.S. central bank would follow a possible July rate cut with two more at the Fed’s next two meetings in the aftermath of a perceived “dovish” testimony from Fed Chairman Jerome Powell before a House panel, the BAML analysts said.

(Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Fed rate-cut signal sends stocks surging, wounds yields, dollar

FILE PHOTO: Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Lewis Krauskopf

NEW YORK (Reuters) – World stock markets surged on Thursday, with the U.S. benchmark S&P 500 hitting a record high, while the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield fell below 2% as investors digested a signal from the Federal Reserve of potential U.S. interest rate cuts as soon as its next meeting.

The U.S. dollar also weakened after the Fed – the U.S. central bank – on Wednesday indicated a marked shift in sentiment even as it left its benchmark rate unchanged for now.

“We have obviously morphed into the Fed taking the pole position as far what’s driving the market right now, both domestically and on a global basis as well,” said Mike Mullaney, director of global markets research at Boston Partners.

“It’s risk-on trade again right now for the time being and I don’t see anything on a near-term basis that is going to disrupt that.”

Oil prices also surged, lifted by the Fed as well as by news that Iran shot down a U.S. military drone, raising fears of a military confrontation between Tehran and Washington.

MSCI’s gauge of stocks across the globe gained 1.02%. The index hit its highest since May 1.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 203.87 points, or 0.77%, to 26,707.87, the S&P 500 gained 21.98 points, or 0.75%, to 2,948.44 and the Nasdaq Composite added 65.04 points, or 0.81%, to 8,052.36.

Energy, technology and industrials were among the best-performing S&P 500 sectors.

“Cyclicals are definitely getting a big pop today,” Mullaney said.

The pan-European STOXX 600 index rose 0.52%, reaching its highest since early May.

Benchmark government bond yields in the United States and Europe tumbled following the Fed’s decision, with the U.S. 10-year note yield falling below 2% for the first time in 2-1/2 years.

Benchmark 10-year U.S. notes last rose 12/32 in price to yield 1.9855%, from 2.027% late on Wednesday.

“The statement indicated the Fed no longer insists on a pause or patience, providing an open ear to doves at upcoming meetings. Also critical … acknowledgment that inflation pressures are muted,” said Jim Vogel, interest rate strategist at FTN Financial in Memphis, Tennessee.

“As difficult as it might be to imagine, rates are also free to fall further,” he added.

The dollar index, which measures the greenback against a basket of currencies, fell 0.46%, with the euro up 0.6% to $1.1291.

U.S. crude rose 5.73% to $56.84 per barrel and Brent was last at $64.51, up 4.35%.

 

(Additional reporting by Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss in New York and Tom Wilson in London; editing by Larry King and James Dalgleish)

Fed holds rates steady, signals cuts possible later this year

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell holds a news conference following a two-day Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington, U.S., June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Howard Schneider and Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Reserve held interest rates steady on Wednesday but signaled possible rate cuts of as much as half a percentage point over the remainder of this year, as it responded to increased economic uncertainty and a drop in expected inflation.

The U.S. central bank said it “will act as appropriate to sustain” the economic expansion as it approaches the 10-year mark and dropped a promise to be “patient” in adjusting rates. Nearly half its policymakers now show a willingness to lower borrowing costs over the next six months.

While new economic projections showed policymakers’ views of growth and unemployment largely unchanged, they saw headline inflation at just 1.5 percent for the year, down from the 1.8 percent projected in March.

They also expect to miss their 2 percent inflation target next year as well.

Seven of 17 policymakers said they expected it would be appropriate to cut rates by half of a percentage point by the end of 2019, and an eighth saw a rate cut of a quarter point as appropriate.

That was not enough to change the median outlook for the Fed’s targeted overnight lending rate, which officials projected to remain in a range of between 2.25% and 2.50% for the rest of this year.

But it still represented a significant shifting of views on the Fed. It appeared many, and perhaps most, policymakers trimmed a full half percentage point from their outlook for rates. Only one policymaker continues to see a rate hike as likely in 2019.

The long-run federal funds rate, a barometer for the state of the economy over the long term, was cut to 2.50% from 2.80%.

U.S. stocks turned higher after the Fed’s statement was released, with the benchmark S&P 500 up about 0.25% from the previous day’s close. Ahead of the statement, stocks had been fractionally lower on the day.

Yields on U.S. Treasury securities, which had been modestly higher before the rate decision was released, slipped. The 10-year Treasury note yield was down 1 basis point at just shy of 2.05%. The dollar weakened against the euro.

