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 faces tougher task in deciding whether to cut U.S. rates

The Federal Reserve building is pictured in Washington, DC, U.S., August 22, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/

By Trevor Hunnicutt

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. employers are hiring workers at a brisk pace, but that is only making the Federal Reserve’s job harder.

On Friday, the Labor Department said nonfarm employers added 224,000 jobs last month – the most in five months, and not the kind of labor market that would normally cause policymakers at the U.S. central bank to cut interest rates.

But the Fed opened up the possibility of cuts last month, citing muted inflation pressures and an economic outlook clouded by a U.S. trade war and slower global growth.

This complicates a debate Fed policymakers are having over whether the economy needs stimulus, setting up a possible standoff with markets at their July 30-31 meeting.

“They are in a bit of a bind,” said Karim Basta, chief economist at III Capital Management. “On the surface, the data, in my opinion, doesn’t really support an imminent cut, but markets are expecting it, and I do think there’s a risk at this stage that they disappoint.”

Markets are overwhelmingly betting the Fed’s next move will be its first rate cut since the financial crisis a decade ago, and President Donald Trump on Friday renewed demands for lower rates to strengthen the economy.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has repeatedly said the central bank makes decisions independently from both markets and the White House, but failing to deliver a cut could cause a stock and short-term bond selloff and reduce economic activity.

U.S. interest rates futures fell after the jobs report on Friday. Markets still see a rate cut this month as a near-certainty, though they largely priced out changes for an aggressive half-percentage-point cut.

“These are good numbers, but a rate cut in July is still all but inevitable,” said Luke Bartholomew, investment strategist for Aberdeen Standard Investments. “Employment growth remains a bright spot amid a fairly mixed bag of U.S. data and yet markets have come to expect a cut now so (they) will fall out of bed if they don’t get one.”

The U.S. has not resolved its trade dispute with China, but the two countries agreed last weekend to resume trade talks, putting off new tariffs.

There are still signs of a pullback in economic activity. Businesses’ spending on machines and other equipment is tepid, but employers keep hiring hotel maids, electricians, daycare providers and other workers. They are also paying them more. Average hourly earnings rose at a 3.1%-a-year pace. A May payroll gain of 72,000 now seems like a fluke rather than a sign of deterioration.

Those are not the prototypical conditions for a rate cut. Unemployment at 3.7% is near its lowest levels since 1969 and policymakers have traditionally seen job gains with low unemployment posing risks of inflation.

But economists have grown less confident in academic models that forecast an inverse relationship between unemployment and inflation. The core personal consumption expenditures index is running at 1.6% a year, short of the Fed’s 2% goal.

In its semi-annual report to Congress, the Fed on Friday repeated its pledge to “act as appropriate” to sustain the economic expansion, with possible interest rate cuts in the coming months, but notably said the jobs market had “continued to strengthen” so far this year, and described recent weak inflation as due to “transitory influences.”

Some policymakers think a rate cut could lift inflation expectations, reducing chances of more drastic rate cuts being needed later. With rates at 2.25%-2.50%, policymakers have less room to cut before they resort to unconventional measures.

A cut could also reduce the Fed’s firepower in the case of a more severe downturn and signal greater concern about the future and even that more stimulus is on the way.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Additional reporting by April Joyner in New York and Howard Schneider in Washington; Editing by Jennifer Ablan and James Dalgleish)

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)

Wall St. takes a breather with all eyes on Fed meeting

By Shreyashi Sanyal

(Reuters) – Wall Street’s main indexes took a pause on Wednesday, after a rally the previous day, as investors held back from making big bets ahead of the Federal Reserve’s policy statement that is expected to lay the groundwork for future interest rate cuts.

Markets have climbed this month, with the S&P 500 index gaining 6% so far and 1% away from its all-time high hit in early May, fueled by hopes of a rate cut.

The Fed’s statement and new economic projections are scheduled to be released at 2 p.m. ET (1800 GMT), providing investors an opportunity to gauge the impact of a prolonged U.S.-China trade conflict, President Donald Trump’s demands for a rate cut and softer-than-expected economic data on monetary policy thinking.

The U.S. central bank will likely leave rates unchanged but the market is factoring in a cut as soon as next month. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will hold a press conference at 2:30 p.m. ET (1830 GMT).