Along with the change in the policy statement, Wednesday’s projections open the door for the central bank to lower rates in short order if the economy weakens, or U.S. trade disputes with China and other nations escalate.

The Fed continued to regard the labor market as “strong” and said “sustained expansion of economic activity” and eventually rising inflation were still “the most likely outcomes.” The drop in inflation, however, was a blow for a central bank hoping to reach its target sometime next year.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will hold a press conference at 2:30 p.m. EDT (1830 GMT) to elaborate on the results of the policy meeting, which was the first since President Donald Trump raised tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports and threatened, though ultimately decided against, imposing new tariffs on Mexican goods.

Those actions caused Fed officials to change their tone from largely dismissing the macroeconomic fallout of Trump’s trade policies to worrying that a new world order of persistent high tariffs and reordered global supply chains could be emerging.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, who had argued that rates should be cut, dissented in Wednesday’s policy decision.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Jason Lange; Editing by Paul Simao)

Muted U.S. inflation strengthens case for Fed rate cut

People tour The Shops during the grand opening of The Hudson Yards development, a residential, commercial, and retail space on Manhattan's West side in New York City, New York, U.S., March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer prices barely rose in May, pointing to moderate inflation that together with a slowing economy increased pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates this year.

But the report from the Labor Department on Wednesday will likely not shift Fed officials’ views that temporary factors are behind the weak inflation readings. Airline fares, among the transitory factors identified by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, rebounded and apparel prices stabilized after two straight monthly decreases.

U.S. central bank policymakers are scheduled to meet on June 18-19 against the backdrop of rising trade tensions, slowing growth and a sharp step-down in hiring in May that has led financial markets to price in at least two rate cuts by the end of 2019. A rate cut is not expected next Wednesday.

“This soft inflation backdrop reinforces our call for two (rate) cuts later this year,” said Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan in New York. “We think next week is probably too soon to expect that action, given that growth is still holding in and trade-related risks remain two-sided.”

The consumer price index edged up 0.1% last month as a rebound in the cost of food was offset by cheaper gasoline, the government said. The CPI gained 0.3% in April.

In the 12 months through May, the CPI increased 1.8%, slowing from April’s 1.9% gain. May’s rise in the CPI was broadly in line with economists’ expectations.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI nudged up 0.1% for the fourth straight month, the longest such stretch since April 2017. The so-called core CPI was held down by a sharp decline in the prices of used cars and trucks as well as motor vehicle insurance.

In the 12 months through May, the so-called core CPI rose 2.0% after advancing 2.1% in April.

U.S. Treasury prices were trading mostly higher, while the dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies. Stocks on Wall Street slipped as the rate-cut hopes were overshadowed by investor anxiety over the U.S.-China trade war.

GROWTH SLOWING

U.S. President Donald Trump in early May slapped additional tariffs of up to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods, prompting retaliation by Beijing. Trump on Monday threatened further duties on Chinese imports if no deal was reached when he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at a G20 summit at the end of this month in Japan.

Economists have warned that the tariffs will undercut the economy, which will celebrate 10 years of expansion in July, the longest in history. Powell said last week the Fed was closely monitoring the implications of the trade war on the economy and would “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion.”

Data so far have suggested a sharp slowdown in U.S. economic growth in the second quarter after a temporary boost from exports and an accumulation of inventory early in the year. Job growth slowed sharply in May. Manufacturing production, exports and home sales dropped in April, while consumer spending cooled.

The Atlanta Fed is forecasting gross domestic product to increase at a 1.4% annualized rate in the April-June quarter. The economy grew at a 3.1% pace in the first quarter.

A survey of chief executive officers published on Wednesday showed unease about trade policy negatively impacting sales expectations as well as capital spending and hiring plans over the next six months.

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, increased 1.6 percent in the year to April after gaining 1.5% in March. Data for May will be released later this month. The core PCE price index has been running below the Fed’s 2% target this year.

Gasoline prices fell 0.5% in May after rising 5.7% in April. Food prices rebounded 0.3% in May after dipping 0.1% in the prior month. Owners’ equivalent rent of primary residence, which is what a homeowner would pay to rent or receive from renting a home, increased 0.3% in May after rising 0.3% in April.

Healthcare costs increased 0.3%, matching April’s rise. That mirrored an increase in healthcare costs at the producer level, suggesting a pickup in the core PCE price index in May. There were gains in hospital and doctor fees. But prices for prescription medication fell 0.2%.

Apparel prices were unchanged in May after tumbling 0.8% in the prior month. They had declined for two months in a row after the government introduced a new method and data to calculate apparel prices. Economists expect the duties on Chinese goods to lift apparel prices in the coming months.

“That’s going to change with new tariffs on the way unless apparel companies can teach other nations to knit sweaters as well as Chinese workers can do,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Prices for used motor vehicles and trucks tumbled 1.4%. That was the largest drop since last September and marked the fourth straight monthly decrease. The cost of motor vehicle insurance fell 0.4%, the most since May 2007. The cost of recreation also decreased.

But prices for airline tickets rebounded 2.0% after falling for two straight months. Prices for household furnishings and new vehicles rose in May. Household furnishings prices are likely to trend higher in the coming months because of the duties on Chinese imports.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

Weak U.S. employment report casts pall over economy

FILE PHOTO: Brochures are displayed for job seekers at the Construction Careers Now! hiring event in Denver, Colorado U.S. August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth slowed sharply in May and wages rose less than expected, raising fears that a loss of momentum in economic activity could be spreading to the labor market, which could put pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates this year.

The broad cool-off in hiring reported by the Labor Department on Friday was even before a recent escalation in trade tensions between the United States and two of its major trading partners, China and Mexico. Analysts have warned the trade fights could undermine the economy, which will celebrate 10 years of expansion next month, the longest on record.

Adding a sting to the closely watched employment report, the economy created far fewer jobs in March and April than previously reported.

The economy thus far has been largely resilient to the trade war with China. President Donald Trump in early May slapped additional tariffs of up to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods, which prompted retaliation by Beijing.

Last week, Trump said he would impose a tariff on all goods from Mexico in a bid to force authorities in that country to stop immigrants from Central America from crossing the border into the United States. Talks are ongoing to prevent the duties from kicking in at 5% on June 10.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said on Tuesday the central bank was closely monitoring the implications of the trade tensions on the economy and would “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion.”

“Today’s report makes a cut more likely, and supports our view that the trade tensions will ultimately slow growth enough for the Fed to respond in September and December with cuts,” said Joseph Song, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 75,000 jobs last month, the government said in its closely watched employment report, falling below the roughly 100,000 needed per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls rising by 185,000 jobs last month. Job growth in March and April was revised down by 75,000.

In the wake of the weak report financial markets priced in a rate cut as early as July and two more later this year. U.S. Treasury prices rallied, while the dollar dropped against a basket of currencies. Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher.

May’s disappointing job growth was flagged by a report on Wednesday from payrolls processing firm ADP showing the smallest gain in private payrolls in nine years last month. Another report this week showed a drop in online ads by businesses looking for help.

Last month’s slowdown in job gains, however, probably understates the health of the labor market as measures such as weekly applications for unemployment benefits and the Institute for Supply Management’s services employment gauge have suggested underlying strength.

WORKER SHORTAGES

Some of the weakness in hiring last month could be the result of worker shortages, especially in the construction, transportation and manufacturing sectors.

Monthly wage growth remained moderate in May, with average hourly earnings increasing six cents, or 0.2% following a similar gain in April. That lowered the annual increase in wages to 3.1% from 3.2% in April. The average workweek was unchanged at 34.4 hours last month.

The moderation in wage gains, if sustained, could cast doubts on the Fed’s optimism that inflation would return to the U.S. central bank’s 2% target.

The tepid employment report added to soft data on consumer spending, business investment, manufacturing and homes sales in suggesting the economy was losing momentum in the second quarter following a temporary boost from exports, inventory accumulation and defense spending. Growth is cooling as the massive stimulus from last year’s tax cuts and spending increases fades.

The Atlanta Fed is forecasting gross domestic product rising at a 1.5% annualized rate in the second quarter. The economy grew at a 3.1% pace in the first quarter.

The unemployment rate remained near a 50-year low of 3.6% in May. A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, dropped two-tenths of a percentage point to 7.1% last month, the lowest since December 2000.

The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, was unchanged at 62.8% last month.

Hiring slowed across all sectors in May. Manufacturing payrolls increased by 3,000 last month, after gaining 5,000 positions in April. The sector is struggling with an inventory overhang that has resulted in businesses placing fewer orders at factories.

Manufacturing payrolls will be watched closely for signs of any fallout from the trade tensions. Factory output has weakened and sentiment dropped to a 31-month low in May, with manufacturers worried mostly about trade.