“I think the potential for the Fed to disappoint today is significantly higher than the market expects,” said Yousef Abbasi, global market strategist at INTL FCStone Financial Inc in New York.

“The Fed has already told us that it’s ready to act but with the metrics we’ve seen in the economy – yes, they’re mixed, but they’re still growing – it just becomes very difficult for someone to say we absolutely need a rate cut.”

U.S. Treasury yields rose on Wednesday, tracking the European market, after steep falls the previous day, as investors rebalanced positions ahead of the Fed decision.

The financial sector gained 0.40%, with bank stocks rising by 0.15%.

At 11:18 a.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 39.27 points, or 0.15%, at 26,504.81 and the S&P 500 was down 0.23 points, or 0.01%, at 2,917.52.

The Nasdaq Composite was down 3.74 points, or 0.05%, at 7,950.15.

The healthcare sector rose 0.44%, the most among the 11 major S&P sectors, helped by gains in UnitedHealth Group Inc, Pfizer Inc and Allergan Plc.

Allergan climbed 4.03% after the drugmaker said its constipation drug, jointly developed with Ironwood Pharmaceuticals Inc, improved symptoms of bloating, pain and discomfort in patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome with constipation.

Adobe Inc jumped 4.43% after the Photoshop software provider beat analysts’ estimates for quarterly profit and revenue.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by a 1.10-to-1 ratio on the NYSE and by a 1.30-to-1 ratio on the Nasdaq.

The S&P index recorded 15 new 52-week highs and one new low, while the Nasdaq recorded 35 new highs and 43 new lows.

(Reporting by Shreyashi Sanyal and Aparajita Saxena in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)

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)

U.S. mortgage applications jump to highest since September 2016: MBA

FILE PHOTO: A "For Sale" sign is seen outside a home in Cardiff, California February 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Richard Leong

(Reuters) – U.S. mortgage applications jumped to their highest level in more than 2-1/2 years last week, led by a surge in refinancing activity, as some home borrowing costs tumbled to their cheapest level since September 2017, the Mortgage Bankers Association said on Wednesday.

The Washington-based group’s seasonally adjusted index on loan requests, both to buy a home and to refinance one, increased by 26.8% to 529.8 in the week ended June 7, which was the highest since September 2016.

Interest rates on 30-year fixed-rate “conforming” mortgages, or loans whose balances are $484,350 or less, decreased to 4.12%, the lowest level since September 2017. The previous week they averaged 4.23%.

Mortgage rates have fallen in step with declining bond yields as investors poured money into low-risk U.S. Treasuries due to signs of a softening jobs market and worries about trade tensions between China and other trading partners.

“Despite the less positive outlook, both purchase and refinance applications surged, driven mainly by these lower rates,” Joel Kan, the MBA’s associate vice president of economic and industry forecasting, said in a statement.

MBA’s barometer on refinancing activity jumped 46.5% from the prior week to 1,956.5, a level not seen since November 2016.

The refinance share of total mortgage applications expanded to 49.8% from 42.2% the prior week.

The group’s gauge on applications for home purchases, which is seen as a proxy on future housing activity, grew by 10% to 278.4, the highest level since the week of April 12.

Despite the increase, domestic home sales have been limited by tight supply and rising economic worries among potential home buyers, Kan said.

(Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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)

Fed policymakers promise response if U.S. economy slows

FILE PHOTO: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell poses for photos with Fed Governor Lael Brainard (L) at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Saphir

By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Signs that the economy is losing momentum hung over a Federal Reserve summit for a second straight day as policymakers hinted they would be ready to cut interest rates if the U.S. trade war threatens a decade-long expansion.

Investors added to bets that the Fed would have to lower borrowing costs multiple times by year-end on Wednesday after a report by a payrolls processor showed private employers added 27,000 jobs in May, well below economists’ expectations and the smallest monthly gain in more than nine years.

The U.S. economy will mark 10 years of expansion in July, the longest on record. Strong job gains have been a key feature. But rising trade tensions between the United States and China have led to tit-for-tat tariffs, put a chill on U.S. businesses’ spending and exacerbated a manufacturing slowdown.

Current and threatened U.S.-China tariffs could slash global economic output by 0.5% in 2020, the International Monetary Fund warned on Wednesday as world finance leaders prepare to meet in Japan this weekend.