Employers in the construction sector hired 4,000 workers in May after adding 30,000 jobs to payrolls in April. Leisure and hospitality sector payrolls increased by 26,000 jobs last month.

Professional and business services employment rose by 33,000. Transportation and warehousing payrolls fell as did retail employment. Government shed 15,000 jobs, the most since January 2018.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. retail sales, jobless claims data brighten economic picture

FILE PHOTO: People walk with shopping bags at Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City, New York, U.S., December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales increased by the most in 1-1/2 years in March as households boosted purchases of motor vehicles and a range of other goods, the latest indication that economic growth picked up in the first quarter after a false start.

The economy’s enduring strength was underscored by other data on Thursday showing the number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits dropped to the lowest in nearly 50 years last week.

Fears of an abrupt slowdown in activity escalated at the turn of the year after a batch of weak economic reports. But those concerns have dissipated in recent weeks amid fairly upbeat data on trade, inventories and construction spending that have suggested growth last quarter could actually be better than the moderate pace logged in the final three months of 2018.

A report from the Federal Reserve on Wednesday described economic activity as expanding at a “slight-to-moderate” pace in March and early April. The Fed’s “Beige Book” report of anecdotal information on business activity collected from contacts nationwide showed a “few” of the U.S. central bank’s districts reported “some strengthening.”

“Supported by strong labor market conditions and improving wage growth, household spending appears well positioned to increase in the coming months,” said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “Fears about the softening in the economy were overblown.”

The Commerce Department said retail sales surged 1.6 percent last month. That was the biggest increase since September 2017 and followed an unrevised 0.2 percent drop in February.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales would accelerate 0.9 percent in March. Retail sales in March advanced 3.6 percent from a year ago.

With March’s rebound, retail sales have now erased December’s plunge, which had put consumer spending and the overall economy on a sharply lower growth trajectory. Retail sales last month were probably lifted by tax refunds, even though they have been smaller than in previous years, following the revamping of the U.S. tax code in January 2018.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales rebounded 1.0 percent in March after a downwardly revised 0.3 percent decline in February. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

They were previously reported to have decreased 0.2 percent in February. Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of economic activity and is being buoyed by a tightening labor market that is driving up wage growth.

STRONG LABOR MARKET

A separate report from the Labor Department on Thursday showed initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 192,000 for the week ended April 13, the lowest level since September 1969. Claims have now declined for five straight weeks. Economists had forecast claims would rise to 205,000 in the latest week.

Though the trend in hiring has slowed, job gains remain above the roughly 100,000 needed per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population. The unemployment rate is at 3.8 percent, near the 3.7 percent Fed officials project it will be by the end of the year.

The dollar was trading higher against a basket of currencies while stocks on Wall Street were mixed. Prices of U.S. Treasuries were up.

March’s strong core retail sales could result in the further upgrading of first-quarter GDP estimates. Growth forecasts for the first quarter were boosted to around a 2.5 percent annualized rate on Wednesday after data showed the U.S. trade deficit narrowed for a second straight month in February.

First-quarter growth forecasts have been raised from as low as a 0.5 percent rate following relatively strong reports on trade, inventories and construction spending. The economy grew at a 2.2 percent pace in the fourth quarter.

Another report from the Commerce Department on Thursday showed business inventories rose in February and stock accumulation in the prior month was a bit stronger than initially estimated, a potential boost to growth.

Stronger growth in the first quarter will probably not change the view that the economy will slow this year as the stimulus from a $1.5 trillion tax cut package diminishes and the impact of interest rate hikes over the last few years lingers.

It also is unlikely to have any impact on monetary policy after the Fed recently suspended its three-year campaign to tighten monetary policy. The central bank dropped projections for any rate hikes this year after increasing borrowing costs four times in 2018.

In March, sales at auto dealerships jumped 3.1 percent, the most since September 2017. Receipts at service stations increased 3.5 percent, likely reflecting higher gasoline prices.

Receipts at clothing stores shot up 2.0 percent, the largest increase since last May. There were also increases in sales at furniture outlets, electronics and appliances shops, and food and beverage stores. Sales at building materials and garden equipment and supplies also rose last month.

Online and mail-order retail sales increased 1.2 percent in March. Sales at restaurants and bars climbed 0.8 percent, the most since last July. But receipts at hobby, musical instrument and book stores fell 0.3 percent last month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. existing home sales surge, boosted by Fed’s signal on rates

FILE PHOTO: An existing home for sale is seen in Silver Spring, Maryland February 21, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. home sales surged in February to their highest level in 11 months, a sign that a pause in interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve was starting to boost the U.S. economy.

The National Association of Realtors said on Friday existing home sales jumped 11.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.51 million units last month.

That was the highest since March 2018 and well above analysts’ expectations of a rate of 5.1 million units. The one-month percentage change was the largest since December 2015. January’s sales pace was revised slightly lower.

February’s surge came as mortgage rates fell following signals from the Federal Reserve that it was no longer eyeing rate hikes. Several years of rising rates had put a brake on parts of the U.S. housing market in 2018.

“(It’s) quite a powerful recovery that’s taking place,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist with the National Association of Realtors.

Still, the number of sales in February was 1.8 percent lower than a year ago.

The U.S. housing market has also been held back by land and labor shortages, which have led to tight inventory and more expensive homes.

The PHLX Housing Index extended losses following the release of the figures although its decline was less steep than the broader stock market.

The median existing house price increased 3.6 percent from a year ago to $249,500 in February.

Existing home sales rose in three of the country’s four major regions and were unchanged in the Northeast.

There were 1.63 million previously owned homes on the market in February, up from 1.59 million in January.

At February’s sales pace, it would take 3.5 months to exhaust the current inventory, down from 3.9 months in January. A supply of six to seven months is viewed as a healthy balance between supply and demand.

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

The Federal Reserve is prodding Americans to buy more on credit

FILE PHOTO: A sign advertises homes for sale in a new housing development in Dickinson, North Dakota January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve’s decisive statement this week that interest rates are unlikely to rise this year sends a signal to U.S. households: keep buying stuff.

The Fed tries to guide the U.S. economy by controlling the interest rate banks charge one another for overnight loans. Moving this rate up lifts other rates in the economy, making it costlier for people to use their credit cards or to buy homes and cars. Higher rates also make companies rethink investments.

A solid majority of Fed policymakers on Wednesday said higher rates are unlikely this year, leading investors to bet the economy might slowing enough for the Fed to actually cut rates.

The following are some possible consequences for American households:

EASY CREDIT

The Fed’s signal on its interest rate outlook led key market rates to fall, including the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds. That is a sign that rates are also falling for loans used to buy houses and cars. Interest rates for credit cards may also drift lower. Mortgage rates have been falling since November when Fed policymakers made clear they would be patient about rate decisions.

SAVING DISCOURAGED

Lower rates also encourage spending by taking the shine off some common ways to save money. Low yields reduce the return on money in savings accounts as well as in funds made up of safe-haven government bonds. This poses a problem for retirees who depend more on their income from savings and who take a hit from lower rates on Treasury bonds. The Fed has argued that retirees benefit from actions taken to support the broader economy.

RETIREMENT BOOST

Rising stock prices comprise the flip side of lower bond yields. That boosts the value of private retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s, particularly those of young people whose accounts tend to be weighted toward stocks.

The benchmark S&P 500 stock index surged after the Fed’s decision, reflecting the view that cheaper borrowing costs would help company profits. It is possible that stock market gains could boost consumer spending because people sometimes loosen their purse strings after a rise in perceived wealth.

BUOYANT LABOR MARKET

The U.S. jobless rate is near its lowest level in 50 years although lately there have been signs of softening in the labor market. Hiring slowed sharply in February and the number of new jobless claims every week has also been ticking higher. The Fed’s action aims to keep the labor market solid. That could help encourage more people to rekindle job searches they had given up when the economy was still weak following the 2007-09 financial crisis.

 

(Reporting by Jason Lange, editing by G Crosse)

Fed says U.S. economy ended 2018 with solid but weakening growth

FILE PHOTO: Flags fly over the Federal Reserve Headquarters on a windy day in Washington, U.S., May 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo/File Photo

By Howard Schneider and Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON, Feb 22 (Reuters) – The U.S. economy maintained “solid” growth through the second half of 2018, likely expanding “just under” 3 percent for the year, though consumer and business spending had begun to weaken, the Federal Reserve said on Friday in its semi-annual monetary policy report to Congress.

In a document that balanced its mostly positive outlook for a still growing economy against an array of emerging domestic and global risks, the U.S. central bank laid out why it had put further interest rate hikes on hold last month.

From a “deteriorated” appetite for risk among investors to a slowdown in China, the outlook for policy is “more uncertain than earlier,” the Fed said, noting “softer global and economic conditions.”

That may spill into the start of 2019, the Fed said, noting that the recent 35-day partial shutdown of the U.S. government “likely held down GDP growth in the first quarter of this year.”