“We’ll be prepared to adjust policy to sustain the expansion,” Fed Governor Lael Brainard said in an interview with Yahoo Finance on the sidelines of the Fed’s Chicago summit. “The U.S. economy, generally, is in the midst of a very lengthy expansion, the U.S. consumer remains confident, but trade policy is definitely a downside risk.”

Brainard’s remarks follow a pledge on Tuesday by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell to react “as appropriate” to trade-war fallout. Other Fed officials struck a similarly cautious tone.

Since the Fed’s last rate-setting meeting, Trump slapped new 25% tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports and threatened new import taxes on Mexican goods unless immigration slows. Until recently officials had been largely signaling that they would keep rates at their 2.25-2.50% target range.

The trade war added urgency to what was intended to be a strategy session at the Chicago Fed focused on how the central bank can shore up its policies. Officials worry that economies risk getting stuck in a self-fulfilling cycle of low rates and low inflation that will make it harder to rebound from recessions and require increasingly forceful intervention.

To combat those risks, Fed officials are considering whether they want to temporarily welcome inflation a bit above their 2%-a-year target – and keep rates lower for longer – in the hopes that such a strategy will make attaining the central bank’s goals for maximum employment and price stability more likely.

Policymakers are also revisiting exactly what maximum employment means and whether they are doing a good enough job in how they speak to the public. No changes are expected until next year.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir; Writing and additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. job openings hit 11-month low; quits rate stagnates

FILE PHOTO: A "Help Wanted" sign sits in the window of a shop in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job openings dropped to an 11-month low in February and hiring decreased, which could partially explain a sharp slowdown in job growth during that month.

Still, the labor market remains a pillar of support for the economy amid signs that activity was easing because of the fading boost from a $1.5 trillion tax cut package and the effects of interest rate increases over the last few years. The economy is also facing headwinds from slowing global growth and the United States’ trade war with China.

“The February job openings data reinforced that the labor market weakened in February but there isn’t any cause for concern,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Job openings, a measure of labor demand, tumbled by 538,000 to a seasonally adjusted 7.1 million, the Labor Department said in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS, report on Tuesday. The drop was the biggest since August 2015. The level was the lowest since March 2018.

Vacancies in the accommodation and food services industry fell by 103,000 jobs in February. There were 72,000 fewer job openings in the real estate and rental and leasing sector. Job openings in the transportation, warehousing and utility sector dropped by 66,000.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by only 33,000 jobs in February, the fewest since September 2017. The near-stall in job gains was partially blamed on colder weather and also viewed as payback after robust increases in December and January.

Job growth picked up in March, with the economy creating 196,000 positions, the government reported last Friday.

WORKERS STILL SCARCE

The drop in job openings in February likely does not change the theme of labor shortages in the economy. A survey of small businesses published on Tuesday found that just over a fifth of owners reported difficulties finding qualified workers as their “single most important business problem” in March.

According to the survey from the NFIB, 39 percent of small business owners reported job openings they could not fill in March. Thirty-three percent said they had openings for skilled workers and 14 percent have vacancies for unskilled labor.

Economists expect monthly job growth to average roughly 150,000 this year, stepping down from 223,000 in 2018.

“There are still millions of help wanted signs out there in the country so we hesitate to revise our outlook for the labor market overall,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

The dive in job openings in February pushed down the vacancies rate to 4.5 percent from 4.8 percent in January. Hiring fell to 5.7 million in February from 5.8 million in the prior month. The decrease in hiring was led by the construction sector, where hiring fell by 73,000.

Hiring in the nondurable goods manufacturing industry dropped by 33,000 in February. Hiring by state and local government education departments fell 22,000.

The number of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs was little changed at 3.5 million in February, keeping the quits rate at 2.3 percent for a ninth straight month.

The quits rate is viewed by policymakers and economists as a measure of job market confidence. The worker reluctance to switch jobs is despite the tight labor market conditions that are steadily driving up wages.

“This is not as many quits as you would expect in such a tight labor market, when workers are in higher demand,” said Nick Bunker, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. “Though perhaps this isn’t surprising in the short term given that the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings has been rising.”

Layoffs increased in February, lifting the layoffs rate to 1.2 percent from 1.1 percent in January. There were increases in layoffs in the professional and businesses services, and healthcare and social assistance sectors in February.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)