For 2018, the Fed said: “Consumer spending expanded at a strong rate for most of the second half … though spending appears to have weakened toward year-end.”

“Business investment grew as well, though growth seems to have slowed somewhat,” it added.

Consumer and business confidence remains “favorable,” but “some measures have softened since the fall,” the Fed reported. “Domestic financial conditions for businesses and households have become less supportive of economic growth.”

The Fed noted to Congress that it would continue to reduce the size of its balance sheet, which had declined by about $260 billion since its last report to lawmakers, ending the year at close to $4 trillion. But the central bank also repeated its new openness to adjusting “any of the details” of its balance sheet plan if economic and financial conditions warrant.

POWELL HEADS TO CONGRESS

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will testify before lawmakers in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Tuesday and Wednesday to elaborate on the report in what could prove to be an important week for economic data and the central bank’s sense of where the economy is heading.

The report indicated some underlying economic strength, with “ongoing improvements in the labor market,” and solid growth in disposable income, fueled by the Trump administration’s tax cuts, boosting household consumption.

Inflation last year remained close to the Fed’s 2 percent target.

But the Fed noted headwinds, including those tied to the ongoing debate over global trade policy. Overall, net exports “likely subtracted a little from real GDP growth” over 2018, despite the administration’s efforts to improve the U.S. trade position.

At a policy meeting late last month, Fed officials put their three-year push for higher interest rates on hold amid a broad recognition that inflation and global growth had weakened, and that the U.S. outlook was less certain than just a few weeks earlier.

Since then, economic data has been mixed, with weaker retail sales and manufacturing reports balanced by continued strong job growth.

But some important pieces of the puzzle have been missing altogether. Most notably, the report on gross domestic product for the last quarter of 2018 was delayed by the recent government shutdown.

That report is due to be released on Thursday, and will be followed on Friday by the jobs report for February.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Pete Schroeder Editing by Paul Simao) ((howard.schneider@thomsonreuters.com; +1 202 789 8010;))

U.S. weekly jobless claims retreat from one-and-a-half-year high

Job seekers and recruiters gather at TechFair in Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Monica Almeida

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits dropped from near a 1-1/2-year high last week, but the decline was less than expected, suggesting some moderation in the pace of job growth.

Still, the Labor Department’s report on Thursday continued to point to strong job market conditions, which should underpin the economy amid rising headwinds, including a fading fiscal stimulus boost and a trade war between Washington and Beijing, as well as slowing growth in China and Europe.

The Federal Reserve last week kept interest rates steady but said it would be patient in lifting borrowing costs further this year in a nod to growing uncertainty over the economy’s outlook. The U.S. central bank removed language from its December policy statement that risks to the outlook were “roughly balanced.”

“Labor market conditions remain quite positive, good news for workers, for the consumer sector and the economy more broadly,” said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits tumbled 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 234,000 for the week ended Feb. 2, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The drop partially unwound the prior week’s jump, which lifted claims to 253,000, the highest reading since September 2017.

Claims that week were boosted by layoffs in the service industry in California, most likely striking teachers in Los Angeles.

A 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government as well as difficulties adjusting the data around moving holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. day, which occurred later this year than in recent years, also probably contributed to the spike in filings.

The longest shutdown in history likely forced workers employed by government contractors to file claims for unemployment benefits.

The shutdown ended on Jan. 25 after President Donald Trump and Congress agreed to temporary government funding, without money for his U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims falling to 221,000 in the latest week.

U.S. stocks were trading lower on renewed fears of a global slowdown after the European Union cut its economic growth forecasts and White House adviser Larry Kudlow warned there was still a sizable distance to go on U.S.-China trade talks. The dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies, while U.S. Treasury prices rose.

MOMENTUM SLOWING

The Labor Department said no states were estimated last week. The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 4,500 to 224,750 last week. Claims by federal government workers, which are filed separately and with a one-week lag fell 8,070 to 6,669 in the week ended Jan. 26.

“Claims remain important to watch in the weeks ahead,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in White Plains, New York. “The data are suggesting at least some slowing in employment growth.”

The government reported last Friday that non-farm payrolls increased by 304,000 jobs in January, the largest gain since February 2018. Thursday’s claims report showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell 42,000 to 1.74 million for the week ended Jan. 26.

These so-called continuing claims had raced to a nine-month high in the prior week. The four-week moving average of continuing claims rose 4,250 to 1.74 million.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)